If you're cooking something savory like 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.
Sometimes cooks add too much sugar or another sweet ingredient, or mistakenly add the wrong, sweeter 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 threaten to ruin a dish.
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. But you can balance out the sweetness, making it taste less sweet.
Balance Out the Flavors
If your dish is a little too sweet, try rounding out the sweetness by 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 since they actually bring 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 kinds of vinegar. 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 number of ingredients like 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. This can help the dish taste less sweet even though it has the same amount of sweetener. Don't add too much or your dish will have a chocolatey taste.
Spicy: Whether it's a hot sauce, chile peppers, or ground dried chiles, adding something with a kick may do the trick. Take care not to go overboard with the chiles or you'll have another flavor problem on your hands.
Dilute the Original Dish
If your dish is way too sweet or the tactics above didn't work, 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 the 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 and don't add any extra sweetener. You might have to adjust other flavorings and seasonings, but by doubling the number of tomatoes, you've instantly halved the amount of sugar in the sauce. This means it will taste half as sweet. Save the extra sauce for another dish or freeze for later.
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 have the same volume of sauce.
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. If none of the tricks above work, it might me time to start over. Learn from your mistakes and try again.
Tips for Next Time
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—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 and sweeteners with care. The same is true of salt as well as spicy ingredients like cayenne pepper. Once seasonings are added to a dish, they can't be taken out!