What is Cream of Tartar: uses and substitutions

Cream of Tartar is one of those strange ingredients called for in lots of recipes but you probably have no clue what it is or why we use it. We’re going to do a deep dive today: learn what is cream of tartar and how to use it!

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bottle of cream of tartar

What is cream of tartar?

Scientifically, cream of tartar is potassium bitartrate, AKA potassium hydrogen tartrate, a byproduct of winemaking. It’s an acid similar to lemon or vinegar, often used in baking or in cleaning. You find it in the spice aisle; it’s a white powder not unlike baking soda or baking powder in look and texture.

It’s kind of a mystery ingredient, one that you may have in your pantry but have no idea when or why to use it. But cream of tartar has so many uses, especially in baking, and just a bit of it can make a huge difference in recipes that call for it.

This miracle ingredient that can improve baked goods and help you clean your kitchen!

cream of tartar in measuring spoon

What is cream of tartar used for?

This ingredient is mostly used in baking. You’ll see it called for most often in recipes calling for egg whites, cookie recipes (like snickerdoodles) and when you’re making candy.

Adding cream of tartar to egg whites:

By adding a bit of cream of tartar to egg whites when you’re beating them (about 1/8 teaspoon per egg white) helps to speed up the beating process. It helps speed up the creation of foam and stabilities the egg whites. and helps strengthen the bubbles in the foam and prevents them from collapsing too quickly, as well as help them stay bright and white.

This is why you see cream of tartar added to recipes like lemon meringue pie. Adding it when beating the egg whites for the meringue helps keep that meringue fluffy, light and white.

You’ll also see it added to angel food cake and meringue cookies, because those call for beating lots of egg whites.

Better candy making!

Adding cream of tartar when you’re making candy helps prevent the creation of sugar crystals. That’s why lots of icing, syrup or candy recipes call for cream of tartar: it makes it so the end product doesn’t have large crunchy sugar capsules. Whenever you’re cooking sugar for a syrup, add a bit of cream of tartar to aid in a smoother candy recipe!

Adding cream of tartar to cookie recipes as a leavening agent

You’ll notice that all of my sugar cookie recipes contain cream of tartar. It started with a Land O’ Lakes recipe for cutout sugar cookies that I started making years ago and when I created my own perfect sugar cookie recipe I used it as well (without even knowing why!)

Combining cream of tartar with baking soda creates baking powder (learn all about baking powder and baking soda). Baking soda is important in cookies to give them a chewiness (baking powder would make them cake-like) so when you want a bit of both worlds, you add cream of tartar with the baking soda. Since cream of tartar prevents sugar from crystalizing, it helps aids in giving the cookies a softness that you wouldn’t get with plain old baking soda.

Snickerdoodle recipes always call for it!

Cream of tartar in a snickerdoodle cookie is what differentiates it from a plain old cinnamon coated cookie. Just like in regular sugar cookies, the cream of tartar prevents the sugar from crystalizing, giving a soft texture that’s also chewy, plus that acid flavor is key in what differentiates a snickerdoodle from all other cookies. (For my snickerdoodle cookie recipe, I adapt my sugar cookie recipe because it already has this miracle ingredient!)

How else is cream of tartar used in cooking?

Those are just the main ways you’ll see it called for in recipes. However, you can add this magical ingredient to other things to produce even better recipes!

  • Adding a pinch to boiling water helps vegetables retain their bright color.
  • A pinch of cream of tartar will help stabilize whipped cream.

Substituting: what can be used in place of Cream of Tartar?

I highly recommend NOT substituting this ingredient. Some substitutions are easier than others; this is one that gets tricky. In a pinch you can substitute 1 teaspoon lemon juice or white vinegar for every 1/2 teaspoon of cream of tartar called for in the recipe. However, this may (most likely will) affect the outcome of your recipe.

Does Cream of Tartar go bad?

Unlike other spices, it has a long shelf life. As long as it’s kept in a cool, dry spot and is in an airtight container, it should last indefinitely. Check the freshness with look and smell: it should be powdery and white and smell slightly acidic.

bottle of cream of tartar

Cream of Tartar uses around the house:

There are so many non-food ways to use it around the house!

  • Make a paste of cream of tartar and lemon juice or vinegar and use it to polish and clean metal pans or even to remove laundry stains.
  • Before buying Draino, mix some cream of tartar with baking soda and salt then flush the drain with hot water. (Source)
  • Create an all purpose scrub my making a paste of cream of tartar with white vinegar (a 4:1 ratio) and using for cleaning.
  • Use it as an ant deterrent. Supposedly, sprinkling cream of tartar around doorways will help keep the ants out.

There are even health benefits to cream of tartar!

(These are untested; be sure to check with your doctor before trying any of these things or ingesting cream of tartar in this way.)

In my research, I was surprised to see how many people use it for its health benefits, like:

  • Quit smoking by mixing orange juice with a bit of cream of tartar (1/2 teaspoon to 1/2 cup) and drink it daily. Supposedly it’s said that cream of tartar removes nicotine from the body and reduces cravings for cigarettes.
  • Use it as a laxative (add a bit of it to water and drink). It has a diuretic effect on the body, but is high in potassium to be sure to check with your doctor first.
  • Consuming a small bit of cream of tartar a day has been said to prevent acne (because of it’s antitoxin and antibacterial nature).
  • Ingest cream of tartar to help decrease heartburn (similar to baking soda).
  • Mix cream of tartar with epsom salt for a bath to help reduce arthritis pain.

(Source)

There are so many more ways to use cream of tartar; too many to list! It’s one of those miracle ingredients that can be used in baking or around the house. It’s a little pricey but since it does double duty, it’s worth the cost, especially whenever you’re making snickerdoodles!

What have you used cream of tartar for?

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