How precious is cream of tartar? Clearly more than the credit it seldom receives.
Often times this chalky powder is needed and the only explanation to why we need it or need to use it, is because “it’s a stabilizer.” So what does that mean and from where does this wonderful product come?
Cream of tartar actually comes from grapes and is harvested from the inside of wine barrels. This acidic powder often works with another ingredient in order to react in certain recipes.
Baking powder, more particularly, “single action,” is a combination of baking soda and cream of tartar and is used to leaven baked goods. “Double action” baking powder means there is an acidic item causing a reaction when there is heat applied. If that reaction is not desired, then cream of tartar will be used with baking soda instead.
This stabilizer and activator is more preferred over other acids, such as vinegar (to help things react) since it has no taste or odor. When it is used to stabilize egg whites for meringues, the reaction that is occurring is that it’s helping the egg proteins — which contain fluids that are hard to break down — to become lighter and easier to shape. Without the cream of tartar, the eggs would not get air beaten in properly, which would leave them dense and lacking volume.
Mixtures containing sugar, such as icing or candy, can have a rough texture without the addition of cream of tartar. Sugar naturally has a rough texture that will smooth out when it’s heated. When sugar molecules go back to their natural formation (once it is cooled), it’s known as crystallization and results in a grainy texture. If cream of tartar is added with sugar, the acid will prevent molecules from separating and make mixtures smooth and glossy.
It has the same effect on cookies, especially those infamous Snickerdoodles. With the high sugar content in that dough, this is a very important ingredient that gives them their chewy texture, as well.
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Cream of tartar can sometimes be classified as an additive. Since it is used in baked goods or gelatin, it helps to keep the sugar molecules intact so items will maintain their textures and flavors. This leads to a longer shelf life because the items remain more attractive for a longer period of time.
The biggest debate is whether to buy or not to buy. Most of the time we would rather substitute another ingredient that is already on hand, rather than buy something that we may or may not use again. Cream of tartar tends to be one of those few and far between items that can be hard to justify buying the whole bottle for such a tiny amount.
Keep in mind substitution in baking is not always the most
affective or easiest. Baking is such a science that there is more to it than just taking out cream of tartar and using something else. The formula will now be completely changed, and other things will need to be balanced, omitted or added, to get the recipe and same reaction to occur. Other substitutes can also cause flavor change and texture change, too.
Typically used in such small amounts, it’s hard to imagine that it can make or break a dessert, pastry or cookie. It’s a little ingredient with a big effect!
Amber Clay is a resident of the Mechanicsburg area. After graduating with her degree from the Culinary Institute of America, her food path started at the Hotel Hershey, continued on with teaching.