Beyond Frosting » Tutorials » What Is Cream of Tartar?

What Is Cream of Tartar?

You may have come across cream of tartar in one recipe or another, without a clue as to what it is or how to use it. The truth is that a little goes a long way in baking and cooking! Here’s everything you need to know, and how to use it in recipes.

A jar of cream of tartar on a countertop next to a teaspoonful, with sugar cookies in the background.

What Is Cream of Tartar, Anyway?

Cream of tartar (COT) is used as a leavening agent in baked goods, helping cakes and cookies expand and rise in the oven. But what is this mystery ingredient, exactly? 

Despite the name, cream of tartar isn’t creamy at all. It’s a dry, powdery byproduct of the wine industry. In winemaking, it’s known by its sciency name, tartaric acid, and it’s produced during the fermentation process. In baking, you’ll find it in the grocery aisle labeled as cream of tartar.

Below, we’ll go over in detail what this ingredient does in baking, possible substitutions, how to store it, and more. Plus, a round-up of easy recipes that you can try!

Is Baking Soda the Same Thing?

While they look similar and are both used as leaveners in baking, baking soda and cream of tartar are not the same thing. Baking soda, also called sodium bicarbonate, reacts with the acidic ingredients in a recipe to kickstart the rising process. Meanwhile, COT offers additional acidity.

Overhead view of a jar of cream of tartar laying on a countertop next to a teaspoonful.

What Is Cream of Tartar Used For?

So, what does this ingredient do in baking? If you’ve ever bit into a soft sugar cookie and tasted a hint of tang, chances are that’s cream of tartar! It has a metallic, tinny taste that’s most recognizable in recipes for Snickerdoodles

As mentioned, this acidic ingredient is most often used as a leavener in baking. It makes cakes bake up nice and lofty, and it gives cookies irresistibly tender chew. As you’ll see in the round-up further on, Snickerdoodle cookies and sugar cookies just aren’t the same without it.

Along with leavening, COT works as a stabilizer in meringues, giving volume to the whipped egg whites. It speeds up the whipping process and prevents the sugars from crystallizing. This produces stable, pillowy, glossy meringue for cookies, pies, and recipes like fluffy marshmallow frosting

Cream of Tartar Substitute

What can you use instead of cream of tartar? If you’ve opened your pantry and found that you’re out of this ingredient, never fear. Instead of dashing out to the store, there are a couple of ways that you can try to replace it.

Since COT is an acid, you’ll want to substitute it with another acidic ingredient. Note that the substitutions below are for baking, and not tested in recipes for meringue.

A teaspoon of cream of tartar next to a jar of cream of tartar, one half of a lemon, and a small bowl of white vinegar.

Lemon Juice or Vinegar

A popular substitute in baking is another acidic liquid, like lemon juice or white vinegar. For example, if your sugar cookies call for ½ teaspoon of COT, you can substitute it with 1 teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar. The cookies will bake slightly more dense with less of a rise, but the flavors will still be tasty.

Baking Powder

A second substitute is baking powder. In this case, you would replace both the cream of tartar and baking soda in your cookie recipe. So, if a recipe calls for ½ teaspoon COT and ½ teaspoon baking soda, then you’d omit both and substitute 1 teaspoon baking powder instead. Again, the texture will vary, as the cookies do turn out a bit puffier and crunchier (see photos).

In most recipes for whipped egg whites, frostings, etc., you can leave out the COT altogether without it having too much of an impact.

Side view of three stacks of sugar cookies, showing the differences when baked with cream of tartar, lemon juice, or baking powder.
From left to right: sugar cookies made with cream of tartar, with lemon juice or vinegar, and with baking powder in place of cream of tartar.

How to Store

The best place to store cream of tartar is in a cool, dry location, like your pantry, alongside other baking ingredients. Make sure to keep it airtight to protect against moisture and to preserve its flavor. Properly stored, you can use it indefinitely! The only thing you may notice is that the potency decreases over time.

A teaspoon of cream of tartar held over a jar, next to a second teaspoonful on a countertop.

