There’s no denying that dulce de leche is a cultural phenomenon in Argentina; it is in most every household’s kitchen pantry, sits on every breakfast table, and is served in café’s for breakfast, high tea and dessert—in every which way and form. And, naturally, every region in Argentina claims to have the best version. Argentines even claim the birthright to dulce de leche, as they link its beginnings to the 19th Century Argentine caudillo (political leader) Juan Manuel de Rosas. As the story goes, on a winter afternoon at the Rosas’ house, the maid was making some lechada—a drink made with milk and sugar that’s boiled until it begins to caramelize—when she was distracted and left the lechada unattended on the stove. By the time she returned, the lechada was burnt and had turned into a brown jam: dulce de leche.
One thing is for sure—dulce de leche is as popular today, as it was then.
In the United States, dulce de leche is known by some, but for most it is something entirely new, to be purchased as a gourmet ingredient for that one specific recipe, or often mistaken as caramel. Even those familiar with the term “dulce de leche” often do not know the product in its purest form, as it has been popularized in mainstream culture as simply a type of ice cream or coffee shop flavor. We hope to clear up these misconceptions and get to the core of the versatility that dulce de leche brings to the table.
In the United States, the flavor, and indeed, the jam itself, often is incorrectly described as “caramel” or relegated to an epicurean coffee-shop flavor. This is probably due to the FDA requirement that “milk caramel” appear on every label, because “milk jam” is somewhat ambiguous and not recognized in American food culture—not yet, at least. The truth is that dulce de leche has little in common with caramel, other than sharing its glorious golden color. Dulce de leche is a spreadable preserve that is made exclusively with natural ingredients. It does not contain butter or cream and often has half of the sugar and none of the high-fructose corn syrup that almost every caramel lists on its’ ingredients label. In fact, it often has less sugar than most of the jellies Americans put in their shopping carts each week.
Dulce de leche can be virtually spread on anything and used as a complimentary ingredient in recipes throughout the day. You might even say it is a global, taste-bud doppelganger for the ever-popular chocolate hazelnut spreads that Italian’s incorporate into both sweet and savory dishes throughout the day. Simply put, dulce de leche is a no-frills, common sense, everyday ingredient. As a spread, dulce de leche can be a snack on its own, a snack with another snack, part of a meal or even an ingredient in cooking. It can be used any time of day and be paired with a growing list of flavors, such as sweet, savory, spicy, and ethnic flavor combinations—from pureeing with fresh fruits for homemade baby food, to baking in breakfast muffins, to cocktail-hour bacon-wrapped dulce jalapeños to alfajores and show-stopping layer cakes—dulce de leche is worthy of its own spot in the pantry—with no substitute acceptable.