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Cream of tartar (Recipe: poppy seed torte)


Do you have any potassium bitartrate on your spice rack?

Any potassium hydrogen tartrate?

Any potassium 2,3,4-trihydroxy-4-oxo-butanoate?


Go fish!

Or, go to the supermarket and get some: all three are cream of tartar, by any other name.

While potassium bitartrate sounds like rocket fuel, and cream of tartar sounds like a version of tartar sauce, neither is true. There's no cream in cream of tartar, either (like that other famous "fraud", the egg cream — no egg, no cream).

Cream of tartar is an acid produced naturally as a biproduct of the fermentation of wine. The crude form, known as beeswing, is collected from the sediment inside wine barrels, and purified to produce the powder that's most commonly used in baking to stabilize egg whites and help them "mount" (increase in volume).

Cream of tartar has an almost unlimited shelf life. You'll find it in many recipes calling for beaten egg whites: souffles, ice cream, cupcakes, floats, and cookies.

And, best of all, it's the secret ingredient in play dough.

Poppy seed torte

A rich dessert, adapted slightly from Teens Cook Dessert, by Megan and Jill Carle with Judi Carle. Serves 12.


For the crust:
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup ground walnuts

For the filling:
5 large eggs
2 cups whole or 2% milk
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup poppy seeds
1/4 tsp salt
2 Tbsp cornstarch or arrowroot
1-1/2 Tbsp (2 packets) powdered gelatin
1/2 cup water
1/2 tsp cream of tartar

For the topping:
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar


Preheat oven to 350°F. In an ungreased 9x13-inch pan, stir together the crust ingredients and pat firmly into the bottom of the pan. Bake for 15 minutes.

To prepare the filling: Separate the eggs, placing the yolks in a large saucepan and the whites in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the milk and 1 cup of sugar to the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes, or until the sugar is dissolved. Add the poppy seeds, salt, and cornstarch and cook, stirring constantly, 7-8 minutes or until it just begins to bubble and thicken. (Do not allow the mixture to boil, or the eggs will curdle.) Remove the pan from heat.

Combine the gelatin and water and let stand for 5 minutes, or until the gelatin is dissolved. Stir the gelatin into the warm egg yolk mixture.

Add the cream of tartar to the egg whites and beat on high speed for 2 minutes. Add remaining 1/2 cup sugar and beat for 2 minutes or until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites into the custard. Carefully pour the filling over the crust and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

To prepare the topping: Place the cream in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat on high speed for 3 minutes, or until soft peaks form. Add the confectioners' sugar and beat until combined. Spread the whipped cream over the filling, and refrigerate the torte until ready to serve.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

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Lydia, this is fascinating -- all this time, I've had no idea where cream of tartar actually came from. I remember, as a kid, being fascinated by this strange item on our spice rack and being excited any time we could actually use it in a recipe. But to learn it comes from wine fermentation...amazing! I wonder how the first person to figure that out got from sediment to stabilizer?

Fascinating stuff. My education continues. I'd just discovered it too as a raising agent for scones in Nigella Lawson's "Lucy's Scones" recipe - see recent post in my blog - but I'd never bothered to think about what it really was or where it came from. Thanks Miss!

Wine fermentation--who knew! Good to know it doesn't go bad, I have some in my spice cabinet, but haven't used it in years (the last time I made angel-food cake.)

Cream of tartar has always been a bit of a mystery ingredient - and the connection to wine was a complete surprise. Thanks for explaining the magic of cream of tartar.

I smuggle this out of the UK every time I visit – it's the magic fluffy-inducing ingredient in the scone recipe I use! But it's being discontinued from one of the major UK supermarkets – perhaps I should start an online petition for a cream of tartar comeback at Number 10...

About the only reason I have it is for Angel Food Cake and mostly I leave it out now. Can't really remember using it for anything else.


I bought cream of tartar a few months ago when I made snickerdoodles. I have not used it again so far.
Good to know it's good to use it with egg whites!

Lydia, another informative post. And the poppy seed torte sounds absolutely yummy!

BTW, I saw Arabesque by Claudia Roden in your recommended book list. I also love that book!

Genie, it had to be an accident, don't you think? Like the discovery of yogurt. I'll keep digging to find out more.

Ian, here's the link to your post, for everyone who hasn't yet discovered Yorkshire Deli:

Lisa, I keep cream of tartar around for a very long time, because I don't use it often. I'm not a good baker, so when a recipe calls for C of T, I don't know how to substitute, which is why it's always in my pantry.

TW, it's really fun to learn more about my pantry items, and to share what I learn with everyone. Glad you find it helpful.

Zoe, why is it being discontinued? Have they discovered something about cream of tartar that we should know?

Tanna, I always wondered about leaving it out -- if it just means that baked goods are less fluffy, or whether it really changes the composition of the dish.

Link, now that you're thinking about it, I'll bet you will find that you have many recipes calling for cream of tartar. I'd never heard the term "beeswing" before writing this post.

Patricia, this just means that you need to make snickerdoodles again!

Anh, don't you love Claudia Roden's books? I'm really enjoying this latest one.

aha. Always foxed me, that one. Laurie Colwin says to put some in biscuit dough, but I always plump for baking powder anyway. I´ll hunt around for this, if it ferments in wine I¨m sure we must have some somewhere in the country.

Thanks for the link Lydia - it wasn't an unsubtle hint - honest!

Ximena, Laurie Colwin was one of the best instinctive cooks, wasn't she? I love her recipes -- simple and elegant.

Ian, no thanks necessary! I'm happy to include links here. I'm sure Pantry readers will love following your progress on the deli.

Play Dough! Who knew!?

Cream of Tartar is also one of the rare pantry items that technically has no substitute!

Yes!! I always have it and it's always shoved way in the back of the pantry area. But, it's one of those things that you need, because....well, you just do! Love the recipe for the poppy seed torte. Poppy seeds rule in our house.

yep, this is one of the most important thing to have in the kitchen. In fact I'm going to use this now to make some caramel.

Tom, thanks once again for adding to my knowledge of these pantry items. Now I can call off the search for a cream of tartar substitute. I knew there was a reason I always have cream of tartar on my spice rack.

Sher, I'm finding lots of those "I don't really know why I have them, but I always have them" things in my pantry!

Veron, I didn't know that cream of tartar goes in caramel. There's so much I don't know about candy making and baking.

I'm glad to hear about the long shelf life. We should all be so lucky. Laurie Colwin was wonderful.

Just wonderful. Earlier, when I was a teenager, Mary Cantwell was a writer with some of the same qualities.

Great post I just talked to my brother and his cream of tartar tin dates from 1977 college days. the pie is in the oven and so the meringue should be fine!

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