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Baking Powder vs. Cream of Tartar | What’s the Difference?

Baking powder and cream of tartar are essential substances in many baker’s pantries. This article will explore their differences, uses, and substitutes. 

Baking powder and cream of tartar differ in composition – baking powder is an unreacted acid and base mixture, whereas cream of tartar is a chemical salt. Baking powder is used for raising baked goods. Meanwhile, cream of tartar has many applications, one of which is stabilizing egg whites.

Please read on for further details and answers to common questions people have on this topic.

Montage of baking powder and cream of tartar

Are Baking Powder and Cream of Tartar the Same?

If you’re starting your baking journey, you’ll often encounter these two ingredients: baking powder and cream of tartar. Thus, it’s best to get familiar with them.  

Baking powder and cream of tartar are distinct substances, and they’re not the same. They have different compositions as cream of tartar is a chemical salt while baking powder is an acid and base mixture. They also have unique purposes. 

Cream of Tartar

Cream of tartar comes as a fine, white powder. It may also be labeled as potassium bitartrate, potassium hydrogen tartrate, or potassium acid tartrate. Some also refer to it as tartaric acid, but that’s inaccurate.

What Is Cream of Tartar Made Of?

To understand what cream of tartar is made of, let’s first establish what a chemical salt is. It is the product of a reaction between an acid and a base. 

Cream of tartar is made of a chemical salt formed from tartaric acid and potassium. It is naturally formed as a byproduct of wine-making. Traditionally, it was collected inside wine casks and containers and then processed into a fine, white powder.

What Does Cream of Tartar Do in Baking?

Although the cream of tartar was more popular in the ancient days than it is now, it still has several uses, especially in baking. 

The use of cream of tartar in baking is to stabilize egg whites or whipped cream and leaven with baking soda. It also prevents sugars from crystallizing, which keeps cookies chewy and light-colored. Its acidic nature also gives foods a slight, tangy flavor.

Related When To Use Cream of Tartar | What’s Its Purpose?

Let me expound on the cream of tartar applications I mentioned above:

  • Stabilizing egg whites. Many meringue recipes call for cream of tartar because this substance helps hasten the whipping and stabilization of egg whites. It can also stabilize whipped cream. 
  • Providing tang. Cream of tartar provides snickerdoodles with its distinct tang. This flavor comes from the acidic nature of this ingredient (i.e., tartaric acid). 
  • Preventing crystallization. When making caramel, you can add cream of tartar to prevent sugar from crystallization. This ability of cream of tartar also ensures that snickerdoodles are soft and chewy as the sugars are kept from hardening. 
  • Leavening agent. Cream of tartar and baking soda helps baked goods rise or leaven. This makes the cream of tartar and baking soda combination a good substitute for baking powder. 
  • Lighten cookies. Cream of tartar is also the secret to white or light-colored cookies. The lack of brown color is because the sugars cannot crystallize in this ingredient’s presence. 

Besides baking applications, cream of tartar is also used to:

  • Keeping vegetable bright-colored 
  • Clean and polish items 
  • Prepare edible playdough 

Baking Powder 

Baking powder is a baking necessity. This white powder’s name is straightforward, but there’s more to discover about it, like its composition and exact applications. 

A measuring spoon dipping into a bowl of baking powder

What Is Baking Powder Made Of?

Like cream of tartar, baking powder also takes advantage of the reaction between an acid and a base. But it is not made of chemical salt. 

Baking powder consists of an unreacted acid and base mixture. The base is often carbonate or bicarbonate. To keep the two components from reacting, it may contain a buffer, like cornstarch, and a filler, like cornflour, to keep the powder from getting moist. 

The powder must remain dry and unreacted. The ability of the baking powder to raise baked goods relies on those conditions, as I’ll expound.

Related Can I Use Baking Soda Instead of Baking Powder? | Yes and No.

What Does Baking Powder Do in Baking?

Baking powder is used as a leavening or raising agent. That is, it helps baked goods expand volume through gas release. 

Baking powder helps raise or expand the volume of baking goods. When water or liquid is added to the powder, a reaction occurs between the acid, base, and other baking powder components. This reaction releases carbon dioxide gas that expands the batter or mixture. 

There are two types of baking powder:

  • Single-acting. When a single-acting baking powder is used, the reaction occurs immediately, thus, releasing all gasses or carbon dioxide at once. Therefore, goods made with this powder must be baked immediately, or the expansion effect will be lost. 
  • Double-acting. With a double-acting baking powder, the release of gas proceeds in two stages: first, when the liquid is added, and second, when there is heat during baking. This allows for a more efficient expanding or raising effect. 

Because water or liquid triggers the reaction in baking powder, keeping it in a dry, dark, and cool place is crucial. 

How Can I Replace Baking Powder?

Baked treats without baking powder can be sad and flat (literally). So, knowing what you can substitute it with and how is essential. 

You can replace the baking powder with cream of tartar and baking soda. The cream of tartar would serve as the acid, while baking soda provides the base. You can replace one teaspoon of baking powder with ½ teaspoon of cream of tartar and ¼ teaspoon of baking soda. 

It’s crucial to substitute baking powder with both cream of tartar AND baking soda. Just using either one of them would not achieve the effect you need. Also, this makeshift baking soda has a single-acting effect, so bake the batter or mixture immediately. 

Also, adding cornstarch to the mixture extends its shelf life, giving you a homemade baking powder that you can turn to for months. 

