The Shortcut Caramel Sauce You’ll Want to Put on Everything

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

There are few cooking projects more satisfying than making caramel sauce or dulce de leche (a creamy caramel sauce popular in Latin America) from scratch. With caramel, you get to watch the sugar take on a gorgeous dark amber hue, stand back as it bubbles when the cream hits the pot, and then whisk until you’ve got a glossy, pourable sauce, indicating that you’ve totally nailed it. If you’re making dulce de leche, you’ll start with a combination of milk and sugar, then marvel at the mixture as it transforms into a glistening golden treat.

But the most satisfying way to make dulce de leche is the shortcut method that makes me feel like I’m a magician every time I do it. I’ll let you in on the secret so that you, too, can wow your friends with a trick that turns sweetened condensed milk into the most delectable dessert topper.

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

It All Starts with a Can of Sweetened Condensed Milk

This isn’t the first time a can of sweetened condensed milk has proved to be a super-smart shortcut ingredient. The shelf-stable product, which is a form of concentrated milk that contains 40 to 45 percent sugar, adds richness and sweetness to our easiest-ever pumpkin pie, acts as the base for our popular no-churn ice cream, and is the trick to making a vanilla sweet cream that tastes just like the one at Starbucks.

How to Make It

In the case of dulce de leche, sweetened condensed milk isn’t just the secret ingredient — it’s the only ingredient. All you need to do is take one 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk, remove the wrapper, place it in a large pot, fill the pot with water so that the can is submerged entirely, place the pot on the stove over high heat, and let it boil for an hour or so. The longer the milk cooks, the thicker and richer it will become, and take on a deeper caramel flavor.

The most important thing to remember with this method is that the can needs to be covered with water at all times — I’d suggest checking on it every 20 to 30 minutes. If too much of the water evaporates, the can will heat unevenly and can potentially explode. If it looks like the water level is getting low, simply add more water as it cooks.

The magic happens when you remove the can from the water (use tongs — it will be hot — and let it cool for a few minutes), pop it open with a can opener, and reveal the gorgeous dulce de leche inside. Pour into small jars and give to friends as a gift, drizzle it over brownie ice cream sundaes, or make one of these sweet treats.