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How to Save an Overly Salty or Spicy Dish

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Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: Next time you over-season your dish, don't panic -- just follow these tips.

How to Save an Overly Spicy Dish on Food52

We've all been there. You're expecting guests at any moment, you've just popped open a bottle of wine, and you turn your slaved-over soup down to a simmer. You dip in your finger for a quick taste test, and then recoil. You've gone way overboard on the salt, and your tongue tastes like you just jumped, open-mouthed, into an oncoming wave. Or maybe your eyes tear up, heat rises to your cheeks, and you start fanning yourself before finally sticking your mouth under the kitchen faucet. After the initial shock comes confusion, regret, and then, finally, panic. The doorbell rings as your first guest arrives. (Who gets to a party on time, anyway?)

Freeze. 

Overseasoning is a tragedy, and it can happen to you. In fact, it's an issue that's been floating around our hotline for years, in one form or another. But if you follow these emergency guidelines, you can resuscitate a meal on the edge of death -- and turn a near-tragedy into a victory. 

All great meals are about balance. The five tastes -- sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami -- should all complement each other, without any specific one hogging the limelight. When one of those tastes becomes too strong, the dish will taste off. Obviously, depending on the desired finished product, certain tastes will be more dominant -- but they must be kept in check.

How to Save an Overly Salty/Spicy Dish on Food52 How to Save an Overly Salty/Spicy Dish on Food52

General Cures

When faced with an over-seasoned dish, your first move should be to try to balance out the flavors. Typically, this is done by playing with sugars and acids. Try adding a squeeze of lemon or a spoonful of sugar to your dish, then taste test again and proceed from there. Depending on the dish, switch up the acid and sugar sources -- sub in vinegar for citrus, or honey in for sugar. 

Second resort: dilution. If you're making a soup or a curry, add water, unsalted broth, coconut milk, or cream to dilute the excess seasoning. Increasing the volume of the dish will spread out the spice or salt, and make each individual serving more palatable.

If it wouldn't make sense to add more liquid to your dish, say, if it's a salad or a pilaf, try adding more bulk to put things on an even keel. Rice, beans, or any other other neutral grain will help round out the flavor.

More: Need some grain-spiration? We can help you out.

If none of these methods help ease your palate, there are a few more specific cures to target your overseasoning dilemmas.

If Your Dish is Too Spicy...

How to Save an Overly Salty/Spicy Dish on Food52   How to Save an Overly Salty/Spicy Dish on Food52

When it comes to spice, dairy is the best neutralizer. This is because chilis contain capsaicin, a substance which makes your tastebuds feel that fiery burn. Milk contains casein, a compound which bonds with capsaicin and helps dissipate it. Next time you want to dial back the spice level on a dish, try stirring in a few spoonfuls of yogurt or sour cream -- and next time you're dared to eat a whole jalapeño pepper, be sure to have a glass of milk handy.

More: A hefty dollop of sour cream cools the burn of this hearty chili.

Another ingredient that can help combat spice is nut butter. Rich in fat, nut butters will mellow out the fire in your dishes -- just make sure its flavors will play well with the other ingredients. Creamy avocados can also help soothe a burning tongue.

If Your Dish is Too Salty...

Sichau Dan-Dan Noodles on Food52

Have you heard of the potato myth? It's the rumor that dropping a raw potato into an over-salted soup will "draw out" some of the salt. Sorry to break it to you, but this myth is 100% that -- a myth. Busted.

While raw potatoes do indeed draw out some of the salt from a liquid, they also absorb a proportionate amount of liquid. Sorry, spud. If you dish is too salty, and dilution isn't helping, sweetness is usually the best way to balance it out.

All caution aside, don't be shy with your seasoning. Professional chefs say that most home cooks err on the side of caution and under-season their food. The solution, which you should adopt from here on out, is to salt as you go. This is also an excellent excuse to sneak samples of whatever you're cooking up.

 How do you correct a dish that's too salty or spicy? Tell us in the comments!

Tags: kitchen confidence, salty, spicy, too salty, too spicy, save, fix, hack, tricks

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Comments (37)

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23 days ago Sam Smith

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! This saved my crab stuffed mushroom filling that was too salty. I took your advice and added in some sour cream, lemon zest and lemon juice. It tasted awesome! I appreciate you!

