Recipe–Cream of Tartar 101

What is Cream of Tartar anyway?  We usually buy it in the spice section, but is it a spice?  Is it the bark of a tree like cinnamon, or a root like ginger, or a leaf like basil, or a nut like nutmeg, or what?  Cream of Tartar 101 coming up.

Cream of Tartar is actually a by-product from wine making.  A by-product is something that gets made while you were tying to make something else.  Kind of like when you were making cookies, the by-product was a huge mess.  Maybe that isn’t the best description.  How about when you were trying to teach your kid to listen and instead they learned how to lecture and wave their finger in someone else’s face.  Enough. 

How It Is Made

Potassium bitartrate is made today by the process that has been used for centuries. Wine lees (the solid material left after grapes have been crushed to make wine) are treated with hot water, which dissolves the potassium bitartrate. The hot solution is then allowed to evaporate. As potassium bitartrate crystals form, they are removed and purified.

Cream of Tartar has been around for as long as wine-making has been around, which means since the days of Noah–at least.  In Iran, some ancient clay pots revealed a ring of Cream of Tartar around the edge dating 7,000 years old.  It is formed on the walls of wine barrels and sometimes is found in wine sediment.  It also can form on the bottom of the cork in bottles stored below 50 degrees F.

Cream of Tartar is also known as  tartaric acid (that’s where the tartar in the name comes from–the cream part???  I looked, but couldn’t find anything.  My only guess is because it makes several foods “creamier.”  Just a guess.)  It is also known as potassium hydrogen tartrate, potassium hydrogen tartrate, potassium bitartrate, and in its crude form as “beeswing.”  It is an acid.  An acid salt, actually.

Although tartaric acid is found in several fruits (cranberries, prickly pear, tamarind, and crazily enough bananas.  I struggle with the thought of banana wine!!), grapes give us the largest supply of natural tartaric acid.

What is Cream of Tartar/tartaric acid used for?  Lots and lots and lots of things–everything from cement to cookies; medication to dyes; candy to cleaning agents.  Let’s look at some of its many uses.

Cooking:  Cream of Tartar is often used to “stabilize eggs.”  I’ve heard that many times, but what does “stabilize” mean?  Let’s talk about the chemistry required for an egg white to beat.  It will be very simple.  I am simple.  Highschool chemistry almost ruined my GPA–except I had a really smart best friend who told me all the answers.  Egg whites are 10% proteins (called albumin) dissolved in water.  Eggs whites (Mr. Albumin Protein) are whipped by two factors.  1)  The whisk unfolds the protein molecules.  2)  The whisk draws in air which makes the “proteins come out of their natural state.”  (I’m not sure exactly what this means, but I think it is kind of like when I am told that I can’t wear my blue jeans to an event–I feel “out of my natural state”. ) Which causes the untangled,-“out of their natural state”-proteins to hold hands with other detangled protiens.  (Kind of like at the Non-Jean Event where I try to hang out with others who look as uncomfortable as I feel.)  Air gets suspended because some people like to hold hands with water-loving molecules (hydrophilic) and some people like to hold hands with water-hating molecules (hydrophobic).  (And the proteins decide to all hold hands and square dance together.)  And an egg foam is created. (Let me tell you, Chemistry is a real soap opera.  All this hand holding, and hating and loving one another.  It just makes me blush to think of it.  I don’t know if I will even be able to eat a merainge without blushing continually.  And don’t even get me started on why eggs whites won’t whip up if you get a little yolk (or any other fat) in the whites.  But I think it is because nobody will hold hands with the Mrs. Fat AL-bumin Protein and therefore no square dancing happensAnd it is the square dancing that causes the happy suspended air bubbles.)

