What Is Cream of Tartar and How Can I Use It?

Ever wondered what cream of tartar is? We'll tell you what it's made of, its benefits, and how to use it.

If you’re anything like us, you’ve definitely stumped upon a mystery can buried in the back of your pantry. You might not remember what recipe called for it, but that mysterious can of cream of tartar is more important than you might think. Cream of tartar has a true roster of uses that other cooking powders, like baking soda, don’t quite achieve. We unpacked the cream of tartar mystery—and here’s why you should hang onto it.

Make the most of your pantry’s hidden treasure with these cream of tartar recipes.

Cream of Tartar in a Bowl; Shutterstock ID 1033190473; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): TOHMichelle Lee Photography/Shutterstock

What Is Cream of Tartar, and What Is Cream of Tartar Made Of?

If we want to get scientific, it’s potassium hydrogen tartrate, which is a byproduct of winemaking. It’s a powdery form of “tartaric acid”–so it’s an acidic substance similar to lemon or vinegar. That’s what makes it worth using in your baking and around the kitchen way more often than you’d expect!

Dry Organic Cream of Tartar Spice in a Bowl; Shutterstock ID 1313274656; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): TOHBrent Hofacker/Shutterstock

What Does Cream of Tartar Do?

Cream of tartar is a recipe staple, bonding your ingredients together as a stabilizer. It’s particularly helpful when you’re dealing with a tricky recipe that tends to wilt, like meringue or a souffle. It’s a must-add to a lot of baking recipes because it also stops sugar crystals from binding together by activating the alkaline in baking soda. Fun fact: mixing cream of tartar and baking soda actually creates baking powder.

Cream of Tartar Spilled from a Teaspoon; Shutterstock ID 1311492005; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): TOHMichelle Lee Photography/Shutterstock

Cream of Tartar Benefits

Not only is cream of tartar good for your recipes, but it can actually help out your health, too! It’s known for treating arthritis, combatting heartburn and even clearing up acne-prone skin. The alkaline in cream of tartar can also prevent and treat bacterial infections, help to lower your blood pressure and, of course, it tastes great in any baked good. Here’s how baking soda is good for your skin, too.

Lemon Meringue Pie; Shutterstock ID 1056232685; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): TOHKye Jung/Shutterstock

Cream of Tartar Uses

Cream of tartar is a wonder in the kitchen because it’s useful in so many different ways. Here are all the reasons we just can’t get enough cream of tartar and why you should be stocking up:

Smooth meringue

Add cream of tartar to make a super-smooth meringue! The rule of thumb is 1/8 teaspoon per egg white. The cream of tartar keeps the proteins in the egg whites from sticking together, allowing for a smoother and stiffer consistency.

Fluffy angel food cake

The same science works when making a perfect angel food cake. Notice how this five-star recipe for angel food cake contains roughly the ratio called for above (1/8 teaspoon of cream of tartar per egg white)?

Better candy-making

Large, crunchy sugar crystals are the enemy of good candy. Adding cream of tartar helps keep the crystals small! You’ll see this at work in our light and airy peppermint meringues recipe and in homemade candy canes.

Baking without baking powder

Started a recipe–and then discovered you’re all out of baking powder? That’s the worst! But baking powder is often made by combining baking soda with cream of tartar. Together, the two form little air bubbles that help make your baked goods light and fluffy. To DIY a substitute for 1 teaspoon baking powder, combine 1/4 teaspoon baking soda with 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar.

(By the way–our popular recipe for Amish Sugar Cookies recipe doesn’t even call for baking powder, but rather, baking soda and cream of tartar!)

Prettier steamed veggies

When you add a bit of cream of tartar to water, it lowers the pH of the water. This helps the veggies you’re steaming retain their color.

Sparking-clean kitchen

Keep your drains running smoothly by pouring down a four-to-one ratio of baking soda to cream of tartar (you can add salt to increase the volume). It’s that bubbling action at work again! Cream of tartar also removes rust stains and the black stuff on your aluminum pots and pans.

Missing cream of tartar? No worries—here’s how to use ketchup to clean your kitchen. It really works!

cream of tartar homemade orange chiffon cake cooking, cooling process; Shutterstock ID 1277083294; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): TOHbonchan/Shutterstock

Cream of Tartar Substitutes

If you don’t have any cream of tartar hidden in the back of your pantry, don’t worry. You can substitute it with other things you probably have lying around in your kitchen. Lemon juice and white vinegar work nicely as a cream of tartar substitute, but you will have to use a little more of it. For every half teaspoon of cream of tartar, include a full teaspoon of either lemon juice or white vinegar. They both possess the same acidic properties that prevent sugar from crystallizing and recipes from falling flat.

Don’t have those around the house either? Try all of our quick baking substitutes when your pantry is looking a little too bare.

Hand of woman holding the measure spoon with cream of tartar to put it into egg whites before beating; Shutterstock ID 1503064133; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): TOHTatiana Gorbunova/Shutterstock

Does Cream of Tartar Go Bad?

Cream of tartar doesn’t spoil, and when kept dry in a sealed container, it shouldn’t expire either. So go ahead and use what you’ve got.

Put your cream of tartar to work in this classic lemon meringue pie recipe!

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly in The Huffington Post as well as a variety of other publications since 2008 on such topics as life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. She is also a writer of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.