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about 1 month ago Bill Frazier

I make a beef stew from scratch. It takes at least five hours prep and cooking time. By mistake I bought a beef stock that wasn't low sodium and didn't notice until it was too late. The recipe requires three cups of the stock. Needless to say the stew was much too salty. I now have a huge stew that is too salty. I am going to freeze most of it and use it as a base for a vegetable beef soup this coming winter. I will add more water and a bag of frozen mixed vegetables (thawed and rinsed well). Hoping this will dilute the saltiness and will save a very time/labor intensive as well as a expensive dish.

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4 months ago Pam Hahn

Thank you, thank you, thank you. Saved my meal!! I LOVE THIS SITE!

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5 months ago Suzanne

I make pierogies with onion cheese mixture. How do I fix a strong onion flavor once they are cooked and added to the potatoes? Help please

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5 months ago Martin Richei

Hi Suzanne
Pierogi, Piroschki, Pirogge or Piroghi originate from the area of Poland and the western parts of its ex Russian neighbors. It belongs to the group of meat filled pastries.
In this part of Europe the onion is the most important part of many food preparations. It is not just a vegetable, it is the major conditioning of a meal. I was told by a local from Leningrad that the regular consumption of onion used to compensate – now they have greenhouses and imports – the lack of many other vegetables due to climatic conditions.
In a Russian recipe for Piroschki they take 1 lbs. of onions for 1 ½ lbs. of meat. For the famous beef filet Stroganoff (or Stroganow), named after the old – 17th century - and very rich Stroganow family from Leningrad (St. Petersburg) it is 1.3 lbs. sliced onion to 2.2 lbs. of meat.
The strong onion flavor – sulfur reaction – can be reduced by slicing the onions, add about 10% of salt, let it stand for 30 to 60 minutes and the rinse it with cold water. But that way you’re wasting the healthy part of the vegetable. It also helps – without loss – to some thin sliced white mushrooms. It works as a neutralizer.
Enjoy your meal.
Martin from Switzerland

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5 months ago maryanne

My Mom always used a pinch of baking soda in her tomato sauce. It is freaky the way it bubbles up. I have tried that for the acid and also sugar, but I still cannot get the flavor I am looking for. I have read that you should not use tomatoes from a can, but I have only found one kind in a box, and the other brands always seem to look and sound better. Wish I had a good Italian friend who sauce I love. Then I would watch her/him make it and never forget how!

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5 months ago Eileen Sabine Broader

I just ruined (almost) a beautiful creme of mushroom soup that took me a couple of hours to make.... thought hard on the problem and recalled a bit of high school science. Added 1/4 cup of my red wine. Voila' !! We have delicious soup tonite!

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6 months ago Karen Ruppert Kelleher

i just used the baking soda trick for too much vinegar in my chili. For a dish hat's too salty, depending on what it is I do the following:
If I use a potao, I peel it and cut it inot quarters lengthwise and place in my pot. it has always worked for me. take it out before it disintegrates... lemon juice and vinegars, add a bit at a time. and same with sugar, a bit at a time...and taste.

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7 months ago Maggie

Thank you for this. We are having exceptionally cold weather and somehow a crockpot of chicken tortilla soup sounded good. I used a prepackaged mix ( hanging head in shame) but I should have known better. It smelled so good I snuck a small bowl to taste but it is so salty it tastes virtually inedible. Forget what the TV chefs say -- season your food to YOUR taste. The addition of sour cream helped a lot, and I normally DO add lime juice to zing it up. That is what I forgot tonight, but will remember tomorrow! Loved the logical and rational discussion of sugars and acids. Very nice and answered my need.

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9 months ago joyce

I think I added too much paprica and pepper to onion soup

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12 months ago Angel

I tried a slow cooker recipe for chicken. I should have known the dish would come out salty because of the two main ingredients - condensed cheddar cheese soup and zesty Italian dressing. Although it didn't hit me while I combined my ingredients for 6 hours, it certainly did when I got home for the ultimate taste test! Canned and (some) prepared foods (even low sodium) are very salty and tend to leave my jaws aching! Now I have this delicious looking meal, but it is too salty to eat...if I dilute it, the sauce won't be sauce. It will be soup. I did try a little sugar, and now it tastes funny. I guess I just can't wrap my head around slightly sweet chicken, cheddar cheese, and zesty Italian dressing. Any other suggestions?

