Dulce de Leche vs. Caramel vs. Cajeta: What’s the Difference? 

Dulce de leche, caramel and cajeta are used to flavor pastries, ice cream, fruits, and countless other sweets.

The indulgent flavors that each offer may have the same rich flavor to untrained taste buds, but are these two decadent sauces the same, and if not, what’s the difference?

Caramelization is the process of cooking sugar. This has been taken a step further in countries around the world to create a variety of regional caramels, including the candied and sauce variety, commonly referred to as “caramel.” Dulce de leche is a type of caramel made primarily out of cooked milk and sugar that originated in South America. Cajeta is of Mexican origin. Dulce de leche is made from cow’s milk while cajeta is made from goat’s milk.

The term “caramel” loosely includes caramel candies, sauces, and dulce de leche as well as other varieties such as cajeta and butterscotch.

However, although all of these are created from the foundational concept of cooking sugar, each variety possesses its own unique history and flavor. 

What Is Caramel

Cajeta Sauce and Cajeta hard candies
Caramel and Caramel Hard Candies

Caramel is a beloved treat commonly found around the world as sauces and fillings, as well as ice cream and candy.

Caramel is not only delicious but also simple in its ingredients and wonderfully versatile. 

There is an important distinction to be made when speaking about caramel, and that is the difference between the full-bodied caramel candy and the process of caramelization itself. 

Caramelization is achieved by slowly cooking granulated sugar either on its own or with just a bit of sugar.

The sugar melts with heat and toasts as it cooks, creating caramel’s unique flavor and giving it its familiar golden-brown color.

Caramel can be cooked to your preferred degree, but it has surpassed caramelization and has begun to burn once your mixture begins to turn black. 

This simple formula creates a basic type of caramel sauce, but additional ingredients are required to create the variety of caramel products commonly found, such as candies and toppings. 

Caramels, as we know the candied version of this concoction to be, take the process of caramelization a step further to bring about a heavier-bodied treat.

Cream, butter, or other similar fat can be used to create something called the Maillard Reaction, named after the French scientist who first discovered it.

The reaction is achieved by adding protein to the mixture, which then reacts with the sugar to create hearty caramel bites. 

The Maillard Reaction 

The Maillard Reaction, also known as the “browning reaction,” occurs when the amino acids in protein-filled food chemically react with sugar molecules under heat.

More than just changing the color of food, this reaction also changes the flavor of it, whether it is the baked, fried, roasted flavor we are familiar with. 

To read more about the Maillard Reaction, check out this article by Modernist Cuisine

The History of Caramel

Caramel likely dates back to the mid-1600s with reports telling of American settlers making candy in kettles.

Sometime within the following two centuries, fat was added to the formula to create something similar to the heavier, chewier candies we know today.

One significant difference from modern caramels, however, is that refined white sugar was hard to come by for the average person, while sugar beet juice was a more common and accessible option. 

Caramel grew in popularity in the U.S. in the 1800s as candy makers grew in business. Many manufactured hard candies, but several companies also began making their own caramel candies.

In fact, Milton Hershey, founder of the famous Hershey brand that has become popular for its chocolates, actually began his career by making caramels with his first company, the Lancaster Caramel Company. 

There is no doubt that caramels have always been a favorite sweet treat.

After discovering a love for chocolate while searching for something to coat his caramels with, Milton Hershey was able to sell the Lancaster Caramel Company to the American Caramel Company for a cool one billion dollars back in the year 1900, an affirmation of the popularity of the candy. 

Goetz Candy Company, started by August Goetz in Baltimore, Maryland at the turn of the 20th century, became one of the leading caramel makers, creating its signature Caramel Cream candy.

Brach’s Candy also became popular in Chicago at around the same time as Goetz, making a name for themselves with their affordable, house-made caramels.  

Making Caramel

Today, caramels can be made with a variety of ingredients, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Milk
  • Sugar
  • Condensed milk
  • Corn syrup
  • Oil
  • Butter
  • Brown Sugar
  • Coconut Milk
  • Molasses

A type of sugar and a type of protein is needed to create the proper reaction to create the desired consistency in the outcome. Beyond this, however, the choice of ingredients is entirely up to personal preference as well as regional and cultural traditions. 

