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In a pickle: What to do if a dish is too spicy

Katherine Martinelli is an internationally published food and travel writer and photographer who contributes regularly to publications on three continents. She recently released her first cookbook, Puff Pastry at Brunch: 10 Sweet and Sa...

Tame the heat

Maybe you accidentally added too much cayenne or hot sauce. Perhaps you were heavy-handed without realizing it, those peppers were hotter than you realized or it could be that you love spice but it turns out your guests don't.
Man eating spicy sauce

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.

Read up on different types of peppers >>

Sweet

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.

Acid

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.

Dairy

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.

Veggies

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.

Learn about the health benefits of spices >>

Nuts

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.

Broth

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.

Make more

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.

In another pickle? Find more solutions to common kitchen problems >>

How to prevent it

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.

More cooking tips

Herbs and spices: Their health benefits
5 Tools for a more efficient kitchen
Tips for growing and cooking with your own herbs

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