Finding that you have no cream of tartar to hand when you need to whip up a lemon meringue or a batch of snickerdoodles, then do not panic, there are other options!
Cream of tartar, also known as potassium bitrate or potassium acid tartrate, is the potassium acid salt of tartaric acid. Popularly used as a leavening or rising agent and stabilizer in baking, potassium acid tartrate is naturally found in grapes and because it has a low solubility in cold water, during wine making processes, it forms as red-brown flakes on the inside of the wine caskets.
Called argol, when hot water is added to this sediment it will dissolve the potassium acid tartrate which is then filtered, refined and cooled. During this process it becomes white and once cold, the potassium acid tartrate, or cream of tartar crystals, are left which are then ground into odorless powder and packaged up.
Potassium acid tartrate became popular when a British chemist combined it with baking soda to make an early form of baking powder in the 1840s!
Cream of Tartar is Generally Recognized As Safe by the FDA when used as a food substance and when you are looking for it at the grocery store, it is usually found in the spice aisle as it is spice companies that are the main processers of cream of tartar.When cream of tartar is stored in a cool dark place, and kept dry, it will be effective indefinitely. If it has started to cake, then you can just use a mixer or stick blender to break it up again.
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What Cream of Tartar Does in Recipes
There are four main roles for cream of tartar when used in cooking.
- Cream of tartar is the acid component found in baking powder. When the cream of tartar and the sodium carbonate in the powder are activated – when mixed with liquid in the dough and when the dough hits a minimum temperature – this causes an acid and base reaction which releases carbon dioxide bubbles. It is these bubbles that then cause the cake or other baked goods to rise. Cream of tartar also has a milder taste than other leavening agents, which means that in baked goods such as cookies, there is no need for yeast to be used as a leavening agent which would otherwise leave a yeasty taste in the cookies.
- Cream of tartar can also make the difference between firm meringue and weepy meringue. When egg whites are mixed, the strands of protein within them start unwinding and form a network which holds air and water in place. As egg whites also contain sulfur, the sulfur forms bonds which over-strengthen this network. Adding cream of tartar slows down sulfur bond formation which means that the air and water stay in place and give a firm meringue. Cream of tartar also helps stop the proteins in egg whites from breaking down (denaturing) at temperature, which means that you are left with firm and defined meringue peaks. Generally, one eighth of a teaspoon (or a good ‘pinch’) of cream of tartar per two egg whites OR half a teaspoon per 8 oz cup of egg white should be used, unless you are beating egg whites in a copper bowl. When you use a copper bowl, tiny fragments of copper are released from the surface of the bowl as you whisk. These copper fragments are able to bind to the sulfur in the egg whites, and like cream of tartar, will slow down formation of sulfur bonds. This means that egg whites whipped in a copper bowl will naturally stay firm and glossy and do not need cream of tartar adding.
- When cream of tartar is added to icings and frostings, it keeps them glossy and prevents them from becoming grainy as it breaks down the sugar molecules into simpler glucose and fructose molecules. Similarly, when used in syrups, cream of tartar also stops syrups from crystalizing. It can also contribute to a creamier taste in higher sugar foods.
- Cream of tartar can also be added to vegetables such as potatoes or red cabbage when boiling to reduce their discoloration. It helps keep the water more acidic than alkaline which prevents color pigments from leaching out of the vegetables.
Substituting Cream of Tartar
The substitute used will very much depend on the type of recipe. The main substitutes are acids such as lemon juice and white vinegar or dairy acids including white yogurt and buttermilk.
If the recipe needs cream of tartar as a leavening (rising) agent, then baking powder is always the best substitute. Below are these substitutes in more detail, and we have grouped them under types of recipes for easy reference.
1. For Egg Whites/Meringues
For a recipe that uses egg whites, one teaspoon of cream of tartar can be substituted with either two teaspoons of lemon juice or one teaspoon of white vinegar.
As with any substitute the taste can be altered, which is why lemon juice is always the best acid to substitute cream of tartar in meringues that have a fruit base while white vinegar can be substituted in recipes that just need whipped egg whites - although vinegar can alter the flavor more than lemon juice as it is stronger tasting.
For egg whites, this will mean around a quarter to one half of a teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice for each egg white used. If you start to use larger volumes of liquid acids, then liquids in the recipe will need adjusting to take account of the extra liquid, which means it is always better to keep any liquids added to a minimum.Cream of tartar can also be omitted from egg whites or meringues, but you will need to compensate by ensuring that your whites are extra well beaten so that they form stiff peaks before baking in the oven.