Fat is needed to create elasticity in caramel, but the type of fat will also determine the quality of the flavor and texture. Butter-based caramels, for example, tend to be of higher quality and include varieties such as the following:

  • Caramel sauce
  • Praline
  • Caramel custard
  • Crème Brule

Cooking time and temperature also play major roles in the resulting caramel. A lower temperature will create a chewier caramel, while a higher temperature can create a harder and more brittle version. 

There are several different ways to go about the caramelization process, including the following:

  1. The dry method, in which sugar alone is heated and melted. It is not until the sugar has liquified that the fats, whether butter or milk, are added and boiled, resulting in dark and full-flavored caramel.
  2. The wet method is the most commonly used method in which sugar is mixed with water and then boiled. Butter and/or milk is then added, but diluting the sugar right from the start results in a lighter and softer caramel than the dry method. 
  3. A third method that can conveniently be used today is the microwave method, which quickly and easily heats sugar, but will only render small batches of caramel at a time. 

This article by Everyday Health is a great resource to find out more about how to make various types of caramels.  

Easy Caramel Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 4 tablespoons butter

Directions

  1. Combine sugar and salt in a saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Cover with water and bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring occasionally until the salt and sugar completely dissolve.
  3. Increase to medium-high heat and continue cooking until it turns golden brown.
  4. Remove the pan from the heat and immediately stir in the cream and butter. Be cautious of any grease that may pop back at you.   
  5. Let the mixture cool in the pan before transferring to another container. 

Although making caramel is basic in concept, it can be a bit intimidating to make candy for the first time.

Cupcake Jemma has a great masterclass that walks you through three different ways of making caramels, complete with some useful tips and pointers to help you successfully and safely create one of the world’s favorite sweets.  

What Is Dulce de Leche

bowl of dulce de leche filling for alfajores
Dulce de Leche

Dulce de Leche has been called the South American caramel, and it’s no surprise that various countries in South America, along with other countries around the world, have discovered this simple yet delectable concoction. 

The History of Dulce de Leche

Although the exact origins of dulce de leche are up for debate, the delicious sauce originated somewhere in South America.

Although many South American countries regularly enjoy this sweet treat for everything from breakfast to a dessert topping, only Uruguay and Argentina call dulce de leche by this name. 

Argentina is generally accepted as being the birthplace of dulce de leche, as it is one of Argentina’s most popular foods and used in many traditional Argentinian desserts.

Argentina even tried to officially claim dulce de leche as its own with the approval of UNESCO in 2003.

This attempt, however, proved unsuccessful when Uruguay countered this attempt by claiming that dulce de leche should instead be deemed from the greater region that both countries lie in, the Gastronomical Heritage of the Rio de la Plata. 

No matter who tells the origin story of dulce de leche, it always follows the same chain of events and seems to date it back to the early 19th century.

As rumor has it, some careless cook or maid accidentally created dulce de leche when she let her sweetened milk sit on the stove for too long.

Although the vote is still out on where exactly this incident happened, most accounts point to dulce de leche originating in the South American continent and then spreading to Europe as well as to different countries in Asia through colonialism. 

If Argentina truly is the birthplace of dulce de leche, then the story more specifically goes as follows.

The maid of the political leader Juan Manuel de Rosa was summoned somewhere while she was cooking Lechada, a regional sweetened milk drink.

By the time she made it back to the stove, the Lechada had overcooked and became what is now known as dulce de leche. 

Following this story, there is a mention of dulce de leche in reference to a peace meeting at the La Caledonia ranch in Cañuelas, Argentina, between Juan Manuel de Rosa and his opponent General Juan Lavalle in 1829. 

Dulce de Leche Day

Did you know that dulce de leche is such a popular treat, it even has its own dedicated day?

That day is October 11, and each year, people all over the world use this day to celebrate the diversity of Latin culture with sweet treats made with the many regional variations of dulce de leche. 

Easy Dulce de Leche Recipe

Ingredients

  • 4 cups milk
  • 1 ¼ cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Directions

  • Stir together milk and sugar in a saucepan.
  • Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and continue to simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the mixture browns and thickens. This takes approximately 1.5 to 2 hours. Be sure to stir more frequently once the mixture begins to thicken to avoid burning. 
  • Remove the mixture from the heat and stir in vanilla. 
  • Transfer to another container and let cool.

This article by Epicurious has two different recipes for dulce de leche, one making it completely from scratch and the other using canned condensed milk, to begin with. 

