What Is Cream Of Tartar?

Hint: It comes from wine.

You add it to meringues and snickerdoodles, it sometimes appears in the ingredient list for caramel sauces or fudge, but what is it? It looks like cornstarch or baking powder, and is typically sold in the spice aisle at the grocery store, but does it even have a flavor? And you might wonder if it's worth purchasing—what exactly does it do in baked goods? The short answer is that cream of tartar does more than you might think. Sure, it's sometimes optional, but a pinch of it is often the secret to nailing the right texture and can help stabilize certain egg-white based desserts. From where it comes from to why you use it, we’ll break down this mystery ingredient that is probably hanging out in your pantry right now. 

Cream of Tartar

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What Is Cream of Tartar? 

Cream of tartar is a byproduct of the wine making process. It's an acid that was once used in combination with baking soda and cornstarch to make baking powder. Cream of tartar comes from naturally occuring tartaric acid in grapes (hence the name) and through the wine fermentation process becomes potassium bitartrate, the scientific name for cream of tartar.

Why Is It Used in Baking?

One of its most common uses in baking is to stabilize whipped egg whites, like in a meringue. Just a small amount (like a 1/4 teaspoon), can help speed up the whipping process and help the whipped egg proteins hold onto that air. While you can make a meringue without it, using cream of tartar is a good insurance policy that it won't weep. You can also use a pinch in whipped cream to help avoid it from deflating.

Cream of tartar is used in caramel sauces and fudge to help prevent the sugar from crystallizing while cooking. It also prevents cooling sugars from forming brittle crystals, this is why it's the secret ingredient in snickerdoodles! Snickerdoodles are basically sugar cookies with cinnamon, but with the addition of cream of tartar, the cookies stay soft and chewy, instead of crunchy or slightly brittle like a regular sugar cookie. It also adds a slight tang that balances out the sweetness.

Cream of tartar also helps prevent browning, which doesn't sound like it would be a useful thing, but in desserts like an angel food cake, it ensures a snowy white sponge every time.

Frequently Asked Questions

You've probably wondered about at least one of these questions while baking, so we thought we'd provide some answers.

What happens if I leave out cream of tartar?

If you don't have cream of tartar and you leave it out, it doesn't always spell disaster. If you leave it out of a meringue, it can still whip up just fine, but you won't have the added insurance that cream of tartar provides against deflating and weeping. Same goes for its use in candies like fudge or caramel sauces, they can both turn out just fine, but you run a slightly greater risk of crystallization. In the case of snickerdoodle cookies, it can impact the texture of the cookies, and might not be as soft or chewy, but will still be totally edible.

What can you substitute for cream of tartar?

This depends on its intended use. If you are using cream of tartar to stabilize egg whites, then replace 1/4 teaspoon of it with 1 teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice. If using to prevent sugar crystallization, you can use an invert sugar instead. Invert sugars, like honey or corn syrup, are a different kind of sugar than granulated white sugar and can help prevent crystallization when substituted for some of the sugar in recipes like fudge or a caramel sauce. Try swapping a fourth of the sugar in the recipe for honey or corn syrup next time you run out of cream of tartar. If the recipe calls for cream of tartar with baking soda as a leavening agent (like in a snickerdoodle), just substitute baking powder for both quantities.

Is cream of tartar the same as baking soda?

No, but the confusion is understandable. Cream of tartar was once used with baking soda to make baking powder. Visually, they look very similar, but while baking soda is a base with a high pH (remember the pH scale from chemistry class?), cream of tartar is an acid, which is why together they can help leaven baked goods. So no, they aren't the same and can't be used interchangeably, but can be used in tandem.

What is cream of tartar's shelf-life?

Cream of tartar doesn't really go bad as long as it's kept in a cool, dry place. That said, over time it will lose potency, so maybe toss it out if you bought it last decade.

Recipes That Use Cream of Tartar

Try one of these recipes that use cream of tartar to achieve the perfect taste and texture.

Meringue

Mastering a meringue is a great baking fundamental to have in your back pocket.

Angel Food Cake

A classic cake that cream of tartar helps keep light, fluffy, and bright white.

Smoky Greens Soufflé

Cream of tartar isn't only for baking. In this recipe it helps makes a savory soufflé nice and airy.

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