Cayenne pepper typically rates between 30,000 and 50,000 Scoville Heat Units (and sometimes hotter). To put that into perspective, jalapeño peppers range from 2,500 and 8,000 SHU. In short, a little cayenne pepper can go a long way. It also means that it is easy to use too much of it by accident. Too much cayenne pepper can render a dish inedible, but that excessive heat can be reversed. You have several options when it comes to toning down the spice.
Dilute the heat
If you are using cayenne in a soup or stew, it may be possible to reduce the heat level by making the spice less concentrated. In a chili, this could mean adding more tomatoes or tomato juice depending on what the recipe requires. In many dishes, you may be able to add stock or even just plain water. When diluting, remember that you may need to adjust the levels of other spices in the dish so that you do not mute their flavors.
Adding vinegar or other acids can help to dull the heat from cayenne. Of course, additional acid may not work in all dishes. It is often most effective in soups where it can help to balance other flavors. Your acid can come in the form of balsamic, rice or sherry vinegar depending on the dish. Non-vinegar options for additional acid include lemon juice or lime juice; these may be better for some dishes when compared to vinegar. For example, cayenne is a popular ingredient in many Latin American dishes; for those dishes, lime juice or (in a pinch) lemon juice may be more appropriate.
The heat from cayenne comes from capsaicin, which you can neutralize with dairy products. Capsaicin’s heat comes from the fact that it binds to nerve receptors. Dairy contains the casein compound that binds with the capsaicin oils allowing them to be dispersed and washed away from the nerve receptors. Dairy can be added to spicy dishes in numerous forms ranging from sour cream in chili con carne to yogurt accompaniments for curry.
You can add sweetness to your dishes to help ease excessive heat from cayenne pepper. Simply stir a little sugar or honey into the dish. When using sugar, many experts suggest brown sugar as the best option. Sugar is especially effective when you combine it with acid in the form of citrus or vinegar. If you are making a dish where pineapple would be an appropriate addition, consider adding some crushed pineapple for both acidity and sweetness.
Too much cayenne pepper in dishes like chili can be toned down with the addition of peanut butter. The fat in peanut butter helps to dull the heat from the peppers. Like dairy, peanut butter’s taste is subtle; it will usually not mute the flavors in a dish.
Neutral starches in the form of potatoes, carrots and other vegetables can work in some dishes to soak up the spice and are often very effective for removing excess spice in soups and stews. The benefit of potatoes is that you can use them even if they are not right for the dish, just remove them before serving.