By Angela Petulla

How to Tone Down Spicy Food

We get it. You went a little heavy handed with the cayenne pepper while making dinner, or maybe you decided to throw in a few extra jalapenos for some added flair. We’ve all been stuck with a dish that came out a little too spicy, resulting in little to no desire to suffer the consequences. And we’re here to tell you that you don’t have to! Read on for some tips on how to tone down your accidentally over-spiced food.

What Makes Food Spicy?

Chili peppers contain a molecule called capsaicin, which creates the heat that so many of us love. Each pepper has a different amount of capsaicin, which is why peppers range from no spice (i.e. bell peppers) to mild (like our friend the Anaheim pepper) to scalding hot (like ghost peppers and the world-recording holding Carolina Reaper). For more information on how pepper spiciness is measured, check out our article on the Scoville scale.

How to Make Food Less Spicy

Dairy

We’ve all heard that milk can cool down your mouth after eating something hot, but did you know that you can add it while cooking to keep the heat from going too far off the rails? Many dairy products contain a protein called casein, which helps break down capsaicin, the component that gives peppers their heat.

pouring milk into glass
Not only does milk help keep spiciness at bay, but other dairy products, such as yogurt, sour cream, and butter, can neutralize heat as well. We recommend adding a little bit at a time so that you don’t accidentally change the consistency or flavor of your food to something that you don’t enjoy.

Keep in mind that nut milks will not provide the same relief as dairy milk. While they have milk in the name, they lack the casein molecule that does all of the heavy lifting when neutralizing heat.

Acidity

Don’t have milk on-hand or are dairy-free? Don’t worry! Acidic foods, such as lemon juice, lime juice, vinegar, and tomatoes are great at toning down spice. Capsaicin is an alkaline molecule, and acidic foods may neutralize some of its activity. Try adding a squeeze of lime juice or a bit of apple cider vinegar to tone down the dish and brighten the flavors.

limes on gray background

Also, fun fact: milk is both a dairy product and acidic, so it has multiple elements that can counteract heat.

Sugar

This one may sound weird if you’re making a savory dish, but adding sugar can make your food less spicy and not too sweet, if done properly. I like to opt for honey or brown sugar, but plain ole sugar works just as well. Be sure to add this very slowly and in small quantities to avoid turning your meal into a dessert. After adding the sugar and mixing it in, taste the dish and adjust accordingly.

Oil / Fats

Capsaicin is oil soluble, meaning adding additional oil or fat to your food may be able to dissolve some of the spicy irritant. As with the other ingredients, be sure to add oil in small quantities (think: a teaspoon at a time) to counteract the heat. We also recommend using a neutral tasting oil, such as olive oil or coconut oil, to avoid changing the flavor of your dish too much.

Nut Butters

Nut butters fight the heat of spicy food in the same way that oil does (because they’re chock full of healthy fats!). Because nut butters have a much stronger taste than many of the other options, we recommend only adding it to your dish if it won’t alter the flavor profile too much (or better yet, will bolster it).
peanut butter dripping off spoon into glass


A great opportunity to add nut butter to an overly spicy dish is when you go a little too heavy handed on the spice in Thai food. Peanuts are used in many Thai dishes (like Pad Thai), so nut butters often naturally go with other ingredients used. Similarly, you can create a peanut butter dipping sauce to neutralize heat in handhelds, such as spring rolls.

Carbs

While carbs do not actively fight the heat brought on by capsaicin, it adds additional textures to distract you from the heat while also providing a neutral flavor palette, which keeps from detracting too much from the dominant flavors of your dish. Because there are so many different carb options, this is a pretty easy ingredient to add to your meal. Take your pick from noodles, rice, tortillas, potatoes, bread, and so many more options!

Final Tips

When cooking dishes in the future, be sure to add spicy ingredients a little bit at a time and taste as you go. As someone who doesn’t enjoy overly spicy food, I will occasionally swap out the type of pepper that a recipe calls for to tone down the heat.

Also keep in mind that dishes that simmer on low over a long period of time become more concentrated as more water evaporates from the dish. The longer it simmers, the spicier it will get. This is why it is extra important to continuously taste your food because the flavor profile will continue to change throughout the entire cooking process. If after a few hours of simmering your dish comes out too spicy, you can try adding one of the ingredients we mentioned above or add more of your base ingredients, which will reduce the overall proportion of your spice to food ratio.

If your recipe calls for hot sauce and you’re worried about making it a little too fiery, we recommend checking out some of our mild hot sauces, which bring all of the flavor with a controlled spice!

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