Cream of tartar, also known as potassium bitartrate or tartaric acid, is a common ingredient in many recipes. It is a white, powdery acid that is used as a stabilizer, emulsifier, and leavening agent in cooking and baking.
However, you may sometimes find yourself without cream of tartar when you need it for a recipe. Fortunately, there are several viable substitutes for cream of tartar that can be used in cooking and baking. The best substitutes will depend on how the cream of tartar is being used in the recipe.
What is Cream of Tartar?
Cream of tartar, also known as potassium bitartrate, is an acidic by-product of winemaking. It is the powdered form of tartaric acid that is left behind in wine barrels after the fermentation process.
The acidic compound is purified and then ground into a fine, white powder which is used as an ingredient in cooking and baking. Cream of tartar can be found in the spice aisle and is known for its slightly sour taste.
Here is a quick overview of what cream of tartar is:
- White powdery substance made from tartaric acid left in wine barrels
- Has a slightly sour and acidic taste
- Acts as a leavening agent and stabilizer in recipes
- Prevents sugar crystallization in candies and frostings
- Commonly used in baking for cookies, cakes, etc.
- Found in the spice aisle of grocery stores
- Has a long shelf life if stored properly
Understanding what cream of tartar is and where it comes from helps explain its importance in recipes as well as why substitutes with similar properties are needed.
The Role of Cream of Tartar in Baking
Cream of tartar serves several purposes in baking recipes:
1. Stabilizes Egg Foams
One of the main uses of cream of tartar is to help stabilize beaten egg whites so they hold their volume and form stiff peaks. The acid interacts with the egg proteins to reinforce the air bubbles and create a stable foam that makes recipes like meringues and soufflés light and airy.
2. Activates Baking Soda
Cream of tartar can help activate baking soda to act as a leavening agent and make batters rise. The acidic cream of tartar reacts with the basic baking soda to produce carbon dioxide bubbles that cause lift in recipes like cakes, muffins, and cookies.
3. Prevents Sugar Crystallization
Adding cream of tartar when cooking sugar or making confections like frosting helps prevent sugar crystals from forming. This results in smooth, creamy candy, icing, and caramel.
4. Aids in Maillard Browning
The acidity of cream of tartar promotes Maillard browning reactions which help baked goods develop a nice golden brown exterior and enhance flavor through these reactions.
5. Imparts Tangy Flavor
Cream of tartar has a slightly sour, tangy taste on its own. This can complement sweet recipes and balance flavors in desserts when used in moderation. Too much cream of tartar can make recipes taste bitter.
Understanding the various roles of cream of tartar helps determine the best substitute in any given recipe based on which of these functions are needed.
Best Substitutes for Cream of Tartar
When you find yourself without cream of tartar, don't worry - there are several ingredients you can use instead. Here are the top substitutes to use depending on the purpose of the cream of tartar:
For Stabilizing Egg Foams
- Lemon juice - The acidity helps mimic the stabilizing ability of cream of tartar. Use 2 tsp lemon juice per 1 tsp cream of tartar.
- White vinegar - Also acidic and can stabilize egg foams. Use a 1:1 ratio to replace cream of tartar.
For Leavening and Lifting Batters
- Baking powder - Contains both baking soda and acid so it effectively replaces cream of tartar. Use 11⁄2 tsp baking powder for every 1 tsp cream of tartar.
- Buttermilk - Naturally acidic to react with baking soda. Replace 1⁄2 cup liquid in recipe with 1⁄2 cup buttermilk per 1⁄4 tsp cream of tartar.
- Yogurt - Works the same as buttermilk. Thin with milk and use a 1:1 ratio to replace buttermilk amount.
For Preventing Sugar Crystallization
- Corn syrup - Interferes with sugar crystal formation. Replace 1⁄4 cup sugar in recipe with 1⁄4 cup corn syrup and omit cream of tartar.
- Lemon juice - Acidity prevents crystallization. Use 2 tsp per 1 tsp cream of tartar.
- Vinegar - Use a 1:1 ratio to replace cream of tartar.
When You Can Leave Out Cream of Tartar
In some recipes, cream of tartar can be omitted entirely if none of the main functions are needed:
- Sugar cookies, pie doughs, scones - No impact on texture or flavor
- Simple syrups - May crystallize eventually but can be remelted
- Meringues and soufflés - May collapse but still taste good
Leaving out cream of tartar works best when its main role is to stabilize beaten egg whites. In batters, it produces the best rise and tenderness when used. Consider the recipe and purpose of cream of tartar before omitting.
Cream of Tartar Substitutes Explained
Let's go over some of the most common and effective cream of tartar substitutes in more detail:
Fresh lemon juice makes an excellent substitute for cream of tartar thanks to its acidity. The citric acid in lemon juice mimics the effects of cream of tartar by:
- Stabilizing beaten egg whites so they hold peaks
- Preventing sugar crystallization in syrups and frostings
- Activating baking soda as a leavening agent
Lemon juice also provides a bright, fresh flavor that works well in desserts. The downside is that it can alter the intended flavor of more neutral recipes.
