Whatever the case, there are a few ways to tame the heat and get you out of this kitchen pickle.
If that pot of chili or arrabiata sauce is hotter than you can handle, don't dump it out and start over. You can save it from the fiery depths of the garbage with a few easy tips. Some of these will even work if you're eating out and realize that you've been served something too spicy to handle.
Sugar can help counteract the spice in a dish. Try adding a teaspoon of granulated sugar, a spoonful of honey or even a squirt of ketchup to tone down the heat. Be careful to add only a bit at a time so you don't end up with dessert.
Although not an obvious firefighter, acid can work wonders to reduce heat. Depending on the dish, try adding some citrus juice (lemon or lime work best with most flavors), vinegar, chopped pineapples or tomato juice or sauce.
There's a reason that sour cream is so common in Mexican food and that Indian cuisine abounds with yogurt sauces (called raita) — dairy tempers spice. Stir in a tablespoon at a time of yogurt, sour cream, milk, coconut milk (a great nondairy alternative) and/or a mild cheese like Parmesan to counteract overly hot flavors.
Some people swear by adding shredded carrots or cubed or shredded potatoes to temper heat. The sugar in them helps to fight the heat while their porous texture may help to absorb some of the spice.
It may sound nuts (pun intended!) but adding peanut or almond butter or tahini (a sesame seed paste) can go a long way toward toning down that piquant dish. Of course, this will work much better in a spicy coconut curry than it would in a spicy salsa.
If the hot dish in question is a chili, sauce, or anything that can take being thinned down then add a ladleful of broth or other mild liquid. This will spread out the heat more per serving, thus diffusing it.
If you have extra ingredients on hand and don't mind a double batch, you could add more of every ingredient except the spicy one to diffuse the heat. The same amount of spice in a bigger dish will be less piquant.
To prevent making an overly spicy dish in the future, be sure to add just a little bit at a time and taste as you go. Don't measure out spices over the dish to prevent them from spilling. If using hot peppers, taste a little bit first to get a sense for how hot it is.
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