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over 1 year ago Martin Richei

Hello - to whom it may concern. (Sorry – bad English, writing from Switzerland)
All the rest of your hints and ideas - perfect and useful.
But! Why, how and from where do get the myth buster about the potatoes? I am no potato farmer or processor and I am not related with anyone from this industry. I am just – as my wife keeps telling me – a crazy freak about cooking.
You say potatoes absorb water! How should that be possible? The specific weight of potato is slightly higher than water (1.05 to 1.1) if they are fresh!
If they are boiled, they exchange some water with stark and they suck up salt. If not – how do you explain, that they taste good (salty) after cooking. If water is missing in the casserole, then it is because of evaporation. (Heat – steam . .)
Boil them in a pressure cooker and you’ll see! By the way – if boiled in a pressure cooker, you’ll find a layer of jelly like product on the bottom – that’s the stark. Do not throw it away, it is wonderful to make gravy less liquid.

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over 1 year ago susan g

To taste as you go, do what I learned from the original Julia Child TV series: have tasting spoon in one hand, cooking spoon in the other; cooking spoon takes a dip from the pot, puts the 'taste' in your tasting spoon; taste and put your spoon aside for subsequent tastes; put the cooking spoon aside and continue cooking. Simple and clean.

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over 1 year ago Jack Murphy

You didn't answer the over salting problem!!!

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over 1 year ago I_Fortuna

This is what Ms. Lamb says about salt "While raw potatoes do indeed draw out some of the salt from a liquid, they also absorb a proportionate amount of liquid. Sorry, spud. If you dish is too salty, and dilution isn't helping, sweetness is usually the best way to balance it out."
You can halve the recipe, freeze it, and use half for a base the next time you make the dish.

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about 1 year ago Amanda Willis Rose Mercer

Over-seasoning specifically refers to over-salting 9/10, and the solutions given to over seasoning in the article are in fact solutions to over-salting

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over 1 year ago fran Sheps

What about over salting chicken soup?

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over 1 year ago Rosemary

A few weeks ago my husband made his famous chili bean recipe but I asked him to try a new tomato puree that I had purchased rather than his usual brand name tomato sauce. I was busy in another part of the house and when he called me down for dinner he explained that the puree had no flavor and encouraged me to taste it. I did and verified his findings. However when I tasted his chili beans he has obviously put too much lemon juice in as I could barely eat them. I think he was trying to bring out the taste of the tomato. He admonished me saying, it wasn't that acidy at all. I usually store them in canning jars in the refrigerator, but the next time we had them the acidy taste had disappeared. I was prepared to mix a little baking soda and water and encorporate it into the pan when I was (re) heating the chili beans, but I thought I would taste them first. To my surprise, the acidy taste had disappeared!
As a Home Economics major years ago in college she always recommended measuring the salt for a recipe over a clean empty container to avoid over pouring. When the "too much salt" question came up, the instructor suggested dividing the recipe in half and adding another set of the remaining ingredients to each thereby doubling the recipe but in two separate containers. Other than throwing out the ingredients or having something inedible, this seemed plausible.

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over 1 year ago Helen

I don't think you answered the question, 'how do save an oversalted dish?'

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over 1 year ago Amy Munoz

I didn't learn anything about oversalted dishes. The title is misleading.

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over 1 year ago Rebecca Barclay

If you really need to cool off your blistered tonque using cucumbers chopped or sliced will always work. experienced this first in Malaysia over chicken satay w/peanut sauce. The sauce was extremely hot and cukes were served with! Instantly took away the burn*!*

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23 days ago Sam Smith

Rebecca - I've used brown sugar, a 1/2 tsp at a time until I think it tastes right. That's helped every time.

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over 1 year ago maryanne

I always use dairy to cool down the fire, plus, I never salt until the recipe is completed, then I taste it and add salt if necessary. My biggest problem is with tomato sauce, I cannot seem to get rid of the acid when I am using canned tomatoes. I buy the best available but my sauce never taste right to me. I keep thinking it is the cans, but what are you suppose to do when your garden isn't growing and tomato's are not in season locally? I hate not having good pasta sauce six months out of the year!

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over 1 year ago I_Fortuna

A bit of sugar cuts acidity and also lessens the heat of a dish too spicy hot.

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over 1 year ago Bobbie Oakland

I sometimes put a fresh, sweet, good carrot in the sauce as it cooks and take it out before serving. An old, bland, tasteless carrot won't do. But sugar is the most reliable addition to neutralize acidity in tomatoes that I have found.

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over 1 year ago zindc

To correct for bitterness, honey is my go-to. If that makes the dish too sweet, some lemon balances it out.