Kitchen Confidence

How to Save an Overly Salty or Spicy Dish

By • April 1, 2014 • 26 Comments

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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!

Jump to Comments (26)

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

Comments (26)

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8 days 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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5 months 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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5 months 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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5 months ago Jack Murphy

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

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5 months 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.

Stringio

2 months 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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5 months ago fran Sheps

What about over salting chicken soup?

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5 months 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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5 months ago Helen

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

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5 months ago Amy Munoz

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

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5 months 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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5 months 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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5 months ago I_Fortuna

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

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5 months 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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5 months ago zindc

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

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5 months ago I_Fortuna

The longer something is cooked the saltier it gets. There is natural salt in some foods so I only put a small amount of salt in my cooking if any. Canned and frozen foods have a good amount of salt in them so adjust accordingly. Taste, Taste, Taste your cooking. I can't believe how many people complain about their own cooking and never taste it during the process. As for roasts, I am not sure how these can be messed up. The outside is the only part seasoned in my kitchen. I am not sure how everyone else does theirs. The more one lays off the table salt the more one will taste the salt already there. Let your guests season their own plate, that is why we have salt and pepper shakers.

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5 months ago cookinalong

The only way something gets saltier as it cooks is if there is salt in there to begin with and evaporation concentrates it. E.g. soup or sauce that's been salted. Otherwise, there's no magic that produces sodium as something cooks. Plain frozen vegetables generally don't have added salt, it's usually the ones with prepared sauces or seasoning mixes included. As for canned stuff, it's on the label and most things like corn or tomatoes are available in salt free. Agree totally that you have to taste as you go. Avoids unpleasant surprises in the end! I think some people are germophobic & worry about contaminating the food. I say, if you've got a cold or bubonic plague, use a clean spoon each time you taste and stop worrying! However, I disagree about the salt issue. I think most people under-salt. Especially pasta, usually because they don't add enough salt to the cooking water. Then, no matter what sauce you serve with it, it's going to taste flat. Foods in their natural state usually contain only trace amts. of sodium, the only time you need to worry about salt overload is when cooking with prepared ingredients or sauces. Salting (and seasoning) as well as tasting as you go is the way to end up with a dish you're happy with. That way, you can stop when it's salty or spicy enough for you and you don't have to make "repairs".

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5 months ago I_Fortuna

Yes, evaporation concentrates the food and thus it tastes saltier. If one adds more salt at the beginning then one cannot have a true indication of the saltiness at the end of cooking.
There are salts and minerals that naturally occur in most foods giving them a more salty flavor. Yes, the more processed, such as veggies with sauces and such have more salt, a lot. Yes, one can get low salt veggies in the can, but since salt acts as a preservative it is still used in certain amounts especially in canned, which I rarely buy. Tomatoes can have less salt because of their acidity. If one is like us, and older, it is necessary to watch the salt content of everything. If I butter my veggies I don't add salt because there is salt in the butter if using salted butter. With the various meals we have during the day, sodium adds up. If one eats out, forget it. Most, restaurants add a lot of salt and sugar to the food. I did not say, don't add salt, I said to taste it. Add toward the end of cooking, it is then that one can adjust the seasoning. Hubby hardly ever salts his food and I use very little. He says it is not needed, so everyone is different. His tastes are more sensitive. It has to be adjusted with much less salt because everyone including one's guests tastes are all different. Some like very salty food. My brother, for instance use to salt his fish filets. I never would, I would use lemon. And, I still say, after having done this myself, that one can taste the salt that naturally occurs in some foods if one is not too heavy handed with the salt shaker. One's taste buds can adjust to using less salt. I often use fresh lemon juice and it enhances the saltiness of almost all foods that it can be used on or in, especially fish. And, smokers cannot generally taste their food fully the same as non-smokers. It can take years for smokers to get their taste back fully and then sometimes not very much. Have you ever heard of a food critic that smokes?
If one uses hot sauce or chiles to excess in certain recipes, then the other subtle flavors may be lost. And, I do believe in using herbs and spices in cooking and this also means I need only use a little salt. Once one has been cooking for a long time one does not have to repair a dish now and then, if ever.

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6 months ago Gerald5001

But what if the food is cooked and then you find out that it is to saltly (not counting soups)?

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6 months ago Tereza

Thanks for sharing these tips! Will definitely come in handy

http://lifeandcity.tumblr...

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6 months ago sweetlolo

I recently read a great seasoning correction on the Hotline - someone had posted asking how to correct for too much vinegar in a dish, and it happens I had just made a very (too) vinegary stew. The answer was to add a very small amount of baking soda to neutralize the acid. Worked like a charm. Unfortunately I've forgotten who posted the answer, so can't credit them, but thanks for the great solution.

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6 months ago Catherine Lamb

Catherine is the Community Manager at Food52.

That's such a great tip!

Stringio

6 months ago Jordan McNary

what about over salted cooked meats, like roast chicken, grilled steak or pork chop?

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6 months ago Catherine Lamb

Catherine is the Community Manager at Food52.

Those are a lot harder to correct, as there's no real way to dilute them (unless you want to make it into a hash or salad). Try adding citrus or serving with a tart yogurt sauce, or even adding in a bit of sugar or maple syrup to make a glaze.

Stringio

6 months ago Jordan McNary

Great ideas, thank you!

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6 months ago Dlgoldie

If it's a soup or a saucy dish, remove some of the soup or sauce and replace with stock or broth. Save what you remove and use it as the base for another dish.