At first glance, dulce de leche and caramel don't seem that different. They both have the same light brown color and they both taste really good over cookies or with chocolate. They both taste really sweet, and can usually be used as substitutes for one another. So, these two are the same, right? Nope! Dulce de leche is heavier and thicker than caramel, and the two greatly vary in how they're made. Before we can dissect the differences between dulce de leche vs caramel, it's important to understand where each originated and how they became so popular. 

What Is Caramel? 

sweet, chocolate, nut, truffle, candy
Ethan Cappello

Caramel can be traced back to the 1650s. Although it's a French sweet, the word "caramel" stems from the Spanish word caramelo. Salted caramel has become particularly popular in recent years, though it's been a special treat in the Brittany region of France for many years. 

Caramel is made by heating sugar until it's brown in color. Milk and butter can be added in to create a caramel sauce. Just like dulce de leche, the translation of the word itself is a clue to how it's made. In French, caramel translates to "burnt sugar" which is how caramel is made.

What Is Dulce de Leche?

milk, dairy product, coffee, sweet, tea, cream
Rebecca Simonov

Dulce de leche is a more modern creation, and there are several theories on when and where it was invented. Most theories agree that dulce de leche was created in the 19th century, but it's unclear how it became popular in South America. Dulce de leche is a predominantly Spanish dessert and is a staple in many Hispanic homes.

Dulce de leche translates to "sweet milk," which is indicative of how it's made. The main difference in dulce de leche vs caramel is that dulce de leche is usually made by heating up condensed milk. Condensed milk contains higher sugar levels than regular milk, and when it's heated the sugar browns, creating the golden brown color. The milk dilutes it, which makes it slightly runny.

Can They Be Used Interchangeably? 

Technically, yes, dulce de leche and caramel can be used as substitutes for one another. They have similar tastes, colors, and textures, and will do the same thing for whatever dish you are using them in.

However, if you're trying to do a specifically Spanish or French dessert, then you should use the appropriate sweet to get an authentic flavor. If you just wanted to put one of them onto chocolate chip cookies, then it won't matter too much which one.

In my experience, dulce de leche is a bit heavier, so you don't need to use as much as caramel. There are a few differences, but otherwise these two sweets are fairly interchangeable.