Most meringue recipes call for a pinch of cream of tartar. What the hell is the stuff and what does it do? Cream of tartar is another name for the acid potassium bitartrate and it’s a byproduct of winemaking. Who knew? The acid crystallizes in wine casks during fermentation. The process for extracting the crystals from wine dates back to ninth century persia, but traces of the acid have been used to date the winemaking process back about 7000 years. Despite it’s auspicious history, cream of tartar wasn’t commercially available until the 1800s.
I had always assumed that cream of tartar was some horrible, industrial chemical byproduct and I’ve only got my high school history teacher to blame! He made us read Herman Melville’s sendup of the industrial revolution, The Tartarus of the Maids:
“Then, shooting through the pass, all alone with inscrutable nature, I exlaimed–Oh! Paradise of Bachelors! and oh! Tartarus of Maids!”
The story is about a visit to a hell-like paper mill and the ghostlike women whose lives are drained by their industrial labor. It’s a great (but depressing) story…that has nothing to do with cream of tartar. Word association is a powerful thing.
But what does it actually do? Continue reading