Cream of Tartar

One of my plans for the weekend involves baking scones, and my dad’s scone recipe involves cream of tartar.  I don’t make scones much, and I don’t use cream of tartar much, so I started to wonder whether cream of tartar is the sort of ingredient that goes bad.  Happily, not even spice companies who presumably want to sell me more of the stuff claim that cream of tartar goes bad.  Huzzah!

So I can make my scones using my cream of tartar from I’m-afraid-to-think-about-when… but… I mean, the stuff doesn’t really have a taste.  What is it?  Why is it included in this recipe, anyway?

Apparently cream of tartar crystallizes out of wine, especially when the wine gets too cold.  Wine people mostly seem to talk about “tartrates,” for the record, but it’s the same deal (at least mostly).  My mind is blown.  I’m cooking with a bizarre substance that crystallizes out of wine and can look like shards of glass, which apparently freaks people out a lot when they find it in their wine bottle.

A main use of cream of tartar seems to be stabilizing egg whites so you can make stuff like meringues.  (I really should make meringues sometime; they always look so lovely on The Great British Bake Off.)  Who comes up with these ideas, do you ever wonder?  Like, “Hey, I found these things that look like shards of glass in our wine; guess I’ll go throw them into this meringue I’m whipping up.”  I just… maybe the experimental cook was a chemist, and already had some guess as to what might happen?  I’m going to go with that, because the alternative just seems suicidal.

But anyway scones don’t involve stabilizing egg whites, or I would have noticed.  So… why the cream of tartar?  Best guess, it’s because you can combine cream of tartar with baking soda in order to get baking powder.

Well then.  Now I know.

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