The Bare Pantry Show also did a video comparing three different ways of making homemade dulce de leche right in the condensed milk can.

Is Dulche de Leche the Same as Cajeta?

Cajeta Mexican Dessert Sauce
Cajeta Mexican Dessert Sauce

Although dulce de leche and cajeta are similar in fashion, there is one key difference between the two that can make a world of difference in the flavor of the resulting spread.

Dulce de leche uses cow’s milk, while cajeta, which originates from Mexico, uses goat’s milk instead. 

Cajeta originates from the Bajío region in west, north-central Mexico. The history of cajeta is rumored to go back to not long after the invention of dulce de leche, but rumor has it that this treat was introduced to Mexico by the Spanish.

Cows, however, were not abundant in Mexico at the time, so goat’s milk was used in place, bringing about the regional variety known as cajeta. 

Although milk was the only difference in the story of the original recipe, cajeta is now also found with other changes to the recipe.

Brown sugar is sometimes found in place of white granulated sugar, and cinnamon is also sometimes added to the mix. 

Cajeta Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 4 cups goat’s milk
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 + 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
  • Pinch of salt

Directions

  1. Combine vanilla bean, goat’s milk, sugar, baking soda, and salt in a saucepan.
  2. Warm ingredients over medium heat, stirring occasionally until sugar fully dissolves and milk begins to froth. This will take approximately 15 minutes. 
  3. Turn temperature to low heat and allow the mixture to continue simmering. Continue stirring until milk thickens into a thick, golden sauce. This usually takes approximately 45 minutes.
  4. Remove the pot from heat once the cajeta is thick enough for a “trail” to remain parted for one second when a spatula is scraped dragged through the mixture. 
  5. Cajeta will thicken further as it cools. Add a small amount of milk or water before the mixture cools to maintain a thinner sauce. 

This video by Glen & Friends Cooking is also a great resource that walks you through the steps of making your own cajeta.

Dulce de Leche Variations

Dulce de leche is made in several different regional variations, including the following:

  • Cajeta is Mexico’s version of the caramelized sweet treat, using goat’s milk rather than cow’s milk. 
  • In Puerto Rico, dulce de leche is commonly made with unsweetened coconut milk instead of cow’s milk.
  • Dulce de leche uses vanilla in addition to milk and sugar and is made into a very thick, fudge-like consistency in the Dominican Republic. 
  • Uruguay keeps its recipe simple, preferring to use only milk and sugar.
  • The Argentinian variety, often considered to be the original recipe, utilizes milk, sugar, vanilla, and baking soda. 

Other Varieties of Caramel

There are several other popular variations of caramelized sweet treats found around the world, all featuring slight changes from another to create a variety of delicious recipes. 

Butterscotch

Butterscotch is close to a traditional caramel but uses brown sugar in place of granulated white sugar. This switch creates a more spicey molasses-like flavor.

Its origins can be traced back to early 19th century Yorkshire, England.

There are several different stories as to the origin of the name of this variety of caramel.

The word butter simply comes from the use of butter as a fat. The second part of the name, “scotch,” has varying stories, though, some claiming that it came from the regional Scotch and others saying that it actually came from the word “scorch,” referring to the high temperature required to create this particular sweet treat. 

Check out this article by Spoon University for ways to make and use butterscotch. 

Toffee

Toffee was first documented in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1825, implying that it came into existence at about the same time as most other caramel varieties throughout Europe. Toffee, as it is known in the U.S., however, is not the same as the original English version. 

The common American version of toffee would be referred to as “buttercrunch” in England, with the difference lying in the sugar.

While English toffee uses brown sugar, essentially creating a brittle version of butterscotch, American toffee uses granulated white sugar.

Nuts are also commonly added to buttercrunch, while this is not generally done with traditional toffee. 

A Sweet Conclusion

Drizzling Dulce de Leche on Pancakes
Dulce de Leche Pancakes

There is no doubt that the wide variety of caramelized treats found around the world have made their mark in the world of sweets.

Whether it’s a cultural delicacy or your favorite dessert at its perfect consistency, the many variations of this concoction are sure to please most everyone, and it all results from the simple act of heating up some sugar.

If a taste test is to your liking; you can place an order for dulce de leche, cajeta and caramel on Amazon. Happy testing!

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