Cream of tartar is the powdered form of tartaric acid, a substance that forms at the bottom of barrels when making wine. It's a fine, white powder that is typically sold in the spice and baking section of the grocery store. It's often called for in baked goods that involve whipped eggs to help with stabilization. It is added to recipes for three reasons:
- Stabilize egg whites: You'll frequently see meringue pie recipes call for a pinch of cream of tartar. Cream of tartar is the ingredient that helps meringue maintain its high peaks, even after a trip through the oven.
- Act as a leavening agent: In cookies, pancakes, and other yeast-free baked goods, combine cream of tartar with baking soda and you get a chemical reaction that makes your treats fluffier.
- Prevent sugar from crystallizing: In frostings, icings, and syrups, adding cream of tartar can keep sugar from crystallizing, result in a creamier texture.
Cream of Tartar Substitutes
If you don't have any cream of tartar in your pantry, don't panic. There are a few options for substitutes depending on the recipe. Use the following replacement ingredients for each of these uses:
- Stabilize egg whites: Use an equal amount of white vinegar or lemon juice, or omit the cream of tartar from the recipe entirely. If you leave it out, there is a slight risk that your meringue will lose some of its height or collapse, especially when baking.
- Act as a leavening agent: Replace the baking soda and the cream of tartar called for in the recipe with baking powder. Since baking powder is just a mix of cream of tartar and baking soda, this substitution won't change the end result of your recipe. Baking powder is made of a ratio of 2:1 cream of tartar to baking soda. For example, use one teaspoon of baking powder to replace 2/3 teaspoon of cream of tartar and 1/3 teaspoon of baking soda.
- Prevent sugar from crystallizing: Leave the cream of tartar out. No substitution is necessary since the cream of tartar is mostly a precautionary measure. If you're making a simple syrup that you plan to store for an extended time, it may crystallize eventually, but that can be easily remedied by reheating it in the microwave or on the stove.
Note: While these substitutions will give you good results, the finished product might still come out a bit different than you're used to. Expect subtle changes in texture and appearance. That's just the nature of substitutions.
Does Cream of Tartar Goes Bad?
As long as you keep your cream of tartar in an air-tight container, away from light and heat sources, it should keep indefinitely. Don't sweat it if the container in your pantry is so old you don't even remember when you bought it—just dust it off and put it back into service. Other baking ingredients, like baking powder, do have a limited shelf life and using expired leavening agents may keep your baked good from rising properly.