What is Cream of Tartar?

cream of tartar

Cream of tartar, scientifically known as potassium bitartrate or potassium hydrogen tartrate, is a white, acidic, crystalline powder used widely in baking and cooking. It is a byproduct of the winemaking process, forming naturally as sediment in the barrels during the fermentation of grape juice.

Here’s a more detailed look at cream of tartar, its properties, and uses:

Chemical Properties and Production

Chemically, cream of tartar is a potassium acid salt of tartaric acid. It is less soluble in water compared to other salts, which is why it often precipitates out in wine barrels. The crude form of this precipitate, known as “beeswing,” is purified to produce the commercial grade cream of tartar used in cooking.

During winemaking, tartaric acid, which is naturally present in grapes, combines with potassium to form potassium bitartrate. This compound tends to crystallize out of the wines, particularly in cooler conditions, and settles at the bottom of the barrels. These crystals are collected, purified, and ground into the powder form known as cream of tartar.

Culinary Uses

Cream of tartar is used extensively in the culinary world for various purposes:

  • Stabilizing Egg Whites: It is perhaps best known for its role in stabilizing and increasing the volume of beaten egg whites. It acts as an acid to prevent the overcoagulation of the proteins in the egg whites during beating, helping them to maintain their loft and stability when subjected to heat.
  • Preventing Sugar Crystallization: Cream of tartar is also used in making syrups, candies, and frostings to prevent the crystallization of sugar. It helps in creating smooth, creamy confections and frostings without graininess.
  • Leavening Agent: When combined with baking soda, cream of tartar acts as a leavening agent for baking. The acid in cream of tartar reacts with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), releasing carbon dioxide gas and causing dough or batter to rise. This is the principle behind the formulation of baking powder, which typically contains both cream of tartar and baking soda.
  • Enhancing Texture and Flavor in Baked Goods: In some recipes, cream of tartar is used to enhance the texture and flavor of baked goods, such as in snickerdoodle cookies, where it contributes to their characteristic tangy taste and chewy texture.
Non-Culinary Uses

Beyond the kitchen, cream of tartar has several other applications:

  • Cleaning Agent: Due to its acidic nature, it can be used as a natural cleaning agent for metals like brass and copper.
  • Playdough Ingredient: It is commonly used in homemade playdough recipes to provide elasticity.
  • Ant Control: Some people use cream of tartar as a natural repellent for ants.

If you find yourself without cream of tartar in a recipe, there are a few substitutes that might work, depending on the application:

  • For stabilizing egg whites: White vinegar or lemon juice can be used.
  • For preventing sugar crystallization: Lemon juice is also effective.
  • For leavening: You can substitute a mixture of cream of tartar and baking soda with baking powder, which contains both ingredients.

Cream of tartar is a versatile ingredient with a wide range of uses in both cooking and household tasks. Its role in food science, particularly in baking and candy making, is invaluable due to its ability to alter texture and stability in recipes.

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