What is Cream of Tartar?

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Keeping a small jar of cream of tartar in your pantry is a crucial baking ingredient. But what is it, and why is it used for cookies, meringues, pies, and other delicious treats? A little bit makes a big taste impact!

What is cream of tartar and how to use it.

When I first came across cream of tartar, I was making a batch of snickerdoodle cookies. It seemed foreign to me at the time, but ever since, I’ve always stashed a jar in my kitchen. Potassium bitartrate, a byproduct of the winemaking process, has revolutionized baking. The most underrated ingredient in baking, we use it without even realizing it! The tangy white powder has a wide range of functions.

Cream of tartar is one of the main ingredients in baking powder, along with baking soda, to give cakes and cookies rise and structure. As a stand-alone ingredient, you can add it to egg whites for more stable whipping capabilities, prevent sugars in syrups from crystalizing, enhance flavors in baked goods, and use it to make buttermilk.

What is cream of tartar made of?

Grapes naturally contain tartaric acid, a mellow, sour-tasting fruit component. Cream of tartar is a byproduct of winemaking. The tartaric acid is neutralized with potassium hydroxide, which creates potassium bitartrate, also known as potassium hydrogen tartrate.

The white crystals are finely ground into a white powder. The clean acidity makes it a versatile ingredient to add to baked goods.

Person adding a tablespoon of cream of tartar to a bowl of flour.

What is cream of tartar used for?

  • Leavening Agent: It’s most famously added as the acid component with alkaline baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) to create baking powder. When the ingredients are hydrated, they react to form carbon dioxide bubbles to help baked goods rise. To make 1 teaspoon baking powder, combine ½ teaspoon cream of tartar plus ¼ teaspoon baking soda.
  • Sugar Solutions: Use when making sugar syrups for sauces, caramels, frostings, icing, and candies. A little bit of acid prevents sugar from crystalizing as it cools down. The acid breaks sucrose into glucose and fructose in a process called inversion. The smaller molecules make it harder for larger crystals to form.
  • Chewy Cookies: In cookies, the acid prevents the sugars in the recipe from crystallizing and turning crispy. This adds chewiness and tang to snickerdoodle cookies.
  • Egg White Stabilizer: The acidity of tartaric acid lowers the pH of whipped egg whites, making the egg proteins unfold. This creates a more robust network of water and air pockets, adding volume and stability. This prevents meringue toppings from “weeping” or expelling liquid. It also gives a shinier appearance. Stablizies meringue cookies and macarons. Use about ⅛ teaspoon per large egg white.
  • Whipped Cream: A pinch can help stabilize whipped cream, just like egg whites. Don’t add too much or the cream will taste sour.
  • Prevent Browning: The tartaric acid binds to the sugar molecules, which prevents browning. This works great for sugar cookies when you want a lighter hue for decorating. It keeps white cakes and angel food cake bright in color.
  • Acidulant: Used to make buttermilk substitutes. It acidifies milk for a clean, tangy flavor. Over time, it will also thicken the liquid, coagulating some of the proteins in the milk. Add 1 ¾ teaspoon cream of tartar to 1 cup of milk.

Substitutes for cream of tartar

If you don’t have any cream of tartar on hand, don’t worry, you have a few options. Lemon juice, distilled white vinegar, and baking powder are common household ingredients that can be swapped in depending on the recipe.

  • Leavening Agent: Use double the amount of lemon juice or vinegar for the cream of tartar in the baked goods recipe. For example, 1 teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar for every ½ teaspoon of cream of tartar. Vinegar will impact the taste in high amounts. Alternatively, swap out 1 teaspoon of baking powder for every ½ teaspoon of cream of tartar and ½ teaspoon of baking soda.
  • Stabilizing Whipped Egg Whites: Substitute ¼ teaspoon lemon juice or white vinegar per one large egg white. You need double the amount of cream of tartar.
  • Preventing Crystallization: In liquid sugar solutions, omit the cream of tartar and replace ¼ of the sugar in the recipe with corn syrup. It’s already an invert sugar that will prevent crystallization.
Clear glass jar labeled with cream of tartar.

Ways to use cream of tartar

Frequently asked questions

What is cream of tartar’s shelf-life?

Stored in a cool and dry area, it can be used indefinitely. The powder should be white and have a mild acidic aroma.

Is cream of tartar the same as baking powder?

No, cream of tartar can be used as the acidic component in baking powder. Baking soda must be added as an alkaline ingredient for any bubbling reaction.

Can cream of tartar be used for cleaning?

It can be used as a nontoxic household cleaning product. Make a paste with water to polish stainless steel and aluminum pans. Polish copper by mixing equal parts lemon juice and cream of tartar, then rinse. Slean porcelain sinks with a mixture of equal amounts of vinegar and cream of tartar.

Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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