Kitchen Hacks

How to Save an Overly Salty or Spicy Dish

April  1, 2014

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

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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...

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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!

75 Comments

Dory September 25, 2018
Help! I made two large pans of eggplant lasagna (with spinach and mushrooms too...no noodles, no meat). I salted each of the, oh, 100 or so paper-thin slices of eggplant and let them sit, then drained the water off, patted them dry individually with paper towels, and grilled them a bit before assembling my pans of lasagna and pre-baking them, to be reheated later before serving to guests. We took a tiny sliver off the end to taste. WAY TOO SALTY!!!! What now?!?! Help!
 
Dr.Insomnia September 25, 2018
There's no fix for this that I can imagine. I recommend taking individual slices and cooking in another dish, like a frittata (with minimal added salt). Use the eggplant lasagna as a filling inside of an undersalted pastry crust, or anywhere else where it's a filling or topping that can be diluted by the surrounding package.<br /><br />In the future, keep in mind that the amount of salt you need is relative to the volume of the food. If you make very thin slices, especially of a vegetable that's 90% water that is going to cook off, you're going to be left with a very salty remnant. It's about surface-area to volume ratio.<br /><br />A safe way to control yourself is to set up a mise en place ahead of time with the amount of salt that would be reasonable for cooking a whole eggplant, say if it was thick-sliced.
 
Dory September 25, 2018
Thank you for your timely reply! I think I'm going to take your advice and make several frittatas with the lasagna. You are also to be thanked for the epiphany I had while reading your response. I suddenly realized that, while I'm extremely organized at work, I must confess that I'm ridiculously random in the kitchen, leading to frequent disasters. Setting up a mise en place never occurs to me. Seriously. So, I'm going to make myself a little kitchen sign to remind me, and convert to this new religion. Now, can you help me with my six months of horrendous insomnia?
 
Dr.Insomnia September 25, 2018
Making mise is something I picked up from restaurant work. I don't always stick faithfully to it. But I can guarantee that if I make a mistake (like the time I used baking powder instead of cornstarch in a stir fry), or forget an ingredient, it's because I was rushing and grabbing things out of the cabinet in the middle of cooking. It ends up costing more time to work that way, causes more mistakes, and can also be very dangerous. I made a stir fry this week and nearly sliced my finger because I was rushing to cut mushrooms while cooking other parts of the stir fry. If you do your cutting all at once, you get in a safe rhythm of cutting. If you do all of your frying at once, you get in a safe rhythm of frying. If you make your mise ahead of time, you see all of the ingredients laid out in front of you, have time to catch mistakes, and also have more ability to be creative because you've seen the full palate.<br /><br />As for your insomnia, the best suggestion I can make is to not work yourself up about it (I'm a Ph.D. who happens to suffer from insomnia, not an insomnia doctor). If you can't sleep, be productive with that time, instead of dwelling on the inability to sleep. Pick up that book you've been putting off reading (the boring one that puts you to sleep). Some people say meditate, but I'm terrible at meditation. I do find deep breathing exercises and trying to have productive thoughts helps me out. And exercising regularly is a big key for me. Physical exhaustion helps a lot when you aren't mentally exhausted enough to shut off.
 
Dory September 26, 2018
This was such a thorough and thoughtful (those aren't necessarily redundant, are they?) reply that I was taken aback. Also incredibly grateful. I was glad that you continued the argument for mise en place even though I had already converted. It doesn't come naturally to me and really needed the reminder about nearly hacking off body parts when things are chaotic. And I think being disorganized around cooking has been a subconscious ploy to remain true to myself as a creative person (yes, you're following a recipe but look, you're juggling the knives and throwing salt around); a ploy that is old and inefficient. And thank you for the sleeping advice that didn't include any potions (they all give me hallucinations). I'm constantly getting up and reading or doing things that I need to do, but I would love to wake up after an 8 or even 7 hour stretch of sleep. Today I will take your advice and try to wear myself out physically. I'm quite fit, but perhaps a bit easy on myself in the exercise department. Thanks again.<br />
 
Patricia T. August 12, 2018
HELP, please. I just made a huge pot of Slumgullion that is extremely hot. I tried lemon juice, ketchup, vinegar, sugar and just added raw potatoes that supposedly will absorb the heat. Company will be here in two hours, is there anything els I can do? Amazingly the taste is still very good except for the heat. Thank you for your help!
 
Dr.Insomnia August 12, 2018
If you've tried acids and sugars, the only other thing to do is dilute it with more water. At that point you can add more acids, sugars, and salt to help balance the heat.
 
Martin R. August 6, 2018
Curiosity didn't leave me alone.... Had no fish around, so I tried with scallops (coquille saint Jacques) so I tried with the creamy soy sauce. It has sugar in it and is capable for neutralizing many things. Seafood tastes more exotic, but.... :The color changes to light brown. Let me know!
 
