How can you make a sauce less spicy/hot?
Sometimes when I'm making a sauce or soup that needs to be a bit spicy, I have no troubles spicing how I want to.
But if the dinner party is a bit late, or I made the sauce in advance to really draw out all the flavors of the spices, vegetables and meat, sometimes I end up with a way too spicy/hot dish.
You can always pour a bit water and try to dilute it a bit, but that also takes away all of the good flavor. So is there some trick that I'm missing I can use, when this happens to me (other than being more careful or using the spices later)?
I will try the cream cheese in my leftovers and see what the results will be! I think it will calm down the spiciness!
In general, it is a good idea to go light on spices when trying a new recipe, if you're not intimately familiar with the flavor and spice combinations in question. It's a great deal easier to add spice later than it is to mask it once you've added too much.
Assuming you are reading this because you didn't do that, and have now ended up with a sauce that's far too spicy, then read on.
The pertinent question here is where is the spiciness coming from? There are actually several kinds of compounds that can produce that general aroma and/or sensation. In most dishes they'll tend to fall loosely into one or more of the following:
Piperine, which is the active alkaloid in black pepper. This has poor solubility in water, however, it has better solubility in alcohol. If you can incorporate wine or better yet, brandy or vodka or some other strong alcohol, this can go a long way toward reducing the heat from pepper.
Capsaicin, the heat-producing compound in most types of hot peppers, is the highest on the Scoville Scale; extremely piquant and can produce a "burning" sensation in very small quantities. It is also poorly soluble in water, but is far more soluble in fat, especially oils. Adding some olive oil or a good quantity of butter to your recipe is a good bet for reducing capsaicin/capsicum heat.
Garlic, onion, and other members of the Allium family put out a volatile sulfur compound called Allicin. Although this is not "spicy" in the same sense as pepper, many people perceive it as such. Like piperine, it is more soluble in alcohol than in water. However, and here's the catch: That allicin breaks down into various polysulfides when cooked, and those polysulfides are fat soluble. So if you're trying to mask a strong garlic or onion flavour, it's best if you can add alcohol and fat to cover all your bases.
If you've added too much Ginger - another ingredient often perceived as spicy - then you're dealing with Gingerols and Shoagols, the latter of which pack a much bigger punch. One of the things you can actually do with ginger is cook the spice off which converts those into much milder Zingerone. In other words, add some water to the sauce and then boil it to reduce the sauce again - you'll lose some flavour but in the process you'll break down the ginger spice.
Alternatively (for ginger), all of the above compounds are alkali soluble, so if you add a buffering agent - say, Trisodium citrate (additive E331), it will improve the solubility a great deal. If, like most people, you don't happen to keep food additives in your kitchen, you can try using something like baking soda, but too much of that will completely ruin the taste, so be careful. In fact, don't add too much of any buffer because the acidity of most sauces is an integral part of their flavor.
I think that about covers it for common "spicy stuff" that goes in sauces. If you want to fix a dish that's too spicy, you need to know where the spice is coming from and choose what's most appropriate for that particular sauce.
You can also try to mask or balance the spice with something sweet, for example roasted vegetables or plain old sugar. That will not eliminate the heat at all, but does seem to make it more tolerable for many.
I have to strongly *disagree* with adding anything acidic. Acid cuts through fat and allows the chemicals which make hot hurt to coat the mouth even more. There's a reason that the number one ingredient in any hot sauce is vinegar. It makes it burn. Go with sweet. Sugar and honey are ideal. A pinch of cornstarch or more grains would also help, but that probably involves changing the dish. Cream, fat, cheese, and yogurt are also great picks (just make sure the yogurt doesn't separate, which happens in a very acidic sauce or with a very thin yogurt).
Note: **I have completely rewritten this answer**, so please ignore some of the comments above. I stumbled upon this answer again several months later and realized that the original was, frankly, lousy. This version should be way more helpful.
+1 Just added a big chunk of butter to an overly spicy (via pepper and peppers) sauce - smoothed out the spicy-level very lovingly!
very interesting answer...but let me ask this (could probably be a separate question): when you add alcohol to dilute piperine, and then cook off (and evaporate) the alcohol, does the spicy flavor intensify again, or remain dulled?
@Aaronut, how does Sichuan Peppercorn (with its heat coming from Hydroxy-alpha sanshool, rather than piperine) fit in here?
@Aaronut how does adding a solvent, without subsequently removing it, attenuate the spiciness? Does it just facilitate moving the compounds away from the tongue, block the receptors, or is there some other mechanism?
@Steve: Sure it does, as you're diluting it. Same way adding water to juice or pop will make it taste flatter.
Thank you Aaronut! I had a jar of Thai green curry sauce that was three-chillies symbol hot, and my wife doesn't eat spicy things... I tried adding less curry to the coconut milk, but then there wasn't any flavour and it was still waaay too spicy for her. But because of your advice, I first cooked the curry with a tonne of oil and the oil turned green and drew out absolutely all of the spice from the chillies (I put the oil aside for future personal use), leaving the rest of the flavours in the curry. We had a perfect Thai green curry without spiciness because of you. THANK YOU!