Cream of tartar is a fine, white powder that's typically sold in the spice and baking section of the grocery store. When you don't have any cream of tartar in the pantry, don't worry. You may be able to use lemon juice, vinegar, or baking powder, or skip it entirely. Which substitute is best depends on the role cream of tartar plays in your recipe.
What Does Cream of Tartar Do?
Cream of tartar is the powdered form of tartaric acid, a substance that forms at the bottom of barrels when making wine. Its acidic properties are useful in recipes for three specific reasons:
- Stabilizes Egg Whites: You'll frequently see meringue pie and soufflé recipes call for a pinch of cream of tartar. It's the ingredient that helps meringue maintain its high peaks, even after a trip through the oven.
- Acts as a Leavening Agent: In cookies, pancakes, and other yeast-free baked goods, cream of tartar may be combined with baking soda. The resulting chemical reaction makes your treats fluffier.
- Prevents Sugar From Crystallizing: In frostings, icings, and syrups, adding cream of tartar can keep sugar from crystallizing and result in a creamier texture.
Cream of Tartar Substitutes
There are a few possible substitutes for cream of tartar. Before deciding which ingredient to use, think about what cream of tartar brings to the recipe. You'll also want to consider any undesirable flavor changes that might occur.
While these substitutions will give you good results, the finished product might still come out a bit differently than you're used to. Expect subtle changes in texture and appearance because that's just the nature of substitutions.
- Lemon Juice: Use an equal amount of lemon juice to replace cream of tartar in a recipe. Lemon juice has a similar acidity and the flavor is pleasant, so it works in many recipes. It prevents the crystallization in syrups and frostings and will help stabilize egg whites.
- White Vinegar: Use an equal amount of distilled white vinegar instead of cream of tartar in recipes that require an egg white stabilizer. Be judicious about this substitution in baked goods because it can alter the taste and texture.
- Baking Powder: When a recipe uses both baking soda and cream of tartar, replace both ingredients with baking powder and you won't notice a difference. Baking powder is comprised of two parts cream of tartar to one part baking soda, so it's important to keep the proportions intact. For example, use one teaspoon of baking powder to replace 2/3 teaspoon of cream of tartar and 1/3 teaspoon of baking soda.
- Buttermilk: The acidity of buttermilk may work in some baked good recipes. Since it's a liquid, you will need to reduce another liquid, so it's not an ideal substitute. Use 1/2 cup of buttermilk for every 1/4 teaspoon of cream of tartar, then eliminate 1/2 cup of liquid from the recipe.
- Yogurt: Also a decent substitution for baked goods, yogurt can be used as a substitute for cream of tartar. Use the same measurement as buttermilk, replacing 1/2 cup of the recipe's liquid for each 1/4 teaspoon of cream of tartar. Yogurt is not as fluid, and you may need to thin it out a bit to reach the consistency of buttermilk.
Skip the Cream of Tartar
In most cases, you can simply leave the cream of tartar out. The food may not be as fluffy or perfect as you hope, but it will still work out and taste good. There is a slight risk that your meringue will lose some of its height or collapse, especially when baking.
When the cream of tartar is used to prevent sugar crystallization, no substitution is necessary. It's mostly a precautionary measure. If you're making a simple syrup that you plan to store for an extended time, it may crystallize eventually. That can be easily remedied by reheating it in the microwave or on the stove.
Does Cream of Tartar Goes Bad?
As long as you keep your cream of tartar in an air-tight container, and away from light, heat, and moisture, it should keep for a few years, if not indefinitely. Don't sweat it if the container in your pantry is so old that you don't even remember when you bought it—just dust it off and put it back into service.