Maybe I should be talking about chili or salsa or barbecue sauce here. But this Chilled Cucumber and Avocado Soup with Crab does indeed have heat to it, thanks to jalapenos, so it’s apropos. And besides, it’s a great last-minute addition to your Mother’s Day menu, being both drop-dead easy for you and ridiculously indulgent for mom.
So then, say you’re making a soup or a sauce or a chili and it turns out too spicy?
It’s easy enough to do. Chiles, and chile sauces, vary in their spiciness, as does the threshold for heat from one person to the next. I could write a recipe calling for, say, one jalapeno or one teaspoon of hot sauce and the jalapeno or hot sauce you use could be spicier or you could simply not appreciate the same amount of heat that I do. Or both.
So first, a few tips for keeping things cool in the first place.
1. Go easy.
Especially if you know you tend to like things mild, err on the side of caution and add less chile or hot sauce than a recipe calls for. You can always add more later.
2. Most of a chile’s heat is in the seeds and veins.
If you want to enjoy a chile’s flavor—they actually do have individual flavors besides “hot”—but not all its heat, cut the chile in half lengthwise, cut out the seeds and fleshy vein parts, then use only the remaining the milder parts, the “walls” of the chile.
3. Smaller chiles tend to have more heat.
Since smaller chiles have a higher proportion of seeds and veins to outer “walls,” they tend to be spicier. Makes sense, right? So if a recipe calls for fresno chiles—which are small-ish—and you know you like things on the mild side, try using poblanos or pasillas—which are large-ish—instead.
4. Always wear gloves when working with chiles.
This tip isn’t about your recipe, but it’ll help keep your body parts cool. I learned it the hard way, thinking I could get away with naked hands to slice a couple of jalapenos. But later that night, when I took out my contacts, I paid the price. My eyes immediately got red, teary, and burn-y. And I got to enjoy the experience all over again when I put on my contacts the next morning!
Even if you don’t wear contacts, if you touch your eyes, rub your nose, or even wash your face with hands that have touched chiles, you could be sorry. Disposable kitchen gloves are easily had at the supermarket these days, so why risk it? In a pinch, you can even use plastic produce bags over your hands as a barrier between you and the chiles.
All that said, if you you’re still feeling the burn in a spicy recipe, a few tips to help remedy the situation.
1. Dilute it.
With a soup, for example, add more liquid, more solids, or both. Or make a new batch, or a partial batch, omitting the spicy ingredients, then merge the two. (You may have heard that potatoes can mitigate heat. There’s nothing magic about potatoes—they’re just a version of diluting.)
2. Add dairy.
Dairy, however, is magic. Adding it to your dish will, obviously, dilute it. But dairy will also sort of absorb the heat, lessening your experience of heat more so than dilution alone. So try stirring milk, cream, or yogurt into a spicy soup or stew, for example, or serve a too-hot taco with a dollop of sour cream.
3. Add sweetness or acidity.
A little honey or sugar can help, say, a barbecue sauce or spicy tomato sauce, as can a splash of something acidic like lemon juice or vinegar. It won’t help as much as diluting or adding dairy and, depending on what you’re making, it might send your recipe in an odd direction.
Admittedly, none of these is ideal.
Not long ago I made a soup, using up some cauliflower and chiles that were rolling around in the refrigerator. It seemed like a nice enough combination, but the resulting soup was so hot, it was inedible. So I made another soup with broth, potatoes, and more cauliflower and merged the two. Still inedibly hot. So I stirred in some yogurt. Now it was just weird—this creamy, tangy, heat-bomb in my mouth. Plus, by then, I was a more than little sick of it. So I put myself out of my misery and tossed it.
Sometimes giving yourself permission to chalk it up to a learning experience and call for a pizza is the best fix of all.
P.S. After I published this post, my friend Gordon emailed to tell me about his Indian friend Dilip who’s made too-hot food work in his favor. Dilip notes that if you have unexpected guests and not enough food, adding chiles insures that no one can eat very much of it!