If any of my three readers recall, I have made dulce de leche before in this post. So, I thought that this really was the only way to replicate something as increasingly cultural as dulce de leche in the United States. That’s not necessarily true, as I have discovered, thanks to the help of Alton Brown from an episode of Good Eats entitled “Milk Made”. So, standing here…or sitting here…corrected, I have decided to do a little research into the subject of dulce de leche for you.
Dulce de leche is composed of four simple ingredients that are very easy to find. Milk, sugar, my lover (Madagascar vanilla bean), and baking soda. I thought, originally, that this sauce was much more complicated than either putting a can of condensed milk in a vat of boiling water (and risking hot and sticky culinary napalm in the process) or stirring condensed milk over a double boiler until lightly colored. No, its slightly more complicated, but is composed of the same sort of ingredients that make up condensed milk in the first place.
First, you split the vanilla bean and fetch all of its friends out of the pod. “Hi…” Ahem, moving on.
Then you combine the milk, sugar, pod, and seeds into a saucepan (3 quart, or, like I have, 2.5 quart) and place over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. As this is happening, I will discuss some history over this sauce.
Dulce de leche finds its origins in South America, and is very popular in what is called the Southern Cone; Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Chile. It is also popular in Mexico, Peru, and Portugal, and there are different forms of this sauce found in other countries. Mainly, it was created as a way of preserving milk, since there was no refrigeration waaay back when (remember, the beautiful beast known as the refrigerator is a fairly new species). Sugar is a preservative. By lowering the activity of water in a product (or getting between the water molecules), evil little creatures cannot grow and thrive in a normally happy environment. That is why a lot of well-preserved foods are packed with sugar, salt (another preservative), or chemicals that replicate these conditions. Condensed milk itself is a sugar-packed milk product that was invented in the 1800’s. The famous story is that of Gail Borden Jr., who found a way of preserving the extremely perishable product, in reaction to many deaths of children on ships from the cows that were kept on them. Same process does with dulce de leche, its just cooked longer and follows the chemical reactions of caramelization and the Maillard reaction. I’ll explain these later.
Oh! Good, our sugar has dissoved. Now,
Add in the baking soda and bring to a light simmer, stirring occassionally. What the baking soda does is raise the pH a bit, this actually coincides with the whole boiling of pretzels and bagels a bit. When you boil with a higher pH (or more basic) liquid, proteins are broken down into little strands, which help to expose the proteins more to the heat as well as the natural sugars (carbohydrates) which promotes browning (caramelization). Another reason for browning is the Maillard reaction; which has to do with amino acids and sugars in the mixture, which, when they meet, cause an alkaline (basic, of course) reaction, similar to cooking meat and other stuff, to produce a warm and rich taste and pretty color.
Oh, the baking soda also helps to take away grit. Sorry.
I should be a chemist, I’m telling ya.
After an hour of simmering, fish out the vanilla bean. Its given all its got at this point, and it will not be very friendly if you cook it longer than this. Now, continue to simmer and occasionally stir until the liquid reduces and turns a dark color. It should thicken and reduce to one cup as well, but I got impatient and took it out when there was two cups left. Its thinner than it should be, but that’s okay, I’m not eating it, I’m using it for baking.
It should take two hours after the vanilla bean is taken out, so the entire process should be three hours. Low and slow, that’s a good name for the process here.
Strain the sauce to get out any sort of solidified proteins that may have formed on the edge, then transfer to a measuring cup or a bowl, then refrigerate. It will thicken significantly and become the density similar to that of honey.
In other words: Caramba…
Dulce de Leche
1 quart whole milk (I actually used 2%, so anything goes here)
12 ounces sugar, approximately 1 1/2 cups
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Combine the milk, sugar, vanilla bean and seeds in a large, 4-quart saucepan and place over medium heat. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has dissolved. Once the sugar has dissolved, add the baking soda and stir to combine. Reduce the heat to low and cook uncovered at a bare simmer. Stir occasionally, but do not re-incorporate the foam that appears on the top of the mixture. Continue to cook for 1 hour. Remove the vanilla bean after 1 hour and continue to cook until the mixture is a dark caramel color and has reduced to about 1 cup, approximately 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer. Store in the refrigerator in a sealed container for up to a month.