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What is Cream of Tartar and What Does it Do? 

Cream of Tartar

You've probably seen Cream of Tartar in recipes, or at least have seen it in the spice aisle in the grocery store. Perhaps you've even used it in a recipe--it's a common ingredient for meringues or meringue toppings. But what exactly is the stuff? For those of you who have ever wondered...let's take a moment to consider the life, times, and purpose of this unique white powder.

What it is: a fine, white, odorless powder. Were I to see it on the counter and not have the benefit of seeing its packaging, I might confuse it with baking powder. 

Why the name? The chemical name for this substance is potassium bitartrate, or potassium hydrogen tartrate. As you might surmise, the "tartrate" part can explain where the "tartar" came from. 

I wasn't able to find a good explanation of where the "cream of" came into play, but I should clear up any confusion regarding Tartar Sauce. That name is derived from tartare, which is a dish for which this sauce a condiment of choice. Though tartar sauce is creamy, it has nothing to do with cream of tartar. Got it? Good.

Cream of tartar is from wine!

Where it comes from: Believe it or not...it is a by-product of wine production! I'm totally not kidding. It is formed from the sediment left over in barrels after the winemaking process; once formed, it is scraped off of the sides of the barrels and then cleaned and ground to form cream of tartar. Interesting factoid: it's said that cream of tartar residue has been found in pottery dating back 7,000 years! 

Food uses: Arguably the most famous use for cream of tartar (or at least the one I've seen and used it for most frequently) is to stabilize egg whites when making meringues or meringue toppings. The cream of tartar not only stabilizes the egg whites and allows them to maintain their texture when whipped into stiff peaks, but it also increases their tolerance to heat, which is very helpful, say, when you put a meringue topped pie or a baked alaska into a hot oven. This allows them to brown nicely, hold their shape, and to not melt away and expose the delicious interior of these desserts! 

However, there are other food uses for cream of tartar, including stabilizing whipped cream, preventing discoloration of vegetables which have been boiled, and preventing sugar syrups from crystallizing (I have never used it for this purpose but am intrigued!). 

It can also be used as an ingredient which will help activate baking soda (hence you may see it in some cake recipes), and it also sometimes is listed as an ingredient in salt substitutes. 

Other uses: Cream of tartar can also be used, if you're a hippie, as a homemade cleaner. Mix it with something acidic like lemon juice or white vinegar to form a paste; this can be used to clean metals and porcelain. 

It can also be combined with hydrogen peroxide to clean rust from metal tools, but I will be completely honest and tell you that I find this boring.

Lemon meringue pie

So I'll go back to the egg white thing, because that I found interesting. I learned a little bit more about that via Kitchen Savvy:

When you beat egg whites, proteins in the whites unfold from their natural shape and become tangled with each other.  At the same time, you are beating air into the whites, forming small bubbles.  The protein molecules become attached to each other through chemical and electrical bonds that reinforce the skin of the air bubbles.  Over time, these bonds can pull the proteins closer together, forcing out the water trapped in the surface of the bubbles.  Eventually, the proteins pull themselves together so strongly that compact, grainy protein lumps form and the liquid pools in the bottom of the bowl.

This is where the cream of tartar comes in.  It helps prevent the formation of chemical bonds between protein molecules.

Interestingly, though, if you use a copper bowl for whipping your egg whites, you won't need cream of tartar. As I learned here,

When you whisk egg whites in a copper bowl, some copper ions migrate from the bowl into the egg whites. The copper ions form a yellow complex with one of the proteins in eggs, conalbumin. The conalbumin-copper complex is more stable than the conalbumin alone, so egg whites whipped in a copper bowl are less likely to denature (unfold).

Who know Cream of Tartar was so OLD, interesting, and useful? Not me. Cue the "the more you know" music, fade out with a rainbow, and enjoy your newfound knowledge, sweeties! 

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Reader Comments (26)

You learn something new every day!!
I love your informative posts!
July 9 | Unregistered CommenterLisa
I once had a room-mate whose grandmother was Czechoslovakian, she had a recipe for cany cane cookies that was basic except one ingredient was cream of tartar. The cookies had an excllent consistency and did not puff up like the I now make from my Better Homes Christmas cookie cook book. Have you ever heard of this?
November 24 | Unregistered CommenterKathy Fox
Brilliant! Thanks for all the great research! I am researching vegetarian marshmallows. This could be a trick to make them more fluffy.
December 18 | Unregistered CommenterChris
I used cream of tartar for the first time in my daycare. I found a play dough recipe that called for it. When you mix flour, water, salt, oil and cream of tartar and heat it up on the stove it makes a wonderful all natural play dough for the kids! We add glitter for extra fun :) Better and much much cheaper than the store bought kind!

