What Is Cream of Tartar? How to Use It

  • Cream of tartar is a common ingredient in many baked goods and desserts.
  • It stabilizes whipped egg whites, prevents sugar from crystallizing, and acts as a leavening agent.
  • Some effective substitutes for cream of tartar include lemon juice, baking powder, and buttermilk.
  • Visit Insider’s Home & Kitchen Reference library for more stories.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more versatile baking ingredient than cream of tartar: even just an eighth of a teaspoon can totally transform the texture, flavor, and even visual appearance of a recipe. But what exactly is cream of tartar, and how does it work? 

Cream of tartar is essentially the powdered form of tartaric acid, says Jessica Randhawa, the head chef and recipe creator behind The Forked Spoon. Interestingly enough, it’s actually an acidic byproduct of the winemaking process: it can be found in its crystallized form inside wine barrels after the grapes have fermented. Those crystals are then purified and processed into the dry white powder we use for baking.

This additive is especially useful for light and airy baked goods that need to rise and dessert recipes that call for whipped egg whites — but it can be used for a range of purposes. 

What does cream of tartar do? 

Bowl of beaten egg white and other baking ingredients of meringues on wooden table.

Cream of tartar is most commonly used in baking.

Westend61/Getty Images


Cream of tartar has multiple uses in baking. Here are some of the most common, according to Jean-Baptiste Lucas, a pastry chef instructor in Bangkok and owner of Chef Lucas Baking Studio.

Maintains volume. Cream of tartar can help stabilize substances like egg whites and cream, which tend to lose air bubbles and collapse — it prevents those tiny pockets of air from shrinking, meaning you’ll get a more voluminous result. When making a meringue, Lucas says a good rule of thumb is to use ⅛ teaspoon of cream of tartar for every egg white.

Prevents sugar from crystallizing. Some recipes, like frosting, icing, caramel sauce, and syrups require cooking sugar down to a liquid form. During this process, the sugar can sometimes recrystallize, resulting in a grainy texture. Fortunately, cream of tartar can prevent this from happening by binding to the sugar crystals and keeping them tiny. Additionally, by keeping sugar from recrystallizing, Lucas says it can produce cookies that are softer and chewier.

Serves as a leavening agent. Cream of tartar helps to activate the leavening properties of baking soda, thus adding loft and a light, fluffy texture to cookies, cakes, and more.

Prevents browning in sugar cookies. Because cream of tartar binds to sugar molecules, it can keep the sugar from turning brown — which is ideal when you’re making sugar cookies and want a blank canvas for decorating.

Replaces buttermilk. Don’t have any buttermilk on hand? Adding a dash of cream of tartar to the recipe’s dry ingredients can replicate that tangy flavor. To replace it, use 1 ¾ teaspoons of cream of tartar per 1 cup of buttermilk.

Cream of tartar substitutes

Healthy breakfast with Fresh greek yogurt on background.

The acidity in yogurt makes it a good substitute for cream of tartar.

wilatlak villette/Getty Images


If you don’t have cream of tartar on hand, Randhawa and Lucas say there are several suitable replacements you can try using common household ingredients.

  • Lemon juice: The acidity in lemon juice can prevent sugar from crystallizing, making it an effective substitution for cream of tartar in frosting and icing recipes. It’s also the preferred substitute for meringues, says Randhawa, as it can help to maintain those sought-after stiff peaks. She recommends following a 1:2 ratio. For example, if a recipe calls for ½ teaspoon of cream of tartar, double it and use one teaspoon of lemon juice.
  • Baking powder: Like cream of tartar, baking powder also contains tartaric acid, says Randhawa. However, this swap only works for recipes that also call for baking soda, like snickerdoodles. For every teaspoon of cream of tartar in a recipe, use 1 ½ teaspoons of baking powder.
  • Distilled white vinegar: Thanks to its acidity, white vinegar can help to stabilize egg whites — but Lucas warns that the harsh taste of white vinegar can be a bit too much for delicately flavored baked goods and desserts. Distilled white vinegar is ideal because it’s less overpowering. Use an equal amount of white vinegar in place of cream of tartar.
  • Buttermilk: While buttermilk can be a good substitute for cream of tartar due to its high acid content, you’ll need to reduce another liquid in your recipe to compensate so the batter isn’t too runny. For every ⅛ teaspoon cream of tartar in the recipe, remove ¼ cup of liquid from the recipe and replace it with ¼ cup buttermilk. Examples of liquids you might replace include milk, water, or oil.
  • Yogurt: Because of its acidity, plain yogurt is another option — but this substitution requires a few extra steps. First, thin out the yogurt with a dash of milk to get the consistency of buttermilk. Then, use the same replacement ratios as you would for buttermilk.
  • Leave it out: Using a replacement for cream of tartar may slightly alter the taste or texture of the recipe. If that’s a concern, Lucas recommends simply leaving the cream of tartar out, even though the final result may not be quite as fluffy or voluminous.

Insider’s takeaway

Cream of tartar has a multitude of different purposes in baking, from achieving a billowy meringue to helping cakes rise to adding a satisfying tang to cookies. A little goes a long way when using cream of tartar and, as a bonus, it has an infinite shelf life.

If you don’t have any at home, Randhawa says the best replacement is lemon juice or baking powder if the recipe also includes baking soda. White vinegar is another possible substitute but may affect the flavor of your dessert. Buttermilk and yogurt also work well but require adjusting the recipe slightly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *