You’ve set the table, put on your favorite playlist, and opened a bottle of wine. Your friends will be over any minute. You give your dish a final taste to make sure it’s good to go and suddenly your mouth is on fire.
The dish you’ve slaved over is waaaaay too spicy. You think, “Oh no, I’ve gone too far! I shouldn’t have added that last dash of cayenne! I’ve rendered my dish inedible! Possibly lethal!” In a panic you consider tossing the whole thing in the trash and pulling out a frozen pizza.
Not to worry, we’ve got a few ways to salvage your dinner (and maybe even make it better).
1. COOL DOWN WITH DAIRY
The capsaicin in chiles is what gives the peppers their burn. One of the best ways to counteract this chemical compound is by adding a dairy product: whole fat milk, heavy cream, yogurt, cheese, or sour cream. Even rich coconut milk can do the trick.
2. SWEET SALVATION
Sugars help to neutralize the heat of chile peppers. So try adding a little sugar or honey to balance out too-hot flavors.
3. BULK UP THE OTHER INGREDIENTS
Diffuse the heat by adding more of the major components of the dish. That might mean more broth, meat, or vegetables, depending on what you are making. Or improvise and add grated carrots, squash, or potatoes to soak up some of the spice.
4. SERVE WITH STARCH
Offer something neutral in flavor to temper the spiciness of your meal. Pasta, rice, bread, couscous, or grains are all good choices to serve with a spicy main.
5. ADD SOME ACID
Acidic liquids like vinegar, lemon, or lime juice, and even chopped tomatoes can cut through intense heat. Use whatever will complement the flavors of your dish.
6. NUT BUTTER COULD BE YOUR SECRET WEAPON
If the flavors are compatible—maybe an Asian noodle dish like pad thai—try stirring in some tahini, peanut or almond butter. The fat content in nut butters can help extinguish the flame.
Protect yourself from this predicament in the future by adding a little heat at a time and taste as you go. Remember that the liquid in long-simmering dishes like chili or curry evaporate as they cook and the flavors become more concentrated. So treat heat like salt and add it gradually, with a final taste and adjustment towards the end of cooking time.
There are a lot of ways dishes can end up too spicy: Maybe the recipe was developed using a milder version of a curry paste than what you ended up buying, or you used an especially spicy batch of fresh chiles, or you accidentally put in one tablespoon of hot sauce rather than one teaspoon, or perhaps you just dumped too much cayenne into your pot of chili.
Relax! All is not lost. Even though you can’t take out the spiciness once it’s in a dish, there are things you can do to tone it down so the food doesn’t go to waste. Here are some of our favorite ways.
1. Add more ingredients to dilute the spiciness.
The easiest way to tone down a dish that’s too spicy is to add more ingredients to lessen the proportion of the spicy element. If it’s a soup or stew, try adding more liquid. Add more vegetables, protein, or starches, too — whatever ingredient you have extra of.
2. Add dairy.
Dairy is great at counteracting spiciness and can add a nice cooling effect. You can add milk, sour cream, or even a dollop of plain yogurt over each serving, but beware of adding and then cooking the dairy over higher heat, as it may curdle. Coconut milk technically isn’t dairy, but lends a great creaminess to dishes; plus it goes well with a lot of Asian flavors, if that’s the kind of dish you’re try to tone down.
3. Add acid.
Take this trick from Thai cuisine, which happily uses lots of chiles. To counteract spiciness, a lot of their dishes use a liberal amount of acid from citrus, vinegar, or even ketchup. A spoonful can really do wonders to balance out and counteract the spiciness.
4. Add a sweetener.
Like acid, sugar or other sweeteners add a different element of flavor that can tame spiciness. This one comes with a caveat, though, as you want to add very small amounts and taste constantly so your savory dish doesn’t end up tasting like dessert.
5. Add nut butter.
A fun trick I’ve read about is to add a spoonful of nut butter, like almond or peanut butter, to soups and stews. Apparently it will help mellow the dish out but won’t be really noticeable when you eat it. Has anyone tried this trick before?
6. Serve with bland, starchy foods.
Let’s say your overly spicy dish tastes perfect otherwise, and you don’t want to mess with it by adding other ingredients. My simple solution is to serve it with something bland and starchy so when eaten together, the spice is diffused a bit. Rice, pasta, crusty bread, or potatoes are all great candidates.
Do you use other ways to tame spiciness? We’d love to hear them!