The recipe can be found here: http://fairydustteaching.com/2011/01/make-lucky-chinese-playdough/
January 29 | Unregistered CommenterSylvia
cream of tartar is also used in making sugar glass. do you know why?
February 9 | Unregistered CommenterJeremiah
I am thinking about adding some Cream of Tartar to a sour cream frosting, to make it less like a glaze and more like something you can pipe. Do you think this would work?
February 15 | Unregistered CommenterRachel
Rachel: It seems like sound logic to me - let me know how it goes!
February 19 | Registered CommenterCakespy
cream of tater is used for making Turkish delight where you definitly do not want the sugar to crystalise
March 11 | Unregistered Commenterjohn jamieson
I heard it kill yeast in the intestines, and is used for candida overgrowth control.
July 30 | Unregistered CommenterRodney
For those of us with corn intolerance, we can make baking powder (usually made with a corn starch base) from 2 parts cream of tartar and 1 part baking soda.
August 10 | Unregistered CommenterClaire F
Please can you tell me is it Halal or not. thanks
August 28 | Unregistered CommenterAsma
Sorry, but I don't actually know, @asma!
September 1 | Registered CommenterCakespy
Cream of tartar is what makes snickerdoodles... Well... Snickerdoodles!!! They happen to be my favorite cookie....:)
November 3 | Unregistered Commentercraigslovely
Craigslovely: you're so right. Cream of Tartar: It makes life more delicious. :-)
November 5 | Registered CommenterCakespy
Hi I just started learning how to bake and anytime I try to make a whip cream frosting the frosting melts. My friend told me it is because of the heat ( I'm in Ghana, Africa). My question is what can I do to get a good whipped cream. Can I use the cream of tartar and how is it done
November 24 | Unregistered CommenterMina
I love this article and learned a lot, in fact I looked up cream of tartar to see if it had gluten in it as I have coeliac and avoid gluten like poison! From this interesting article I assume it is free from gluten, thank you very much - I love the idea of it being scraped out of wine barrels!
November 27 | Unregistered CommenterGranny B
I came across your post, trying to find the answer to my question.
And my question is, can you use cream of tartar on cream cheese?
December 3 | Unregistered CommenterK. Smith
Hi K. Smith...how would you want to use it? I am not sure if I understand the question.
December 3 | Registered CommenterCakespy
I want to recreate a recipe and turn it into a pie.
And the original recipe calls for cream of tartar.
I want to keep it the same but with a twist, and was wondering if cream of tartar can be used in cream cheese.
December 3 | Unregistered CommenterK. Smith
Hi K. Smith!

While cream of tartar won't ruin cream cheese, its role may or may not work in the desired way. I could take a look at the recipe, but I don't feel that I can give you an educated answer without more context. Thanks for your comment!
December 3 | Registered CommenterCakespy
Your welcome.
December 3 | Unregistered Commenterk. smith
The only time I've used it was in my snickerdoodle recipe.
December 25 | Unregistered Commenterjulie
Can someone tell me if cream of tartar will keep marshmallow cream from going flat and watery?
January 15 | Unregistered CommenterAhduwa
Ahduwa - I've been doing a lot of research on vegan marshmallow - there are lots of things that keep marshmallows springy - in particular kappa carrageenan and locust bean gum. More here (not my wesbite) : http://veganmarshmallows.blogspot.co.uk/2009/04/vegan-marshmallow-recipe.html
January 16 | Unregistered CommenterChris
It is the middle of the winter here in North Carolina and my honeybees are looking for food,I got playing on the net and found a recipt for Candy Boards. It calls for the Cream of Tartar and I or my wife didn't know what it was, hence web. soooo, the recipe is 2 cups of sugar,1/8 tsp. cream of tartar,11/2 cups of boiling water. mix all and heat to 238 degs f,on a candy thermometer, and spread on a board. Inter cover will work. after it has cooled and it is soft to touch.
good luck Dave
January 28 | Unregistered CommenterDave Welch

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