So what does Cream of Tartar have to do with this crazy protein-hand-holding-square-dance?  Cream of Tartar is an acid.  Egg whites, along with milk and baking soda, are about the only non-acid foods we eat.  So, Cream of Tartar lowers the pH level of the eggs, and egg whites foam better at a lower pH level.  A copper bowl has the same effect, but they are expensive, and hard to keep shiny, so unless you are a tres chic French chef, use Cream of Tartar.

If you don’t have cream of tartar on hand, you can use some white vinegar to stabilize your eggs–about an eighth of a teaspoon per egg white.

Moving on.

Baking: Cream of Tartar is a leavening agent.  Remember, C of T is an acid.  If you mix it with the non-acid baking soda, you get the same reaction as mixing vinegar with baking soda–fizzy, bubbly, gas (CO2).  Cream of Tartar and Baking Soda will have the same reaction, but since they are both “dry ingredients” you can control when the reaction occurs.  Then capture all of those fizzy CO2 bubbles in your baked dessert to make it light and fluffy. 

Cream of Tartar is one of the main ingredients in Baking Powder.  You can make your own Baking Power by mixing Cream of Tartar, Baking Soda, and Corn Starch together.  One recipe called for 1 t. baking soda, 2 t. Cream of Tartar, and 1 t. corn starch.  The corn starch is there to keep moisture from contacting the Cream of Tartar and activating it.

Cream of Tartar can be activated by both heat and moisture.  Hence the “double-acting” label you see on most Baking Powder cans.  As long as Cream of Tartar is kept dry and cool, it has a shelf life of infinity.  Really, that is what one article said, “infinity.”  I guess if Cream of Tartar found on clay pots that are 7,000 years old in Iran can still be used, what is anther 7,000 years? +7,000 +7,000 +7,000 ad infinitum.

Candy:  Cream of Tartar is added in the candy making process to keep candy smooth.  Sugars have a rough texture, but when they are warmed, they divide and become smoother.  However, as sugars cool, they try to return to their normal state (crystalized) and become rough again.  Cream of Tartar keeps the sugar crystals from crystallizing again.  This is also why it is added to gelatin mixes, it keeps the jello smooth.

Here’s a Carmel Apple Recipe using Cream of Tartar.,197,139164-229201,00.html

Cleaning Agent:  Cream of Tartar can be mixed with white vinegar to make a cleaning paste–think of your Old Dutch Cleanser.  Cream of Tartar mixed with hydrogen peroxide can be used to remove rust stains.   There are even more cleaning options at this website.

Ants do not cross a line of cream of tartar salt. Sprinkle some around an ant mound and they will not leave that circle.Read more: What Is the Purpose of Cream of Tartar? |

Preservative/Additive:  You can add Cream of Tartar in the water with your veggies to help them retain their color.  This same trait of a preservative of color and texture is why it is often used in canned goods and soft drinks (also for the acidic tang.)  Cream of Tartar helps keep the sugar molecules intact to preserve both taste and consistency.

Salt Substitute:  Cream of Tartar is an acid salt, therefore, it can be used as a sodium free salt substitute. 

For example, the listed contents of the Nu-Salt are: potassium chloride, cream of tartar, drier and natural flavor derived from yeast. Contains less than 20 mg of sodium per 100 grams.

Play-Doh:  Cream of Tartar is what makes Play-doh elastic-y.  Here’s a recipe I use.

The List Goes On:  It is used in gypsum board, photography products, and in cement to delay its setting time. 

Class is dismissed.

–Professor Rebecca

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5 Responses to Recipe–Cream of Tartar 101

  1. Bel McCoy says:

    Now I know more than I ever wanted to know about C of T.!!! Thank you, Prof.


  2. Brooke says:

    If you are not so smart at chemistry I done hate to think what I am.


  3. Zoe @ Pantry and Fridge says:

    I will be back. I need to know more of this kind of stuff.
    Who knew I would be educated for free on WordPress!?
    🙂 Loved it. Thanks.


  4. Lisa Buchanan says:

    Wow! I’m really glad to know that rust removal tip! Who knew???


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