What to do if your food is so spicy you can't even eat it
Whether the cap on the cayenne was loose or you misjudged your hot-sauce-to-hot-food ratio, there's no rule that says you have to throw out an over-spiced dish. This even applies when your definition of spice is different from your guests' definition — like when you're serving your prized curry to a "blander" audience. You can turn back from the gates of hell when you've made a dish too spicy with a few quick fixes that most professional chefs keep up their sleeves.
If you can't take the heat, here's how to turn it down a notch:
Pro tip: Some of these hacks will even work if you're eating out and realize you've been served something too spicy to handle.
1. Add 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 works best with most flavors), vinegar, chopped pineapples or tomato juice or sauce.
2. Add 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.
3. Add 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.
4. Add sweet
Sugar can help counteract the spice in a dish. Try adding a teaspoon of 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.
5. Add 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.
6. Add dairy
There's a reason 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.
If you have extra ingredients on hand and don't mind a double batch, you can 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.
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 of how hot it is.
Originally published July 2012. Updated September 2016.