Your Guide to Cream of Tartar, the Oft-Overlooked Essential Baking Ingredient

Cream of tartar is a white powder sold in the baking aisle that’s commonly used to stabilize whipped egg whites in meringues and cakes, prevent sugar crystallization in candies and caramel, and act as the activating ingredient in baking powder.

Chocolate Pavlova
Sally Vargas

Have you ever read through the ingredient list for angel food cake or meringue and wondered “what exactly is cream of tartar?” You’re not alone. The mysterious powder is sold with the spices but is used in various baking recipes, and not for its flavor.

Cream of tartar (also known by its chemical name potassium bitartrate) is a fine, white powder that is used in cooking as well as cleaning. It tends to pop up in baking recipes, especially if whipped egg whites are involved, but it has a number of other uses. Here’s everything you need to know about the pantry staple.

Cream of Tartar

Common uses: Stabilizing whipped egg whites or whipped cream, preventing sugar from crystalizing, homemade baking powder, cleaning

Shelf life: Indefinite if kept in a cool, dry place

Substitutes: Vinegar, lemon juice

What to Know About Cream of Tartar

Cream of tartar is a white powder found in the baking aisle that is commonly used to help stabilize whipped egg whites in meringues and cakes and give snickerdoodle cookies their signature flavor and texture. It’s made from tartaric acid, a byproduct of the winemaking process. As grape juice sits and ferments, potassium bitartrate precipitates and forms crystals on the inside of the casks which can then be collected and processed to make cream of tartar.

Cream of tartar has a slightly tangy, acidic flavor, but it’s not typically used in large enough quantities to impact the flavor of dishes. While you’ll find cream of tartar in spice jars and tins in the baking aisle, it also makes appearances in cleaning solutions. Mix it with white vinegar to make a paste that will shine up stainless steel, copper, brass, and porcelain.

Where to Buy

Cream of tartar is typically packaged in spice jars and tins in the baking aisle, often mixed in with the spices. You’ll find it in major grocery stores as well as at online retailers.

Any brand of cream of tartar will do, as there is no noticeable difference between them. Most home cooks find a small jar is plenty, since recipes tend to call for a pinch or two. If you have a cleaning project coming up and are looking for more than a usual three to five ounce jar, you can sometimes find cream of tartar in bulk bins. You can also order large containers of cream of tartar online.

How to Store

Cream of tartar should be stored the same way as spices—in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. If you purchased the powder in a screw-top jar or metal tin, the original container will do just fine. Make sure you seal the container completely after each use. If you purchased cream of tartar from a bulk bin, transfer it to a screw-top jar or similar container.

A dark pantry or spice drawer away from the stove is ideal. When stored in a cool, dry place, cream of tartar will last indefinitely.

Chocolate Pavlova
Sally Vargas

How to Cook with Cream of Tartar

Cream of tartar is commonly used as a safety net for whipped egg whites. On their own, egg whites precariously hold pockets of air, threatening to destabilize and deflate at any minute. Adding a pinch of cream of tartar while whipping the eggs helps to strengthen the bubbles and keep them nice and stable. It's frequently used in meringue, whether that meringue is piled atop a pie, made into cookies, or baked into a light-as-air cake like pavlova.

Cream of tartar also helps keep angel food cake and similar cakes that get their height from eggs fluffy and well-risen.

Similarly, a pinch of cream of tartar can also help stabilize whipped cream so that it lasts longer. On the flipside, cream of tartar interferes with the formation of sugar crystals and can come in handy when boiling sugar to make caramel or candy. Sometimes bakers add a pinch to help keep crystals from forming, yielding a smoother result.

Cream of tartar can also be used to activate baking soda, leavening baked goods. In fact, some baking powder is made using cream of tartar. To make your own baking powder, combine cream of tartar and baking soda at a ratio of 2:1 (for example, 1 teaspoon cream of tartar + 1/2 teaspoon baking soda).

Perfectly baked lemon meringue pie
Elise Bauer

Recipes That Use Cream of Tartar

Cream of tartar is most commonly found in baking recipes, especially recipes that involve whipped egg whites. You’ll also find it in snickerdoodle cookies, giving the treats their signature flavor and soft texture.

Cream of Tartar Substitutes

If you don’t have cream of tartar handy and need a quick fix, there are a few substitutions using pantry ingredients that work well. Since cream of tartar is used in a few different ways, which one you pick will depend on the application. Find the right cream of tartar substitution for your recipe here.