8 Cream of Tartar Uses You Never Thought of (and What the Heck It Actually Is)

editor@purewow.com (PureWow)

You’re giving your spice rack a much-needed clean-out and you come across a mystery ingredient: cream of tartar. Huh, looks like I’ve never touched this one, you think. But don’t toss it in the trash just yet. Cream of tartar is actually a helpful ingredient to keep on hand. Here, eight cream of tartar uses you probably didn’t know about, plus recipes to get you started.

But first, what is cream of tartar?

We’re so glad you asked. Cream of tartar, aka potassium bitartrate if you’re fancy, has nothing to do with either tartar sauce or the stuff the dentist cleans off your teeth. It’s actually a byproduct of the winemaking process. Not to get too scientific, but it’s a salt processed from a naturally occurring acid called tartaric acid, which is found in fruits such as bananas, citrus and, here, grapes. Basically, the potassium bitartrate crystallizes in wine casks during the fermentation process, and the crystals are filtered out or collected to make cream of tartar.

What does cream of tartar do?

Now you know it comes from wine, cool. But what is cream of tartar actually good for? Well, it’s a common leavening agent in baking, and you probably use it all the time without even knowing it. Cream of tartar is found in baking powder, which is just a combination of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and acid. Think about those volcano science projects you made in middle school: The baking soda only fizzed on contact with an acid like vinegar. It’s the same thing when you’re whipping up a batch of banana muffins. The baking powder (aka baking soda plus cream of tartar) becomes active when mixed with a liquid, resulting in a lofty baked good.

On its own, cream of tartar is an effective stabilizer for finicky recipes like meringue, soufflés or whipped cream, which all have a tendency to wilt or go flat.

Cream of tartar is also a helpful cleaning agent around the house, especially when mixed with another acid or hydrogen peroxide. But you’re not here to clean, you’re here to cook, right? Here are eight cream of tartar uses that will make your cooking and baking *that much* better.

8 cream of tartar uses:

1. Stabilizing egg whites in meringue. Even a tiny pinch of cream of tartar can mean the difference between a weepy, sad meringue and a gloriously smooth and fluffy one. Follow the ratio of ⅛ teaspoon cream of tartar per one large egg white to ensure thick meringue that holds its volume.

2. Preventing sugar crystals in candy-making. The enemy of homemade candies and caramels is large crystals of sugar, but cream of tartar can prevent that (it binds to the sugar crystals and keeps them small). Add a pinch of cream of tartar to boiling sugar for smooth caramel and crunchy, pro-level candy.

3. Adding loft to baked goods. Including cream of tartar in baking recipes that call for baking soda will help activate the leavening, because baking soda is alkaline and cream of tartar is acidic. It can even be used as a last-minute substitute for baking powder. Combine 1 teaspoon of baking soda for every 2 teaspoons of cream of tartar, then substitute for baking powder at a 1:1 ratio.

4. Adding tang to snickerdoodles. If you’ve ever made a classic snickerdoodle cookie, you probably noticed cream of tartar in the ingredient list. Its exact purpose is hotly debated, but some say it’s responsible for the cookie’s subtle tang and chewy texture. Others say its quick rise and fall action in the oven leaves that iconic crinkly texture on top (and others say it’s both). Most recipes call for a 2:1 ratio of cream of tartar to baking powder.

5. Making fluffier whipped cream. Similar to meringue, whipped cream has a tendency to fall flat—cream of tartar can prevent that. Adding a pinch of cream of tartar to heavy whipping cream will make it last longer both in the fridge and at room temperature. Plus, it will make it easier to pipe and spread, you baker you.

6. Retaining color in steamed and boiled vegetables. You know how steamed broccoli or asparagus (or any veggie, for that matter) always comes out kind of murky, when you wanted it to look verdant and fresh? Adding ½ teaspoon cream of tartar to the water before cooking will improve the color of steamed and boiled vegetables without changing their taste. You eat with your eyes first, you know.

7. Replacing buttermilk in a recipe. If you want the tanginess of buttermilk, but only have regular milk (or plant-based milk), you can add a small amount of cream of tartar in a pinch. For every cup of milk or dairy-free milk, use 1½ teaspoon cream of tartar—but add it to the recipe’s dry ingredients to avoid clumping.

8. Making homemade playdough. OK, you can’t eat this stuff, but it’s too fun to pass up. Many recipes for homemade playdough—like this one—call for up to 1 tablespoon cream of tartar, which gives the dough a smoother, more elastic texture.

Now that you know what it’s for, here are 12 recipes to put your cream of tartar to good use.

12 Recipes to Make with Cream of Tartar

1. Cinnamon Meringue Pie

Thanks to cream of tartar, the fluffy topping on this spicy-sweet pie is easy to spread and slice into.

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2. Pumpkin Angel Food Cake with Cream Cheese Glaze

The key to a tall angel food cake is in the batter, which is made of—surprise—meringue. A pinch of cream of tartar will ensure it doesn’t fall flat in the oven.

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3. Blood Orange Eton Mess

You can put cream of tartar in both the meringue and the whipped cream to keep this easy dessert from melting in its cups.

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4. Jammy Shortbread Bars

These bars start with a simple press-in brown sugar shortbread, followed by thin layers of seedless jam and frosting, which will solidify enough to make them stackable.

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5. Strawberry, Cardamom and Pistachio Pavlova Bites

A pinch of cream of tartar makes these cuties light as air and much easier to pipe. (Out of strawberries? You could top them with any berry your heart desires.)

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6. Grapefruit Meringue Stacks

This is like a cross between a meringue pie and a pavlova: crispy outside, marshmallowy inside and a creamy, custardy curd.

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7. Lemon Meringue Cookies

If a lemon meringue pie and a sugar cookie had a (very delicious) baby, these cookies would be it. To make the topping easier to work with, don’t forget the cream of tartar.

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8. 30-Minute Angel Food Cupcakes

All the appeal of angel food cake in a portable package. They’re also ready to eat in 30 minutes, no big deal.

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9. Creamy Pumpkin Eton Mess

If you just want to use store-bought meringue cookies, go for it. But if you make your own, they’ll taste even better.

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10. Lemon Pie with Blueberry Meringue

You could torch the meringue for a toasted effect, but it won’t leave you with such a pretty purple color. (The secret is freeze-dried blueberries.)

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11. Eggnog Snickerdoodles

These aren’t any old snickerdoodles, they’re *festive* snickerdoodles. The familiar flavor comes from rum extract, but if that’s not your cup of tea, you could use vanilla.

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12. Lemon-Berry Sheet Pan Trifle

We’ve modernized and simplified this classic British dessert so you don’t need a crystal-cut bowl, just your trusty baking sheet.

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