Besides cream of tartar and baking soda, here are other alternatives:

BaseAcidMeasurements (equivalent to 1 teaspoon or 5 ml baking soda)Notes
Self-raising flour (baking powder)Use as much flour as you need; you can omit the baking powder 
ButtermilkBaking soda½ cup (118 ml) buttermilk + ¼ teaspoon (1.2 ml) baking sodaButtermilk has a tangy taste; also, adjust the amount of liquids you’ll use as buttermilk is also liquidy, thereby affecting consistency
Plain yogurtBaking soda½ cup (118 ml) plain yogurt + ¼ teaspoon (1.2 ml) baking sodaPlain yogurt also has a tangy or acidic taste; it can also affect consistency
MolassesBaking soda¼ cup molasses + ¼ teaspoon (1.2 ml) baking sodaMolasses is sweet, so it can also substitute or reduce the need for sugar
Sour milk Baking soda½ cup (118 ml) milk + ¼ teaspoon (1.2 ml) baking sodaIf you’re iffy about using expired or spoiled milk, you can use 1 cup of regular milk then add 1 tablespoon of acid to it (e.g., white vinegar)
White vinegarBaking soda½ teaspoon vinegar + ¼ teaspoon (1.2 ml) baking sodaOther types of vinegar can be used, but their inherent flavors can affect the final product’s taste
Lemon juiceBaking soda½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) lemon juice + ¼ teaspoon (1.2 ml) baking sodaToo much lemon can affect the final product’s taste; also, you can try using similar, citric fruits, like lime

Can I Use Baking Powder Instead of Cream of Tartar?

Although cream of tartar is a fantastic substitute for baking powder, does that apply vice versa?

You can use baking powder instead of cream of tartar, especially if the recipe uses baking soda AND cream of tartar. That’s because some baking powders contain cream of tartar already. You may also look for another substitute or not use cream of tartar at all.

Baking powder in a bowl and cream of tartar in a small sifter

Cream of Tartar to Baking Powder Ratio

If a baking powder contains cream of tartar, it’s an excellent substitute. But since it also contains bicarbonate, the volumes will differ, and you can’t do a 1:1 ratio.

The recommended cream of tartar to baking powder ratio is 1:2. You’ll substitute your cream of tartar with around twice the amount of baking powder. However, if the baking powder you’ll use does not contain cream of tartar, you may not achieve the desired effect.

In the past, most baking powders were made with cream of tartar, so interchanging the two was easier. However, modern versions hardly contain cream of tartar anymore, so you might be better off with another alternative or ditching cream of tartar altogether. 

For instance, this best-selling baking powder on, Clabber Girl, contains sodium aluminum sulfate and monocalcium phosphate instead of cream of tartar. If you use this as a substitute, it may fail. 

An example of a baking powder that contains cream of tartar would be Lecker’s Organic Cream of Tartar Baking Powder. However, it’s unavailable on, so getting some of this product might be challenging.   

Can I Substitute Baking Powder for Cream of Tartar in Meringue?

Baking powder is typically used for lifting or expanding mixtures instead of stabilizing them. It also often does not contain cream of tartar.  

Unless your baking powder contains cream of tartar, it’s best not to use it as a substitute in making meringue. Although cream of tartar is valuable in whipping egg whites, it is not necessary. The whites can stabilize on their own, albeit slowly and less efficiently. 

However, whipped egg whites on their own are pretty unstable. If you really need something to stabilize your meringue, you can opt for these alternatives instead:

  • Lemon juice 
  • Vinegar 

These alternatives are notably acidic, making it possible for them to stabilize the meringue. To substitute, you can follow a 1:1 (or 1:1¼) ratio. 

Other Cream of Tartar Substitutes 

Other recommended cream of tartar substitutes are:

  • Buttermilk
  • Yogurt 

However, those two replace the liquids in a recipe, so they’re not recommended for meringues. But if you have other baked goods that need cream of tartar and have liquids, you can use those two and follow these ratios:

  • ½ cup (118 ml) buttermilk for ¼ teaspoon (1.2 ml) cream of tartar
  • ½ cup (118 ml) thinned-out yogurt for ¼ teaspoon (1.2 ml) cream of tartar

Before adding buttermilk or yogurt, take out an equivalent amount of liquid in the recipe. So, if there’s water or milk, that will be replaced with buttermilk or yogurt. 

But before you go ahead with that, remember that buttermilk and yogurt have a tangy or acidic flavor. That will affect the taste profile of your final product. So, unless necessary, do not substitute cream of tartar with anything. 

When Is a Cream of Tartar Substitute Necessary?

As I’ve mentioned, there are many cases where you can do away with cream of tartar, and the difference isn’t noticeable. Your meringues may be deflated or take too long to whip, but they can still hold out relatively well. 

However, when the cream of tartar is used with baking soda as a leavening or raising agent, you will need a substitute. Otherwise, you could have a really flat and unsatisfying product. 

To replace cream of tartar for raising agent purposes, follow the substitution chart I made for baking powder. For instance, if you need ½ teaspoon cream of tartar, you can use 1 cup buttermilk or 1 cup thinned-out yogurt, then pair it with an appropriate amount of baking soda.

Keep Cream of Tartar on Your Shelf 

As you can see, substituting cream of tartar with other ingredients is much trickier than baking powder. Thus, the best way to avoid such a dilemma is to keep this ingredient in your pantry, especially if you bake frequently. 

Often, cream of tartar is used in minute amounts, so a bottle or pack can go a long way. You won’t have to be worried about it expiring too. According to McCormick, their cream of tartar can last up to 4 years.

But even if you still have that cream of tartar after four years, it’s likely to still be suitable for use. This ingredient is indefinitely shelf-stable, so as long as you keep it in a cool, dark place, you can use it. 

Final Thoughts 

Baking powder and cream of tartar are must-have ingredients in a baker’s pantry. They’re used in making many goods, from meringues to cakes. They can also be substituted for each other, depending on the application.