LeaSha August 6, 2018
I tried some sugar and it did help a little, but the sour flavor was too overpowering to really fix it. Thanks for your help!
 
Martin R. August 5, 2018
No experience with this kind of situation....sorry & good luck.
 
Martin R. August 5, 2018
No experience with that, sorry....& good luck!
 
LeaSha August 5, 2018
Ok. Thanks anyway.
 
LeaSha August 5, 2018
Any tips for balancing out the flavor of an Asian fish stew that is much too sour?
 
Dr.Insomnia August 5, 2018
I think the only way to counteract sour is to add sweetness. So you'll end up with a sweet & sour stew.
 
Cathi April 24, 2018
I made a Scallop Casserole that called for seafood broth, The seafood taste is so strong & salty it's impossible to eat. It was a very large & expensive dish. Is there anyway to correct this with out having to throw it out? Pl;ease help.
 
zora April 24, 2018
What else is in it? Can you drain off any of the broth? It's hard to know what to suggest without having more information. Tomato? Rice? Cream?
 
Sandy F. January 28, 2018
I use a spoonful or so of cocoa if something is too spicy.
 
Rita January 4, 2018
How about too much Italian seasoning in my soup.<br />
 
Mary April 14, 2017
I bought beef tounge but it's to salty and tried to clean not going off the salt need advice please?
 
Dr.Insomnia February 27, 2017
This is generally good but the best advice is toward the end, which is to taste as you go. The big thing I find you have to be careful for is being aware of the amount of salt around in the ingredients you add, like condiments, or canned stock and vegetables. This becomes more of a problem if you're reducing the liquid a lot. It may not seem salty at first, but it may become saltier as you reduce the liquid, so be careful with that last dash of salt before serving.<br /><br />And don't blindly follow the salt guidelines on a recipe unless you're sure that the ingredients you're using are identical to what is called for in the recipe.
 
maggie T. February 14, 2017
I made a pork loin roast and over peppered it-I don't do hot spice anything ever so after reading many of these comments I tried the sugar and lemon-I used about 5 table spoons of sugar and just eyeballed the lemon juice-it did the trick-I would off hated to throw out an entire pork roast<br />
 
Leigh October 30, 2016
I made a gumbo that I overspiced. And didn't thicken enough. Added a potato, 2 carrots and a tbs of sugar. Worked like a charm. Its not a myth. It does work in certain circumstances.
 
Bo October 4, 2016
Hi everyone <br />Salty dish, no problem <br />Just add 1 packet of stevia and 2-3 tbs of any kind of plain yogurt <br />Problem solved <br />I made beef stew that was really salty, after adding stevia and plain yogurt, the stew was delicious <br />I hope my idea will help everyone with salty food
 
Kimberly P. September 13, 2016
I just made crab soup and added too much old Bay it's a vegetable crab soup but way to spicy help
 
Steve B. June 7, 2016
The 'potato myth', i.e. add a potato to draw out the salt, I don't know where you got your info from.....it's not a myth, it works. I leave my potatoes as big as possible depending on how much liquid I have in the pan....
 
Samantha April 11, 2016
Awesome just made a homemade seasoning for my baked chicken and added to much salt! I used lemon juice from fresh lemon and a little sweet n low and it is way better!! Awesome advice on sweeting it up!
 
rdswysd4 June 14, 2016
I'd rather have the salt than sweetNlow. Please do research on Excitotoxins.
 
kathleen K. November 28, 2016
Use stevia, a natural sweetener rather than sweet n low - same concept and better for you. Too much salt is too much.<br />
 
Dale C. March 16, 2016
I made beef and broccoli and it came out salty. I didn't add any salt so it must have been some of the ingredients. So I added the juice of one lemon a little at a time and a spoonful of sugar and it absolutely worked it mellowed the salty taste and added just a hint of sweetness to the dish! Thanks for the tip.
 
Janette March 15, 2016
Help! I added too much Italian Seasoning
 
Martin R. March 16, 2016
Hello Janette, add German seasoning! These two nations together create a good emotional average! ;)
 
Bob C. February 21, 2016
I can't speak to over salting but I just made a stew that I put away too much pepper in. IT WAS LIKE MAGIC had occurred after I put a Tablespoon of Lemon Juice and a likewise amount of sugar. THE PEPPER mellowed right out and the stew is delicious!!! I am so surprised and pleased :-)
 
Martin R. February 22, 2016
Hello Bob<br />Thank you for this interesting idea, I have to run this on a experimental base as soon as possible. could help in many cases, since the invention of the motor driven pepper grinder I tend to overuse it. Regards, <br />Martin from Switzerland