How To Tone Down Spicy Food

What do you do when your mouth is saying “enough already!”? You may be a total spicy food lover, and yet you’ll still need a break from the heat now and then. But how do you cut down on the spice? What can you do when cooking a meal yourself, and how can you lessen the heat of a pre-made meal or restaurant dish? Here are a few practical tips on how to tone down spicy food when your palate is saying no more.

Lessening heat when cooking

Look for substitute ingredients

For instance, if a recipe calls for hot paprika, consider substituting in a mild variety instead. The same goes for chili peppers – opt for a comparable hot pepper with less heat. As an example: If your recipe calls for serrano peppers (10,000 to 23,000 Scoville heat units), you could substitute jalapeños (2,500 to 8,000 SHU) very easily. Their flavor is also very comparable (a bright, grassy bite.)

To find good substitutes, search our site. We have many posts on the best potential substitutes for various peppers. Or, visit our hot pepper list that’s filterable by heat and searchable by flavor to find options.

Forgo the chili pepper or spice altogether

Careful – this may change the taste of the dish, but in some cases you won’t even notice it. This is especially true if you’re using a chili (or fiery spice) with a more neutral flavor (like cayenne or crushed red pepper) or the recipe calls for a very modest amount to be added.

Remove the white membrane from chili peppers prior to using them

The membrane is where a lot of a chili pepper’s heat is held; removing them will effectively cut down on the overall spiciness. Note, you should remove the seeds as well, but the seeds don’t have nearly the same amount of capsaicin in them (the compound behind the heat) than the membrane.

–> Learn More: Pepper Anatomy – What’s Inside Your Chili?

Thin down the broth

Obviously this only works for a soup, stew, or chili, but adding a little more water or stock can quickly lower the overall heat from a dish you are preparing. There is the potential of diluting your meal too much here, so use this solution sparingly. It’s better to double up (see below) if there’s concern.

Double up the recipe

If you don’t want to alter a recipe’s core flavors and it’s on the verge of being too spicy, you can always just double the portions (except the heat source) and cut down on the overall spiciness in the process.

Lessening heat from restaurant dishes and pre-made meals

This gets a little more tricky, but there are still quite a few ways to lessen the pungency of a meal that’s sitting in front of you.

Mix in a little sugar

Don’t go nuts here. You don’t want to completely alter the flavor of the meal, but a small teaspoon of sugar can cut down the spiciness. This can be done with common sugar packets that you’ll typically find with coffee.

Top the dish with a squeeze of lemon or lime

The acid in citrus will help temper the spiciness of the dish. This is one of the reasons Mexican food is often served with a lime wedge. Most restaurants (especially those with a bar) can supply you with a wedge of either lemon or lime.

Add some sour cream

Here’s another Mexican dish side that you may not have realized can help with lessening the overall spiciness of a dish. Dairy is excellent at toning down heat. That’s why milk is so great at stopping chili burn too. This, of course, won’t work for every meal, but it works for quite a few Tex-Mex and Mexican dishes.

Stir in more ingredients from the plate

If your dish has sides like vegetables, mixing them into the spicy portion of the meal can help. The veggies will help dilute the overall pungency you experience by absorbing some of the spice.

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UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on April 15, 2022 to include new content.
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What if you aren’t the cook and get served something way too hot?

As a lover of really hot Thai food, it’s best to have a starch (rice) and some dairy (milk, yogurt, Thai ice tea) on the side. Something sugary too; vanilla ice cream. The worst thing you can do is rinse your mouth out with beer or water, which will just re-expose your taste buds to the heat. Cover them up, numb them out. Lime only helps a bit. Good hearty bread can help too; but the fluff breads (Wonder etc) don’t do much at all.