What is the difference between caramel and dulce de leche?

Move over, chocolate! There are two golden, sweet (and largely underappreciated) players that deserve a slot in your dessert rotation ASAP: caramel and dulce de leche. But though these two sugary confections have a lot in common, they have some key distinctions you should know about before you dish them up.

Caramel is made by heating sugar at a very high heat until it caramelizes and gets to the traditional darker tone—this can be either done wet or dry. 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.

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. 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 to cow’s milk to condensed milk. 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, and desserts like tres leches and flan.

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

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


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


Caramel and cinnamon play nicely together in this Super Bowl recipe, which doesn’t just have to be regulated to the season, but can be served year-round. A bittersweet chocolate sauce to top it all off is a surefire win. Get our Caramel Sundae 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


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 goat’s milk slowly until it becomes a deep golden color. The Mexican specialty can also be upgraded with the addition of rum or other liquor, like in this take. Get the 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


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.

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.
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