What is the difference between caramel and dulce de leche?

At a glance, it might be difficult to divine the answer to the question, What is the difference between caramel and dulce de leche? They’re both gloriously rich and golden sauces with sweet and toasty flavors, but they have some key distinctions you should know about before you dish them up for dessert.

Caramel

Pumpkin Pie Flans

Chowhound’s Pumpkin Pie Flan recipe

Caramel is made by heating sugar at a very high heat until it (get this) caramelizes and achieves the traditional darker tone, from pale gold to deep amber—this can be done either wet or dry.

Related Reading: Making Caramel Is Easier Than You Think

A caramel sauce (the stuff most of us are probably familiar with) is the end result of combining caramel with other ingredients like half and half, cream, butter and/or vanilla extract, depending on the recipe. The sweet stuff appears in a number of popular desserts, including pralines, creme brulee, and sundaes.

Traci Des Jardins' Caramel Sauce

View Recipe

If you don’t add dairy to the caramel, you can make firmer candies like these salted caramels dipped in chocolate. And if you take it really dark, you can even experiment with savory caramel.

Dulce de Leche

dulce de leche alfajores recipe

Chowhound’s Alfajores recipe

Though dulce de leche sounds like caramel’s much more worldly cousin (the name roughly translates from Spanish to “[a] sweet made from milk”), the concept behind it is pretty simple. To make dulce de leche, you heat sweetened milk until a chemical reaction occurs that changes the liquid to the deeper caramel-like thicker consistency and shade.

Dulce de Leche

View Recipe

Unlike caramel, dulce de leche is slowly heated, and at much lower temps. The milk used can vary depending on the region the recipe comes from—ranging from coconut milk or cow’s milk with added sugar to sweetened condensed milk. Methods vary too; you can make dulce de leche on the stovetop, in the oven, or even in a slow cooker (this Crock Pot Dulce de Leche recipe, for instance, decants condensed milk into mason jars before cooking for several hours).

The end result, a rich and sweet sauce that is sometimes slightly crumbly, is the star ingredient of a slew of desserts including ice cream, cookies (like alfajores), and desserts like tres leches and flan.

Dulce de Leche and Caramel Recipes

Ready to try your hand at making and using these two concoctions? Here are some of the best caramel and dulce de leche recipes out there.

Cinnamon Churro Funnel Cakes with Dulce de Leche


These churro-inspired funnel cakes are delicious even without the thick golden dulce de leche dip, but obviously it makes almost anything better. This method of making dulce de leche is easy, but you do have to be sure to keep an eye on your water level, as there is a risk of the can exploding if the pot gets too dry! (You can always make our oven-roasted Dulce de Leche recipe instead if you’re nervous.) Get Guillermo’s Cinnamon Churro Funnel Cakes with Dulce de Leche recipe.

Decadent Dulce de Leche Cheesecake


Don’t be intimidated by DIY cheesecake—with a bit of leg work, you can dish up one that would make the Golden Girls green with envy. This rich, creamy dessert (capped off with a perfectly crumbly crust) will majorly satisfy your sweet tooth. Get the Decadent Dulce de Leche Cheesecake recipe.

Homemade Caramel Apples Recipe

homemade caramel apples

Chowhound

Come this fall, you won’t have to resort to buying caramel apples once you master making your own. Get the youngsters involved with dipping and adding toppings like peanuts, sprinkles, graham cracker crumbles, and more. Get the Homemade Caramel Apples recipe.

Caramel Sundae with Cinnamon-Sugar Chips

caramel ice cream sundae with bittersweet chocolate sauce and cinnamon sugar chips

Chowhound

Caramel and cinnamon play nicely together in this sundae. A bittersweet chocolate sauce to top it all off is a surefire win. Get our Caramel Sundae recipe.

Apple Cider Sufganiyot with Salted Caramel Filling


Jelly doughnuts have nothing on ones stuffed with salted caramel; the apple cider makes these especially perfect for fall. Get our Apple Cider Sufganiyot with Salted Caramel Filling recipe.

Homemade Caramel Coffee Creamer


Looking to wean yourself from your Starbucks addiction? A good coffee creamer is just the thing to help you do that. Top off your mug with a hefty helping of whipped cream to make your morning that much brighter. Get the Homemade Caramel Coffee Creamer recipe.

Roasted Peach and Dulce de Leche Bread Pudding

roasted peach and dulce de leche bread pudding

Chowhound

This isn’t your mama’s bread pudding. Not only does this dessert feature fresh peaches, a dash of peach schnapps gives the end result a grown-up kick. Dotting spoonfuls of dulce de leche on the dish provides a sweet final touch. Get our Roasted Peach and Dulce de Leche Bread Pudding recipe.

Cajeta Envinada


Much like dulce de leche, cajeta is made by heating sweetened milk slowly until it becomes a deep golden color—the key factor is that cajeta is made from goat milk. The Mexican specialty can also be upgraded with the addition of rum or other liquor, like in this Cajeta Envinada recipe.

Salted Caramel Brownies


Salty and sweet is a classic combination for a reason: It always seems to work! These ultra-rich brownies, drizzled with caramel sauce and a dash of sea salt, are just the things you’ve been looking for to edge boxed brownie mix out of your repertoire. Get the Salted Caramel Brownies recipe.

Raw Salted Caramel Creme Brulee

Eggnog Crème Brûlée

Chowhound

The very dairy-centric traditional recipes for caramel and creme brulee might seem off limits for vegans, but that’s actually not the case. This raw and dairy-free recipe makes for personal creme brulees so mouth-watering, you won’t miss the real thing. Get the Raw Salted Caramel Creme Brulee recipe.

Related Video: How to Make Perfect Caramel Custard


Kelsey Butler wrote the original version of this story in 2018. It has been updated with additional images, links, and text.

Header image by Chowhound, using photos from Chowhound and Burcu Atalay Tankut/Getty Images

Kelsey Butler is a reporter and editor based in New Jersey. She has written for a number of health and lifestyle publications, including Women's Health, Brides, and NBC News Better. Hot sauce, black coffee, and bacon make up 50% of her diet.
See more articles