To substitute, use 2 teaspoons of lemon juice for every 1 teaspoon of cream of tartar called for. You may need to adjust this ratio depending on the amount of liquid in the recipe.
Plain distilled white vinegar can be used in place of cream of tartar in recipes where a stabilizer for egg foams is needed. White vinegar has a high acidity close to that of cream of tartar.
Use a 1:1 substitution ratio - replace each teaspoon of cream of tartar with 1 teaspoon of white vinegar.
The potential downside is that white vinegar can add a strong acidic taste. Use sparingly and add gradually until desired flavor is reached.
Baking powder contains both an acid (cream of tartar) and a base (baking soda) so it effectively replaces both ingredients. It provides lift and leavening without acidity altering the flavor.
To substitute baking powder for cream of tartar, use about 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder for every 1 teaspoon of cream of tartar called for. Adjust according to recipe size.
The natural acidity and thick texture of buttermilk make it a good substitute in recipes where cream of tartar is used for leavening or texture. However, since it is a liquid you will need to reduce another liquid ingredient in the recipe.
For every 1/4 teaspoon of cream of tartar, substitute 1/2 cup buttermilk and reduce another liquid by 1/2 cup. This maintains the proper ratio of wet to dry ingredients.
Plain yogurt can be used in place of buttermilk. It also provides acidity to react with baking soda. The benefit of yogurt is it's often easier to find and keep on hand than buttermilk.
Dilute yogurt with milk to reach a buttermilk consistency before using. Then substitute the thinned yogurt for an equal amount of buttermilk called for in the recipe.
The glucose in corn syrup prevents crystallization by interfering with sugar molecules bonding together. This makes it an ideal substitute when cream of tartar is used to maintain a smooth texture.
For frostings, candy, and syrups, replace 1/4 cup of granulated sugar with 1/4 cup corn syrup and leave out the cream of tartar. Adjust to taste and recipe consistency.
When You Can Omit Cream of Tartar
While substitutes work well in many cases, there are some instances where you can simply leave cream of tartar out:
- In cookies, pie doughs, and biscuits, cream of tartar isn't essential. Omitting it will have minimal effect.
- Simple syrups may eventually crystallize without cream of tartar, but you can reheat to dissolve the crystals.
- Leaving cream of tartar out of meringues may cause them to collapse more easily. But they will still be edible and tasty.
- In frostings and candies, crystallization may occur faster without cream of tartar. But the taste won't be significantly impacted.
You can omit cream of tartar without worry if it is only acting as an acid for structure and not as a true leavening agent. Evaluate the recipe and purpose before removing it entirely.
Storing and Shelf Life of Cream of Tartar
Cream of tartar has an exceptionally long shelf life of 2 to 3 years when stored properly in a cool, dark place in an airtight container. Exposure to light, heat, and moisture will shorten its shelf life.
If cream of tartar develops a clumpy texture or vinegar-like smell, it has likely gone bad and should be discarded. Always inspect your cream of tartar before use.
To extend its shelf life:
- Keep container tightly sealed in a cool, dark place
- Store in the refrigerator if humid environment
- Transfer to a small jar to minimize air exposure once opened
- Spoon out what you need instead of pouring to prevent clumping
With proper storage methods, cream of tartar can maintain optimal freshness and leavening power for several years.
Can I make my own cream of tartar substitute?
Yes, you can make a simple substitute by mixing baking soda with lemon juice or vinegar. Use a ratio of 1/4 tsp baking soda + 1/2 tsp lemon juice/vinegar to replace 1 tsp cream of tartar. Stir before adding to the recipe.
What can I use instead of cream of tartar for candy?
Corn syrup or lemon juice work well to prevent crystallization in candies. For one teaspoon of cream of tartar, substitute 1/4 cup corn syrup or 2 teaspoons lemon juice.
Is cream of tartar gluten-free and vegan?
Yes, cream of tartar is naturally gluten-free and vegan. It is made from wine sediment and does not contain any gluten sources or animal products. Always check labels for additives if dietary restrictions are a concern.
Why is my cream of tartar hard and clumpy?
Moisture exposure is the most common cause of clumping and hardening. Discard any cream of tartar that is clumpy or develops a vinegar odor, as it has likely gone bad. For best quality, store cream of tartar in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
Can I substitute potassium acid tartrate for cream of tartar?
Yes, potassium acid tartrate is just the scientific name for cream of tartar. It provides the same leavening and stabilizing properties so you can use the two names interchangeably.
Cream of tartar is an important ingredient in recipes where stabilization, leavening, and preventing crystallization are needed. Thankfully, its unique properties can be replicated by ingredients like lemon juice, vinegar, and baking powder.
The best cream of tartar substitute depends on the purpose it serves in the recipe. When in doubt, lemon juice and baking powder provide the most versatility. However, in some recipes, cream of tartar can simply be omitted without any major consequences.