What Is Cream of Tartar? Here's Everything You Need to Know About the Baking Spice

Have you ever found yourself halfway through a recipe when you realize you don't have one of the ingredients? That happens to me all the time! Even though I promise myself I'll read through the whole recipe first, I never do. It happened just recently when I was baking up a batch of meringue cookies. As I'm mixing up my ingredients, I take a peek at the recipe list and there it is: cream of tartar. What is cream of tartar, anyway? I wondered as I went to google to see if I really needed it or not.

As it turns out, I didn't need it but it certainly would have made my life easier! The discovery sent me spiraling down a path of curiosity, though, and I needed to learn more. I couldn't be the only one who couldn't answer "What is cream of tartar," so  I set about finding how to use it and what would happen if I didn't.

What is Cream of Tartar?

This powdery ingredient is actually a byproduct of the winemaking process. After the wine is drained from the barrel, the residue left behind is potassium bitartrate (also called tartaric acid or potassium hydrogen tartrate). That's basically impossible to remember or spell, so the commercial name is cream of tartar - much easier!

Cream of tartar has three main uses:

  • Act as a leavening agent. In bread making, you use yeast to leaven the bread. You wouldn't want your cookies to taste yeasty, though, so you use cream of tartar instead!
  • Stabilize egg whites. The acidic cream of tartar helps egg whites keep their high peaks, even in hot oven temperatures. This makes it perfect for meringue recipes or making cloud bread.
  • Create creamier frostings, icings, or syrups. Using cream of tartar in your frosting recipe will prevent the creation of sugar crystals. It makes the best-textured frostings and icings, and it makes syrups that don't have crunchy sugar capsules.
  • Use as a cleaning agent. Mix cream of tartar with a bit of water to clean stainless steel appliances.

What Does Cream of Tartar do? 

In baking, cream of tartar is used as a leavening ingredient. As we mentioned earlier, you wouldn't want to use yeast in many sweet baking applications. Here's where cream of tartar comes in.

All you need to do is combine it with baking soda to produce a gas. The little air bubbles that occur when these ingredients hit a hot temperature are actually carbon dioxide gas. This gives rise to the dough, making the fluffiest and softest cookie recipes, cakes like angel food cake, and sweet bread.

If you didn't know, baking powder is actually baking soda that's pre-combined with cream of tartar. That's why so many baking recipes use baking powder instead of calling for the two ingredients separately. You can swap out one for another, but that's not the only helpful cream of tartar substitution.

What is a Cream of Tartar Substitute? 


If you don't have it in your spice rack, never fear! There are a few simple substitutes that you can use.

  • For any baked recipe, egg white recipe, or syrup recipe, simply substitute 2 teaspoons lemon juice or white vinegar for every 1 teaspoon of cream of tartar.
  • For recipes that call for baking soda and cream of tartar, use 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder to replace every 1 teaspoon of cream of tartar.
  • For baked goods, buttermilk or yogurt makes a great replacement but you must also reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe. For every 1/4 teaspoon of cream of tartar, remove 1/2 cup of liquid and replace it with 1/2 cup of buttermilk.
  • For egg whites or syrup recipes, you can simply choose to leave it out. It may slightly affect the end result while whipping egg whites, but nothing too drastic.

The Health Benefits of Cream of Tartar

In addition to its cooking benefits, cream of tartar also brings along a few health benefits. Some people use it to cure heartburn, while others swear it calms their arthritis. It's also been used to reduce high blood pressure, clear up acne, and calm urinary tract infections.

Adding a little cream of tartar to your water on a daily basis can also increase your mineral absorption, and drinking cream of tartar with orange juice is rumored to help you quit smoking. Our recommendation? Check with your doctor before you start ingesting cream of tartar to make sure you get the dosage right.

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