Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Cream of Tartar

A reader posed an excellent question yesterday about one of the main ingredients in Snickerdoodles: Cream of Tartar. Where can I find it in the store? What exactly is it? And to that I add -- can other ingredients be substituted for it?

I recently had someone call me on a trip to the store in search of cream of tartar, frustrated and wandering aimlessly in the milk aisle looking for the cream. Well, oddly, it isn't cream; it has nothing to do with cream. And you won't find it in the dairy section at your grocer. It is to be found amongst the spices in a small bottle, on the same aisle as the baking supplies.

Cream of tartar is, in fact, a by-product of the wine-making process, coming from the leftover sediment.  An acidic salt, it is commonly known as potassium hydrogen tartrate. (I think I'll stick with its nickname...) It is produced when tartaric acid is neutralized with potassium hydroxide.

Cream of tartar is a great help in the kitchen. It increases the volume of beaten egg whites, as well as stabilizes and gives a creamy texture to desserts. (And it comes in handy for cleaning brass and copper cookware.)

I've attempted substituting other ingredients when baking Snickerdoodles, such as a combination of baking powder and baking soda, but it doesn't really do the trick. The cookies tend to flatten out and not retain their puffy, chewy texture. The only thing, it is said, that will provide the correct amount of acid when baking would be 3 times the amount of white vinegar or lemon juice, which would, then, produce other problems with your mixture.

Cream of tartar is inexpensive. It is worth spending a few dollars to enhance the variety of your spice cabinet.

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