2. For Baked Goods
Although in some cases, cream of tartar can be omitted from a recipe with little impact, cream of tartar or a substitute cannot be left out of baked goods as without this or a substitute leavening agent, cookies will stay flat and be rubbery.
There is some dispute over how much baking powder to use in place of cream of tartar and baking soda. If you are using an older recipe that asks for cream of tartar alongside baking soda, then try using a teaspoon of baking powder in place of two thirds of a teaspoon of cream of tartar and one and a half teaspoons of baking soda.
Others suggest that one teaspoon of baking powder will replace a five eights of a teaspoon of cream of tartar and a quarter of a teaspoon of baking soda.
If you are using baking powder, do check that it is still within its ‘use by’ date otherwise there is a risk that it will not work properly. You can easily test your baking powder by adding a teaspoon to hot water. If it starts fizzing and bubbling, then it is fine to use.
Substituting with baking powder will not alter the recipe in any way.
For other baked goods that are not using cream of tartar as a leavening agent, then one teaspoon of cream of tartar can be substituted with either two teaspoons of lemon juice or one teaspoon of white vinegar.
Depending on what you are baking, there is a risk that if white vinegar is used, you can end up with a cake with a rougher texture, that is also coarser grained and more prone to shrinking. There is also a higher risk of vinegar altering the taste more than if using lemon juice
Buttermilk is what remains when butter has been churned from cream. As buttermilk is acidic is can act as a cream of tartar substitute.
White yogurt is another acidic dairy product which can be used to substitute cream of tartar in baked goods. When using yogurt, it should be thinned out with milk until it reaches the thinner consistency of buttermilk.If you use buttermilk or white yogurt, you will need to make some liquid adjustments to the recipe. For every quarter teaspoon of cream of tartar needed, a half cup of liquid must be removed from the recipe and replaced with half a cup of thinned yogurt or buttermilk.
3. For Icings and Frostings
Some royal icing recipes use cream of tartar to help give volume to the icing. It also helps keep the whiteness of the icing.
If the recipe does include cream of tartar, then you can substitute it for lemon juice (or white vinegar at a pinch) in the same recipe quantity as the cream of tartar.Depending on the recipe, you may be able to omit the cream of tartar, but the icing will usually need extra beating to get it to the right consistency.
4. For Whipped Cream
Cream of tartar can be omitted when making whipped creams. You will need to beat the cream well though to get the best consistency before using.
5. For Syrups
Crystallization is common when making syrups. This is because enough of the sugar crystals have stuck together to become insoluble in water. If you make syrups, you will also know that once a few sugar crystals start to stick to the side of the pan, the full syrup will soon crystalize, especially if it is a ‘rich syrup’, two cups of sugar to one cup of water (2:1) ratio. This is because crystallization is actually a chain reaction.
This is where cream of tartar comes in to break down the sugar molecules into glucose and fructose. Also called inversion, this process means that the simple sugars (glucose and fructose) now present in the mix equates to there being fewer sugar molecules. It is also much harder for these to now stick together as the glucose and fructose molecules physically get in the way.
Depending on the syrup, it may be possible to omit the cream of tartar or acid substitute and instead, leave the syrup simmering for up to ten minutes, instead of just bringing it to the boil then turning down.
Otherwise, you can substitute cream of tartar for lemon juice or white vinegar. In a 2:1 syrup, which would usually use around a quarter of a teaspoon of cream of tartar, you can replace this with a quarter teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar.
If a recipe only needs an eighth of a teaspoon of cream of tartar, this is the equivalent of three to four drops of lemon juice.If your syrup does begin to crystalize over time, then heat it up and stir well. This should re-absorb the crystals into the syrup.
6. Boiling Vegetables
To prevent color leaching when boiling red cabbage or other vegetables, just add a tablespoon of lemon juice, white vinegar or even wine for every cup of liquid in the pan.
As with any substitutes, which one you use for cream of tartar will always depend on what you are making or baking.
Where cream of tartar is acting as a leavening agent (usually alongside baking soda), baking powder is the best substitute.However in other recipes, acidic alternatives such as lemon juice, white vinegar, white yogurt or even buttermilk will suffice if the recipe does require an alternative, as in some cases, a lack of substitute may be the best substitute!