If you’re cooking something like a soup, sauce or stew and you discover upon tasting that it’s too sweet, you’re not alone. Messing up the seasoning is one of the most common kitchen mistakes that home cooks make.
Usually it has to do with not seasoning enough, although over salting is another common slip-up. Still, you may occasionally add too much sugar or another sweet ingredient (for example, using sweetened condensed milk instead of evaporated milk). Even just mistaking sugar for salt can happen to the best of us. However, it happens, too much sugar can ruin a dish as easily as too much salt.
If you’re in this boat, it’s important to remember that you can’t remove sugar from a recipe. Once it’s in, it’s in. Nor can you add another ingredient to cancel out the sweetness. You can balance out the sweetness, but you can’t eliminate it.
Taste as You Go. A dish can wind up overly sweet because you added more than the recipe called for or the original amount was actually too much—either because of a typographical error in the recipe or because of personal preference. To a certain extent, “too much sugar” is a subjective judgment.
Either way—and it’s easy to say this after the fact—but it’s crucial to taste as you go while cooking. When you’re making a sauce, soup, or stew that features, say, 1/4 cup or more of sugar, begin by adding half of what’s called for, taste, and if it needs more, add the rest a little at a time, tasting after each addition.
Obviously, this won’t work with all recipes and 1/4 cup is just an example, but the main takeaway is to add sugar with care. (The same is true of salt as well as spicy ingredients like cayenne pepper.)
What happens when you didn’t do that? First, you’ll have to decide if the dish is just a little too sweet—in which case fixing it is a matter of balancing things out with other seasonings—or if it’s way too sweet, which may call for more drastic measures.
Balance Out the Flavors. To round out the sweetness, try adding flavors or ingredients that are sour, bitter, or spicy. It may be obvious not to add more sweet ingredients, but you should also stay away from salty ones because they actually brings out the sweetness in food.
Sour: The general go-to here would be lemon juice, although lime will also work. Orange juice will only add more sweetness as will some vinegars. White wine vinegar, red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar are good choices, but shy away from balsamic, because of its inherent sweetness.
Bitter: There are plenty of foods that taste bitter, but it’s difficult to add pure bitterness as a way of balancing out sweetness, without also adding a large amount of, say, kale, arugula, or radicchio. The solution: unsweetened cocoa powder. If you’re working with two quarts of sauce, start with 1 teaspoon of cocoa powder and work your way up. Remember, the sweetness isn’t going to go away, you’re just looking to balance it.
Spicy: Whether it’s a hot sauce, chile peppers, or ground dried chiles, adding something with a kick may do the trick. Again, it won’t erase the sweetness, but it will provide a counterpoint to it. Take care, of course, not to go overboard with the chiles, or you’ll have another flavor problem on your hands.
Dilute the Original Dish. Finally, if your sauce, soup, or stew is overly sweet, you will have to face the difficult choice of whether to dilute it or discard it.
Double the Recipe: This simply means adding more of a main ingredient. For example, if you’re making spaghetti sauce and the recipe calls for two cans of crushed tomatoes, add two more cans of crushed tomatoes. You might have to adjust other flavorings and seasonings, but by doubling the amount of tomatoes, you’ve instantly halved the amount of sugar in the sauce.
Discard Half: Depending on what stage you’re at in the cooking process, this option may be less feasible. Again, using the example above, you would discard half the sauce, then add one new can of crushed tomatoes. You’ve halved the sweetness but left the total volume of sauce the same.
Discard the Whole Thing and Start Over: This is never anyone’s first choice, but sometimes a dish simply can’t be saved and its destiny lies somewhere in the compost bucket. Never fear, though. We’ve all been there and while no one loves throwing away food, sometimes it’s the pain of our mistakes that helps us learn to avoid repeating them.