Friday, September 28, 2012

Balsamic Caramelized Onions & How to Make Food Less Spicy

Did you get heavy handed with the pepper?  Is your favorite ethnic take out food unusually spicy this week?  Did that jalapeno pepper turn out to be a lot hotter than you originally thought?  Well, fret not! Cooking is an art and you can fix just about anything that isn't burnt.

After having quite a bit of Mexican Pesto leftover from the Hominy and Corn Chowder with Mexican Pesto, I thought I'd remix it by throwing it in the blender with some chipotle peppers and sun dried tomatoes.  I then used the pesto as a sauce for a box of whole wheat spaghetti.  When I tasted the final product, it was hot!  Like, so hot that my nostrils were tingling and I had to add cheese, drink milk, and take breaks to finish eating it.

That night, I went back to the drawing board and thought about how I would salvage this dish. As mentioned in this article, How to Make Hot Peppers Stop Burning, I knew I had the following options:

  • Add dairy products such as milk, yogurt, cheese, or sour cream: The casein in dairy products breaks down the capsaicin in spicy food.
  • Dilute:  Adding more food will change the ratio of spice to food and reduce the spiciness of the dish.  
  • Acid: Acids such as citrus fruits, vinegar, and tomatoes will help to neutralize the alkaline activity in capsaicinoid.
  • Carbohydrates: This includes bread, rice, pasta, crackers, tortillas, beer (it's made from grains), potatoes, corn, and sugar.  According to Dr. Helmenstine, "Carbs provide a barrier between your mouth and some of the capsaicin so less of it contacts your tongue, lips, etc. The sugars in the carbohydrates may also help to lessen the activity of the capsaicinoids" (2012, How to Make Peppers Stop Burning).

For my pasta, I decided to add balsamic caramelized onions for sweetness and acid.  I added about 3/4 cup of grated carrots glazed in a tablespoon of vanilla Greek yogurt for my dairy component and to dilute the dish with vegetables.  I added another box of whole wheat spaghetti to dilute the dish with more pasta (carbohydrates).  I added a large can of crushed tomatoes for more acid.  I also added sauteed spinach, diced olives, diced artichokes, and julienned red bell peppers to further dilute the dish.  The final dish was hearty, flavorful, and it wasn't even the least bit spicy.  I offered some to a friend who dropped by my house.  She added hot sauce to hers and raved about how good the spaghetti was.  Oh, the irony...

The methods applied here have universal application for making food less spicy. 

Balsamic Caramelized Onions


  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves, chopped
  • 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

In a large skillet, melt the butter and olive oil.  Add the onion and oregano, cover and cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes.  Add 2 tablespoons of water to the skillet and cook over moderate heat until the onion is caramelized, about 10 minutes (add a few extra tablespoons of water to the skillet if necessary).  Add the balsamic vinegar and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until has evaporated, about 10 minutes.  Season the onion with salt and pepper.

Note: Balsamic caramelized onions are great in sandwiches and pasta, on pizza, mixed in with vegetables, or as a side dish.


  1. I have to try your recipe for caramelized onions! I have never used balsamic vinegar before when making caramelized onions but I know this will be an excellent addition to many dishes.

    1. Hal, they are delicious and especially great on pizza and sandwiches.

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