What is cream of tartar? Cream of tartar is one of those ingredients that most of us have heard of, but not many people actually know what it is. If you’re thinking of taking up baking, you may have noticed it appearing in various recipes and wondered where you might be able to get hold of some.
Confusingly, cream of tartar is not a cream at all, but a powder. It is a natural byproduct of the winemaking process, and is quite acidic while still being safe to eat. It is usually only included in cooking in very small amounts, but it can make a big difference to the end result.
How to use cream of tartar
It is often said that cooking is science for hungry people, and cream of tartar is one of those ingredients that is used for scientific reasons, rather than for flavour. Because it is an edible acid, it has certain properties that make it useful in cooking.
Firstly, cream of tartar is used to make baked products rise. If you see cream of tartar in a baking recipe, there will usually be some baking soda in there as well. Baking soda is a base, and when an acid and a base come into contact, they react with one another. In this case, the reaction gives off lots of carbon dioxide bubbles, which get into the dough and inflate it, making it rise.
Cream of tartar can also be used to help stabilise meringues and whipped cream, so you can get them bigger and fluffier without worrying about them collapsing. It’s useful in candy making, too, binding to the sugar crystals and preventing them from clumping together, giving you smoother, more professional-looking caramels and candies.
If you don’t have any cream of tartar to hand, however, there’s no need to worry. There are other ingredients with similar properties that you can use in a pinch.
Substitute: Lemon juice
Lemon juice has similar levels of acidity to cream of tartar, and can be used in much the same way. It can be added to baked goods alongside baking soda to make them rise, will help stabilise meringues and whipped cream, and prevents large crystals from forming in homemade candies. For meringues, cream or candy making, substitute like for like amounts, but for baking you should use double the amount of lemon juice.
Substitute: Baking powder
If you’re using cream of tartar to help your baking rise and the recipe also includes baking soda, you can switch both of these ingredients for baking powder. In fact, baking powder is essentially a mixture of baking soda and cream of tartar, so you’re not really making any change at all. Use ½ teaspoons of baking powder for every 1 teaspoon of cream of tartar in your recipe, and remember to leave the baking soda out too. This doesn’t work so well for meringue making, cream or candies, however, as these do not require baking soda.
If you find yourself out of baking powder too, take a look at our list of baking powder substitutes.
Buttermilk is the liquid left behind after cream is made into butter. It is fermented, which makes it slightly acidic, and it can be used as a substitute for cream of tartar in baked goods. You do need to use a higher volume of buttermilk for the same rise, however, which means you will need to reduce the rest of the liquid in your recipe or your dough will be too wet. For every ¼ teaspoon of cream of tartar in your recipe, remove ½ cup of liquid from the original recipe and replace it with ½ cup of buttermilk.
Another acidic ingredient, vinegar can also be substituted for cream of tartar. Simply use the same amount of vinegar as you would for cream of tartar. Vinegar does have a stronger taste than cream of tartar, however, and is best used to stabilise eggs, where it will be masked by other flavours. You can use it to make baked goods rise, and if your recipe has savoury flavours that blend well with a bit of acidity, you might get away with it, but otherwise it is likely to make everything taste a bit peculiar.
Like buttermilk, yoghurt is a fermented milk product, which means it is also acidic. It can be substituted for cream of tartar in much the same way, but because of its thicker consistency, you will need to dilute it with regular milk beforehand. For every ¼ teaspoon of cream of tartar in your recipe, remove ½ cup of liquid from the original recipe and replace it with ½ cup of yoghurt mixed with milk.