12 Baking Ideas to Try

Now that we’ve demystified cream of tartar, let’s get baking! If you’re looking for delicious ideas, here’s a quick round-up of some of our favorite recipes to try.

Close up of brown butter snickerdoodles.

Brown Butter Snickerdoodles

Brown butter brings deliciously rich and nutty flavor to the softest, chewiest Snickerdoodle cookies! You’ll love this fun, flavorful spin on a classic recipe.

Overhead of a tray full of sugar cookies with sprinkles.

Sprinkle Sugar Cookies

Bright and colorful sprinkle sugar cookies are filled with rainbow sprinkles and totally celebration-worthy. You’ll love these soft, buttery cookies with crisp edges at your next party or birthday.

Close up of a almond cookie decorated with sliced almonds, with more cookies on a plate in the background.

Almond Sugar Cookies

These easy Almond Cookies are crisp on the edges and soft and chewy in the center. Loaded with almond flavor, these melt-in-your-mouth sugar cookies are rich, buttery, and completely irresistible. 

Three frosted sugar cookie bars stacked on top of one another on a plate.

Sugar Cookie Bars

Easy sugar cookie bars are the best shortcut to perfect homemade cookies! This is a thick and chewy sugar cookie recipe topped with creamy buttercream frosting, and there’s no need to chill or roll out the dough.

Close up overhead view of white chocolate-dipped Fruity Pebble cookies arranged on a blue plate.

Fruity Pebble Cookies

You’ll love these Fruity Pebbles Cookies. They are crisp on the edges and soft and chewy in the center. Bursting with pockets of fruity cereal, these melt-in-your-mouth sugar cookies are rich, buttery, and completely irresistible. 

Close up of a frosted s'mores cupcake.

Gluten-Free S’mores Cupcakes

Skip the campfire and make these ultimate s’mores cupcakes! These are moist gluten-free chocolate cupcakes baked on top of a crunchy graham cracker crust, filled with chocolate ganache, and swirled with marshmallow frosting.

Three lemon cookie bars stacked on a serving platter.

Lemon Sugar Cookie Bars

You’ll love these buttery and soft sugar cookie bars bursting with bright citrus flavor, covered with a thick layer of vanilla frosting. Lemon sugar cookie bars are the best low-effort treat!

Three molasses cookies leaning on one another.

Soft Molasses Cookies

Crispy edges and soft, chewy centers are the name of the game with these moist molasses cookies. They’re so easy to make and filled with kicky ginger, with a generous coating of sugar for crunch. Perfect for any occasion!

A stack of five sugar cookies with every other cookie covered in nonpareil sprinkles

Soft Chocolate Sugar Cookies

It doesn’t get better than sinking your teeth into a soft, fudgy chocolate sugar cookie decked out with colorful sprinkles. This easy chocolate cookie recipe is perfect for the holidays, and every bite is brimming with rich cocoa flavor.

Three peppermint kiss cookies leaning on one another.

Peppermint Kiss Cookies

These festive Peppermint Kiss cookies are soft, chewy sugar cookies filled with frosty peppermint flavor and covered with holiday sprinkles. Topped with a Hershey’s Candy Cane Kiss, they’re just what your Christmas cookie platter needs.

Brown sugar cookies inside a metal bowl lined with a white dishcloth.

Brown Sugar Cookies

If you love classic sugar cookies, wait until you try brown sugar cookies. Rich, caramelized flavor infuses these cookies inside and out, deepened with a hint of maple syrup and cinnamon spice.

One M&M cookie leaning on a tin full of more cookies.

Easy M&M Sugar Cookies

Love M&Ms? You’ll LOVE these M&M cookies! Take the best soft sugar cookies and load them up with melty, colorful chocolate candies. Absolute magic!

Looking for more helpful baking tips and resources? Baking 101 has you covered! From how to measure flour to the best homemade buttermilk substitute, check out my tutorials for details.

Review and rate this post!

I love hearing from you! Submit your question or review here. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*.

1 thought on “What Is Cream of Tartar?”