Cream of tartar is an oft-overlooked pantry staple. The white powder helps to stabilize whipped egg whites in cakes and meringues, activate leavening like baking soda (it’s often an ingredient in baking powder), and prevent sugar crystallization in caramel and candy.
It’s worth keeping a jar stashed next to your baking soda and powder since it lasts forever, but accidents happen. If you misread your recipe or didn’t realize you were out of cream of tartar and can’t make a trip to the store, it’s time to fall back on a substitution. Which swap you make will depend on what purpose the cream of tartar is serving in your particular recipe.
For Stabilizing Egg Whites, Use Vinegar or Lemon Juice
If you’re dealing with whipped egg whites, that means the cream of tartar is serving as a stabilizer, cushioning the delicate pockets of air to keep the mixture fluffy and tall. You might be making a meringue, whether it’s a topping for pie, pavlova, meringue frosting, or meringue candies. Or perhaps you’re making a fluffy cake that relies on egg whites for its lift, such as an angel food cake.
If your recipe calls for whipped egg whites and a little cream of tartar, try these substitutions:
Vinegar: You’ll sometimes find vinegar called for in meringue recipes (especially meringue cookies which have stronger flavorings) instead of cream of tartar. When substituting for cream of tartar, you’ll need to use four times more vinegar. If a recipe calls for 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar, add one teaspoon of vinegar instead.
The only downside of using vinegar is the strong flavor can sneak through. For this reason, white vinegar is the go-to vinegar for substituting cream of tartar, since it has the least distinct flavor.
Lemon juice: If you’d rather not use vinegar, fresh lemon juice is a good option. It acts in the exact same way as vinegar and should be used in the same ratio: use four times more lemon juice than cream of tartar. Your meringue or cake will take on a bit of lemony tang, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing!
For Preventing Crystallization, Use Corn Syrup
Cream of tartar also provides some security when boiling sugar. The powder helps prevent sugar crystals from forming, producing smoother caramels and sugar syrups that can be used as-is, in other recipes, or candy making. When a recipe calls for boiling sugar and the ingredient list includes cream of tartar, try substituting corn syrup.
Found in the baking aisle, corn syrup is very good at preventing crystallization. Swap 1/4 of the sugar in your recipe for corn syrup and omit the cream of tartar.
For Leavening, Use Baking Powder, Vinegar, or Lemon Juice
Cream of tartar is a common ingredient in baking powder. It activates the baking soda, giving cakes and baked goods lift without the need of an additional acidic ingredient.
If your baked good calls for cream of tartar along with baking soda as a leavening agent, try these substitutions:
Baking powder: When a baking recipe calls for baking soda and cream of tartar in the dry ingredients, you can often swap for baking powder, which is baking soda and cream of tartar already mixed together.
Store-bought baking powder is mixed at a ratio of one part baking soda to 2 parts cream of tartar, so keep this in mind when swapping. For example, if your recipe calls for 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar and 1/4 teaspoon baking soda, swap both for 3/4 teaspoon baking powder.
Vinegar or lemon juice: It’s not ideal to substitute a dry ingredient for a wet ingredient while baking since it can alter the texture, but using vinegar or lemon juice instead of cream of tartar will work in a pinch. You’ll need more volume to activate the baking soda—try using at least two times the amount of cream of tartar.