I've always made Dulce de Leche by throwing a tin of sweetened evaporated milk in a pan of simmering water and waiting 3 hours. Granted it takes a good while but it is fairly hands off, just top up the water now and then. Which is why I was intrigued by Claire Thompson's recipe in the Guardian which didn't use evaporated milk but a normal full litre of milk, some sugar and a pinch of bicarb. The comments were filled with people who thought doing it from scratch surely was too much of a hassle. So I decided to put it to the test and cook some dulce de leche from scratch alongside my usual in the tin method. Would there be a noticeable difference in taste, texture, colour? I was about to find out.
First off I put my tin of sweetened evaporated milk in a pan on a medium heat. And this is where it would stay for the next three hours. If the tin starts dancing around in the pan just gently push it over on its side. And don't forget to top up the water now and then to lessen the chance of the tin exploding in your face.
Milk has the charming ability to burn and stick to the bottom of the pan when you take your eye of it for a single mistimed second so it is crucial to stay with the pan and stir. The first hour of this is particularly boring because really not much is happening yet. I just pulled up a chair and did some multitasking, Ipad in one hand and stirring implement in the other.
After that first mind numbing hour things start to happen. The milk, while still thin, is starting to take on a bit of colour, and a mild sugary smell starts to waft through the kitchen. In another half hour the milk will have visibly thickened and I decided to turn up the heat a bit.
After a short cooling off period the tin was ready to be openend and the tasting could begin. First thing you'll notice is a slight difference in colour. The tinned dulce de leche is slightly darker in comparison.
The biggest diffrence however is the texture. The tinned DdL has that blobby, puddingy texture that can trick you into spoon after spoon of the sweet stuff. The DdL from scratch has a more caramel like texture, pulling ribbons when you scoop it up. My guess is that the moisture content of the former is much higher. Because it is in a sealed tin the dulce the leche is allowed to carmelize (or more specifically Maillard reactionize) without losing any more moisture. Allowing for that unique texture and the deeper colour. Doing it from scratch in the pan however means that you consistently evaporate more water and it is difficult getting a much darker colour before going into toffee territory.
When it comes to taste, the difference between the two is not very pronounced. Though thanks to the difference in texture the tinned dulce de leche kicks in a little sooner than the one from scratch.
Which brings us to the question; ''Is it worth making Dulce de Leche from scratch?'' Short anwser, no, not really. Though it takes less 'absolute' time compared to the tin method, the constant stirring is a big pain in the arse and you don't get a spectacular improvement in taste back for your troubles. The only reason why I would do it again is that you can make a fantastic pourable dulce de leche sauce by cooking it for a shorter amount of time.