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Friday, August 7, 2015

What is cream of tartar for? Can you substitute anything for it?

A patron came across a frosting recipe calling for cream of tartar and they were wondering what exact purpose it served. One of our librarians recalled using it in sugar cookies and one remembered using it in meringues, but neither knew exactly what it did in the recipe or if there were substitutes. We looked in Baking Illustrated, Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Baking Bible and on for more information.

Cream of tartar, also called potassium bitartrate, is an acid by-product of making wine or grape juice. It will last indefinitely as long as it’s kept away from moisture.

In the kitchen, it can be used to stabilize egg whites (as in the meringues) so they can be whipped more without collapsing. It will also prevent caramels and sugar syrups from crystallizing, making them creamier. (This may have been its purpose in the frosting recipe.) When mixed with baking soda and a liquid, it acts as a leavening agent. Its acidic properties can also help certain foods, like red cabbage, potatoes, and cauliflower, keep their color when boiled. As to substitutions, a bit of lemon juice serves a similar purpose in stabilizing egg whites, though, being liquid and less acidic, it doesn’t do the job as well. 

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