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Cream of tartar: What it is and when to use it

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Like many people out there, my mother had a completely stocked spice and herb shelf. Opening the narrow cabinet above and to the right of our stove top, you were instantly rewarded with all spices, extracts, herbs, and baking necessities known to man. Naturally, my mom only consistently used the basics, but it felt safe knowing all those other jars were there. Just in case.

One jar, however, sat in the back of the cabinet, undisturbed and dusty. I honestly cannot recall a single instance that it was opened, and its white powdery substance distributed in any of our foods. This jar was, of course, cream of tartar.

Having my own kitchen now, my well-stocked spice cabinet also includes this resident. I set it upon myself to buy it, figure out what it does and where its needed, and use it.

From my research, I have found that cream of tartar is often added to egg whites when beating them to form a meringue. It increases the heat tolerance and volume of the egg whites while preventing the crystalization of sugar in syrup form.

It is more formally known as potassium bitartrate or potassium hydrogen tartrate. This acid forms as a dusty white powder on the inside of wine barrels during the fermentation of grapes to make wine. It comes from tartaric acid, which is found in grapes and other citrus fruits and helps to control the pH of the finished wine.

Being an acid and tasteless, cream of tartar can be used in place of other acids such as lemon juice or vinegar that are too strong tasting for the recipes. It is most often used in baking as a stabilizer or to increase the rise. Baking powder is actually made from the combination of cream of tartar and baking soda.

Some common uses for cream of tartar I recommend you try today:

  • Whip up some egg whites for a lemon meringue pie.
  • Add a pinch or two to your homemade frostings or fudge to keep them creamier.
  • Mix with baking soda in your baked goods to insure they rise well.
  • Not just for cooking! Use it as a cleaning agent! Mix equal parts cream of tartar with vinegar or lemon juice and use to scrub pots, pans, and your stove top!

Don't let that little jar gather dust any longer. Put it to good use today!