Bring The Heat!
Cooking spicy food isn’t just about dumping a bunch of hot sauce or black pepper on your dish and calling it good—there is so much more to it! To help you understand the best way to approach cooking spicy foods (especially if you’re new to it), we’ve put together some of our favorite tips to help make sure your food isn’t too hot, or too mild, but just right for your taste!
Learn About Different Spices and Cuisines
Probably one of our favorite and arguably the most important tip for cooking spicy foods is to try to learn about and understand different kinds of spices and the cuisines they come from. It generally goes without saying but, in case you need a little refresher, spicy foods aren’t only limited to hot wings or salsa! For example, One Green Planet explains, that in Chinese cuisine, Szechuan food tends to be spicy from chili oil and Sichuan peppers. Japanese cuisine has spicy condiments such as wasabi and seasonings, like shichimi which is a combination of seven spices including red chili peppers, ginger and sansho (a japanese pepper). Some Thai dishes use a lot of chilis and peppers, like birds eye chilies and banana peppers. South Indian cuisine tends to be spicier than North Indian with lots of red chiles and dried chili powder. Cajun and Creole dishes use spice blends with cayenne, paprika and chili peppers. Mexican cuisine makes use of hot peppers such as habanero and jalapeños, while Jamaican food uses super-hot scotch bonnet peppers.
If you plan to cook spicy food, there are some spices, peppers and condiments you should definitely have in your pantry.
- Allspice is grown in Jamaica. Its aroma and taste is a little sweeter leading some to believe it’s not spicy. Its flavor is similar to a combination of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, so its spice is more warm than hot. Allspice is a key component to Jerk seasoning and is also often used in Middle Easter Cooking
- Chile Peppers come in a wide variety of heat levels from mild bell peppers to jalapeños to intensely hot habanero and Scotch bonnet peppers. You can check out our recent blog, Peppers That Pack A Punch, to learn more about different peppers, their heat levels, characteristics and the different dishes you can make with them.
- Crushed Red Peppers also known as red chili flakes or red pepper flakes, is made from a variety of red peppers such as ancho, bell and cayenne. You may know this spice from the shaker bottles on the tables at Italian restaurants and pizza places. However, the origin of red pepper flakes is India. While fresh chilis have direct heat and sweetness, dried chili pepper is more full-bodied and smoky.
- Curry Powder is a blend of spices including cumin, coriander, turmeric, fenugreek and many others. There are a variety of curry powders that differ in flavor and span a wide range of heat from mild to hot. Curry powder is used primary used in Indian, Thai, Jamaican and Japanese cuisine.
- Chile Powder, which is used in Mexican and Latin recipes, is also a blend of spices. It contains a variety of peppers as well as garlic, cumin and oregano and can also have different levels of heat depending on the blend.
- Ginger is used in Asian cuisine as well as in baking. It is warm and spicy. You may not think of ginger as a hot spice but too much of it can give your tastebuds a decent burn.
- Harissa is a Tunisian chili pepper paste. While widely used in Tunisia, it is also quite popular in other African Cuisines. It is typically used in Moroccan and Algerian dishes. Outside of Africa, Harissa can be found in Israeli cuisine and a very similar paste called Filfel Chuma, can be found in Libyan Cuisine. Harissa is usually made from grounded red birds eye chili peppers with olive oil, garlic, cumin and coriander.
- Hot Sauce, also known as chili sauce or pepper sauce refers to any spicy sauce condiment made from chili peppers and other ingredients. In the United States, hot sauces are typically made from chili pepper, vinegar and salt. The varieties of peppers that are used often are cayenne, chipotle, habanero and jalapeños.
- Sriracha hot sauce is a traditional Thai hot sauce made primarily of ground chilies, garlic, vinegar, sugar, and salt. Sriracha is often called “rooster sauce” after the most widely sold U.S. brand’s label.
- Wasabi is a hot condiment mainly eaten with sushi and other Asian food. It is a green variety of Japanese horseradish. You can buy wasabi in powder, paste and sauce.
If you've never really cooked or eaten spicy foods, start small! We don’t recommend jumping right in and dousing your food in Sriracha or munching on a scotch bonnet. If you’re cooking things like onion and garlic, try adding a pinch of crushed red pepper to your mixture. Spike your ketchup with a couple drops of hot sauce. Slowly, you can work up to fun, flavorful and spicier additions like fresh jalapeños or Schultz's Spicy Original Cooking Sauce!
Slow and Steady
If you’ve slowly started adding chili flakes and poblanos to your dishes and enjoyed the heat, we’re all for you continuing your spice journey! But just because you added a little heat and were able to handle it, doesn’t mean you should jump straight to fiery Carolina Reapers next. When you find a spice you enjoy, stick with it and slowly increase the heat level bit by bit. Try adding some deseeded jalapeños to your next dish. If you like the taste, add them to another dish but instead of taking the seeds out, leave a few in! Continue building your tolerance like this until you find the heat level that is right for you.
Heat On The Side
If you are concerned that your dish will be ruined if you don’t like the spice or you need to accommodate people with different heat tolerances, rather adding the spice to the dish as you cook, simply serve it on the side—think salsas, hot sauces, extra sliced peppers for toppings.
If you’ve gone overboard with the heat don’t worry! You don’t need to throw it away and order take out and you certainly don’t need to start over. There are a few different tips and tricks you can follow to try to fix your dish.
Add More Ingredients
The easiest way to tone down a dish that’s too spicy is to add more ingredients to lessen the proportion of the spicy element. If it’s a soup or stew, try adding more liquid. Add more vegetables, protein, or starches, too — whatever ingredient you have extra of.
Dairy is great at counteracting spiciness and can add a nice cooling effect. Many Mexican and Indian dishes tend to have sour cream or yogurt as well as lime and cilantro which all have cooling effects. If it works with the dish you can also try adding milk or cream but be careful—milk and cream can curdle when cooked at high temperatures. While Coconut milk technically isn’t dairy, it adds a great creaminess to dishes and can help cool them down.
We’re taking this trick from Thai cuisine, which happily uses lots of chiles. To counteract an over abundance of spice, a lot of Thai dishes use a liberal amount of acid from citrus and vinegar. Try adding a squeeze of lime or a dash of vinegar when taming your spicy dishes!
Add Something Sweet
Like acid, adding an element of sweetness to your dish can help counteract heat! Try adding a pinch of sugar or a teaspoon of honey to balance your dish. Of course, keep in mind you don’t want to add to much, otherwise your savory dish will wind up tasting too sweet—remember it’s not dessert!
Serve with Starch
To really cool your dish without throwing all the flavors out of wack, simply try serving it with something bland and starchy. Rice, pasta, crusty bread, and potatoes can help neutralize or dissolve the capsaicin (the compound that makes your food taste spicy) in your dish.