On Cream of Tartar

Joe Pastry: I’ll take organic chemistry for $400, Alex.

Alex Trebek: An organic acid salt, this by-product of the winemaking process will also help raise your biscuits.

JP: What is cream of tartar?

AT: Correct!


JP: Give me organic chemistry for $1000!

AT: Created under photochemical conditions, this is what results when 1,4-dimethylcyclohexane reacts with an equal number of moles of chlorine gas.

JP: Um…are you freakin’ kidding me?

Sure, you can spend your entire baking life making bubbles by mixing soda with acidic substances like buttermilk or sour cream. More than a few of our ancestors did. The trouble with that approach is it’s inconsistent. The weather might change and acid-producing bacteria in your clabber jar might stop growing or even go dormant. Or you might just run out. The solution? Ready-made, easily storable acid powder, the thing we know in America as cream of tartar. A little of that mixed into your baking soda batter and you get the very same reaction, every time.

Cream of tartar is something that’s been around since antiquity. Known as either tartar or argol, it was nothing more than the crystalline residue left on the inside of wine casks after fermentation. If you’ve ever opened a bottle of wine and noticed little sparkly bits on the end of the cork, that’s it. Scraped off and ground to a powder, it was used throughout the ages as a medicine (a laxative, mostly). Boiled, dissolved, filtered and refined into a white powder, it became tartaric acid or potassium bitartrate, a baker’s best friend.

However baking is just the beginning of tartaric acid’s utility. It can be added to candy syrups to keep them from crystallizing. It helps stabilize whipped egg foams. In cooking it helps keep boiled vegetables green. Around the house you can dilute it in water to clean copper pans or old coins. Combined with a little vinegar it’s a great stove top cleaner. Oh crikey will you listen to me? A little caffeine and suddenly I’m flippin’ Martha Stewart!

Oh well, I’ve gone this far. Combine a cup of baking soda with a quarter cup of cream of tarter and a cup of salt and you’ve got a pipe-friendly homemade drain opener (the bubbling action can clear out minor blockages). It’s also great for removing rust stains from carpet and bathroom fixtures.


2 thoughts on “On Cream of Tartar”

  1. The recipe for play dough that I make for my grandson also has a lot of cream of tartar in it. I have always been curious what it contributes to it.

    If anyone has little ones, nothing is easier than homemade play dough and, instead of that awful chemical aroma, you can add cinnamon or vanilla or any old authentic thing you’d rather smell. We always made a ginger bread one and he made his cookies while we did some edible ones. Now, at 4, he’s getting pretty good at the edible ones as well. A few even make it into the oven…

    1. I;ve heard of those recipes, Rainey but I’ve never tried them. I love the idea of adding arctics to play dough though. Then again I might be tempted to eat it!


      – Joe

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