If you’re new to cooking and trying to stock your pantry or if you visit your grandmother one day to help with her baking, you may run across the ingredient called cream of tartar. Although you may not know exactly what cream of tartar does in a recipe, it’s an ingredient that has probably found its way onto most pantry shelves.
You may have even run across many recipes that called for cream of tartar and used it yourself or wondered about a cream of tartar substitute without even knowing why exactly you needed it. Cream of tartar is an acidic power and a byproduct of transforming grapes into wine that’s been around since 800 A.D.
Other Names for Cream of Tartar
- Tartaric Acid
- Potassium Hydrogen Tartrate
- Potassium Bitartrate
Regardless of what you call it, cream of tartar can be a critical ingredient in your recipe, especially when baking. It’s typically is used to react with baking soda to cause the reaction which helps the dough to rise and spread. It’s also used sometimes when whipping egg whites to help create the airiness and melt in your mouth texture of things such as meringue pie. There’s a whole science behind how the cream of tartar works to lower the pH of the albumen in egg whites that you need to understand before you choose a cream of tartar substitute.
There are only a few possible substitutes for cream of tartar. But before you choose a cream of tartar substitute, make sure you know what cream of tartar is and how it works in your specific recipe so you can pick an alternative that will work in the same way.
- Lemon Juice
- White vinegar
- Baking powder
- Citric acid
Lemon Juice will work in some recipes but it’s much less acidic than cream of tartar. Cream of tartar is 100% acidic whereas lemon juice, believe it or not, is only about 3% acidic. Those of you who have eaten a raw lemon are in disbelief I know. Lemon juice works well as a cream of tartar substitute if you are making a recipe that requires whipped egg whites. Arrowroot also works to help hold egg whites together if cream of tartar is unavailable but it’s not acidic so it’s not the best substitute for cookie recipes.
But surprisingly enough, if you don’t have lemon juice, you can use a copper bowl to whip your egg whites in and it will have a similar effect. Apparently, the ions in copper help to keep the molecules of protein in your egg whites from binding tightly together. Keep in mind your egg foam may have a pinkish tint to it in the final result.
White vinegar is another cream of tartar substitute. Like lemon juice, it’s not as acidic as the cream of tartar so uses 1 teaspoon of vinegar to every ½ teaspoon of cream of tartar. White vinegar works like cream of tartar in that it’s an acidic liquid. It can help prevent egg whites from collapsing in meringues and other recipes.
Baking powder is a good substitute, but you must also swap out the baking soda. So, if you are making a recipe that calls for baking soda and cream of tartar, swap those two ingredients out and use baking powder instead. 1 tsp of baking powder can replace ½ tsp cream of tartar and ¼ tsp baking soda.
One of my absolute favorite cookies as a child were snickerdoodles. For this cookie recipe, the chewiness and almost metallic tang comes from cream of tartar so don’t just skip it. Baking powder works as a substitute in the snickerdoodle recipe and doesn’t worry, no one will be the wiser.
Buttermilk is another acidic liquid which can sometimes be used as a cream of tartar substitute. It will work well in recipes that call for a significant amount of other liquids such as cream or milk. Replace just a half cup of whole milk or cream with an equal amount of buttermilk for each one-quarter teaspoon of cream of tartar called for in the recipe.
If you don’t have buttermilk on hand but need a substitute for cream of tartar for a recipe that uses milk, you can use yogurt as a cream of tartar substitute. Use some milk to thin the yogurt to a buttermilk consistency and then substitute in the same way as buttermilk.
In some recipes, another alternative when you are out of cream of tartar is to skip it altogether rather than try to find a cream of tartar substitute. This is a really good option in recipes that already contain other acidic ingredients such as lemon juice, buttermilk, or vinegar. Most recipes for frosting and homemade candy will do okay without cream of tartar or you can substitute corn syrup which will prevent sugar crystals from forming.
But before you simply skip the cream of tartar, look carefully at your ingredient list to make sure leaving it out won’t have a serious impact. For recipes without any other acidic ingredients, it’s safe to choose a substitute than to omit the cream of tartar.
Citric acid is the best substitute for drink recipes that call for cream of tartar or tartaric acid. You can find citric acid in both liquid and powder forms. On the flip side, if you’re making something like bath bombs that requires citric acid and you don’t have that, you can use cream of tartar as a substitute.
Other Uses for Cream of Tartar Substitutes
Some recipes for playdough call for cream of tartar. But if you’re out of it and need to get playdough made so the kids have something to occupy their time for a sudden day off school, you can use 3 tsp of lemon juice or vinegar instead of cream of tartar.
Some recipes for copper polish require you to use equal parts cream of tartar and lemon juice. Choose one of the substitutes above, such as citric acid powder and simply rub the mixture onto the copper and then rinse off. Dry thoroughly.
Citric acid powder or alum instead of cream of tartar would work to make a paste by mixing with water to polish aluminum and stainless steel.
1 cup of vinegar to 1 cup cream of tartar or a substitute for scrubbing sink, toilet, and tub. For an all-purpose type cleaner that is slightly milder, use one-quarter cup cream of tartar or citric acid powder to one cup vinegar. This is very effective when is used combinedly with laminate tile floor vacuum cleaner.
Perhaps you never knew how many uses there were for cream of tartar. You may find that you want to stock up on it so you don’t run out. The shelf life of cream of tartar is indefinite so feel free to buy several containers of it and keep them in your pantry. But if you do run out, you should be able to choose a cream of tartar substitute without issue.
Here are our other spice substitutes: