How To Save a Dish That's Too Spicy

Were you a little heavy-handed with the hot sauce? Here’s what to do.

Shrimp and Chicken Gumbo
Photo: Photo: Christopher Testani

Southerners love spicy food, but that doesn't mean tears streaming down our faces and mouths on fire—Unless you're eating hot chicken. In every other case, spicy ingredients should enhance the overall flavors of a dish, not send you running for water.

But if you put too much hot sauce in the seafood gumbo or add too many chiles to the chili pot, fear not. All of your hard work (and precious ingredients) may not have to go to waste. Depending on the ingredients, you can do a few things to make it less spicy. Here are the best ways to save a dish that's too spicy.

Add Some Starches

The easiest way to tone down a spicy dish is to serve a smaller portion with plenty of rice, bread, potatoes, pasta, or plain starch to counter the heat. For soups and stews, raw and starchy vegetables like potatoes or carrots work well.

Add Sugar

A pinch of sugar (or a touch of molasses, maple syrup, or honey) can make a dish taste less spicy, mainly when the flavors are very concentrated, like in a marinade, sauce, or stir-fry. Start with a small amount of sugar, taste as you go, and balance out with salt if needed—overly sweet is almost as bad as overly spicy!

Add Dairy

While we'd never recommend serving a bowl of gumbo with a dollop of sour cream, it's a great way to tone down the spiciness of other dishes, like black bean soup, chili, or tacos. Dairy products interfere with some spices reaching the taste receptors in our bodies, decreasing the spicy sensation. Adding a little heavy cream, plain yogurt, buttermilk, or milk to a dish, when appropriate (not in your gumbo), will serve the same purpose and add creaminess. Coconut milk works in the same way.

Add Acidic Foods

A squeeze of lemon or lime juice or a little vinegar can help cut through spiciness. Acidic foods tone down the spiciness in foods and can add some flavor, making this a good trick for seafood dishes or creamy soups and chowders.

Add High-Fat Foods

To reduce capsaicin, a chemical compound that makes some foods spicier than others, add high-fat food such as nuts or nut butter. The high-fat content in the nuts counteracts spices, helping to lessen the severity. It also can change the texture and flavor profiles of dishes, which might be something you enjoy.

Add More Anything

To dilute the spicy flavoring, you need to outweigh it with more of the other ingredients used to make that dish. It's a simple solution but can affect your dish's overall taste, so you don't want to rely on adding more broth, milk, rice, or other food. It's all about keeping the proportions in check.

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