Friday, 28 May 2010


“Chemistry can be a good and bad thing. Chemistry is good when you make love with it. Chemistry is bad when you make crack with it.” – Adam Sandler

Cream of tartar
is one of those fascinating cooking ingredients that lives in the back of the pantry and one rarely uses, but which in certain recipes is indispensible. It is one of those “unnatural” natural ingredients that nowadays is manufactured in great quantities through chemical reactions, and most people will generally inveigh against because of this “chemical” identity. However, it is perfectly natural just as salt is, or soda, or vinegar – all of them are “chemicals”.

Potassium hydrogen tartrate is the proper name for cream of tartar, and it is an acid salt that has a number of uses in cooking. Most foods that we consume are mildly or considerably acidic, for example brown sugar, steak, plums, lemons, vinegar and apples. In fact, egg whites, baking soda, and milk are some of the few non-acidic (alkaline) foods we have.

When tartaric acid is half neutralised with potassium hydroxide, transforming it into a salt, we obtain cream of tartar. Grapes are the only significant natural source of tartaric acid, and cream of tartar is got from sediment produced in wine making. The scientific journal Nature reported some time ago, that traces of calcium tartrate found in a pottery jar in the ruins of a village in northern Iran, is evidence that wine was being made more than 7,000 years ago.

In the kitchen cream of tartar is used to help stabilise and give more volume to beaten egg whites. It is the acidic ingredient in some brands of baking powder. It is also used to produce a creamier texture in sugary desserts such as candy and frosting, because it inhibits the formation of crystals. It is used commercially in some soft drinks, candies, bakery products, gelatin desserts, and photography products. Cream of tartar can also be used to clean brass and copper cookware. Here is a recipe using cream of tartar.


•    350g caster sugar
•    1 cup cake flour (soft plain flour)
•    12 large eggwhites
•    1 tsp cream of tartar
•    1/2 tsp fine salt
•    1/4 tsp almond essence
•    1 tsp vanilla bean paste
•    300 ml thickened cream
•    1/2 cup icing sugar
•    1/4 cup raspberry jam
•    Extra icing sugar, for dusting

1) Preheat oven to 160ºC. Line a 12-hole patty pan with paper cases.
2) Combine half the caster sugar and all the flour in a large bowl.
3) Whisk eggwhites with an electric mixer on high speed until very frothy. Add cream of tartar and salt and whisk briefly.
4) Add remaining caster sugar to eggwhite, a tablespoon at a time, while whisking on medium speed, until soft peaks form.
5) Fold into flour mixture with almond essence and vanilla. Spoon mixture evenly into each paper case until half-full and bake for 18-20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.
6) Whip cream and icing sugar into soft peaks.
7) Cut tops off cupcakes with a serrated knife, then slice the tops in half. Spoon jam and whipped cream on cupcakes, then position halved tops to resemble fairy wings. Serve dusted with icing sugar.