This unsung hero of the cooking world helps create fluffy cakes, glossy meringues and sweet cooking syrups. Caught empty-handed while cooking? Skip the frantic grocery-store run with these smart swaps.

Lexi Dwyer
December 20, 2019

What is cream of tartar?

Quick science lesson: Tartar refers to the white crystals that are left over when wine is fermented, and cream of tartar is made by purifying them. "Cream of tartar is an acidic byproduct of wine fermentation and is used as a stabilizing agent in foams, like meringues and whipped cream," says EatingWell Test Kitchen Manager Breana Killeen, M.P.H., R.D.

Cream of tartar, which is shelf-stable, is usually found in either the baking or spice aisle of the grocery store, and comes in a powder form. If you keep it well-sealed in an airtight container and away from extreme heat, it has an exceptionally long shelf life.

What does cream of tartar do?

Cream of tartar's most popular use is to stabilize egg whites, making them less likely to deflate in dishes like meringues and mousses, but there are other uses for it too. Here are a few other ways cooks might use cream of tartar:

  • When combined with baking soda, as a replacement for baking powder (to replace 1 teaspoon baking powder, combine 1/4 teaspoon baking soda with 5/8 teaspoon cream of tartar)
  • As a leavening agent for baked goods like sponge cake or pancakes
  • To prevent crystallization when making a sugar syrup
  • When added to boiling water, to keep vegetables like green beans from discoloring during the cooking process.
Tatiana Gorbunova / Getty Images

What's the best cream of tartar substitute?

Since cream of tartar is an acid, you'll need to swap in another acidic product, such as lemon juice or white vinegar, neither of which will significantly alter the taste of your finished product.

If you're looking for a cream of tartar replacement, here are some guidelines:

  • For each ½ teaspoon of cream of tartar in a baked goods recipe (like cookies), substitute either 1 teaspoon lemon juice or white vinegar.
  • However, if you're whipping egg whites, which usually requires ⅛ teaspoon cream of tartar for each, you'll instead want ½ teaspoon lemon juice per egg white.
  • Using less cream of tartar? If a recipe calls for ⅛ teaspoon, that's equivalent to about three or four drops of lemon juice or vinegar.

Cream of tartar recipes

Here are just a few ways cream of tartar can transform the look and texture of tasty dessert recipes.

Snowman Meringue Cookies: In this recipe, cream of tartar is used to create the stiff, shiny egg whites needed for the perfect meringue.

Spiced Snickerdoodle Cookies: By preventing the sugar molecules from coming together, cream of tartar helps give these cookies their signature flat, creased look.

Creamy Lemon Mousse: The cream of tartar is added to egg whites and sugar that are beaten over a bath of simmering water. The resulting meringue is added to the lemon base to give it a light, fluffy texture.

Chocolate-Covered Strawberry Angel Food Cake :Flour and cocoa powder are added to the beaten egg whites, producing a cake with a featherweight texture but a rich, decadent flavor.

Burnt Sugar Lollipops: Cream of tartar is used to help keep crystals from forming in the hot syrup, guaranteeing a smooth-looking finished product.

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