Okay, we need to talk a little bit about cream of tartar.
I know we’ve talked a little bit about baking powder, but not enough. Essentially, it’s like this: baking soda leavens in the presence of an acid and moisture. Cream of tartar is an acid. The early baking powders were baking soda, cream of tartar, and corn starch (since moisture would cause the ingredients to react, the corn starch helped control the moisture level in the can). Most manufacturers have since moved on to different chemical combinations.
What this means for sugar cookies is that, since baking powders really took off in the U.S. (between 1900 and 1945), most cookie recipes were transitioned to using baking powder, rather than cream of tartar and baking soda.
But it’s not quite the same, is the thing.
Every American brand of baking powder of which I’m aware is “double-acting.” What this means is that there are two kind of acids in the powder, a fast-acting acid and a slow-acting acid, resulting in a second rise in the oven. This is typically a good thing, because ultimately the whole purpose of these combinations was to leaven something.
On the other hand, how leavened do you want your sugar cookies to be? So this old-timey recipe will produce a crumbly, delicate cookie, rather than a spongey or cake-like cookie, because it uses cream of tartar and baking soda, rather than baking powder.
Even more “inside baseball” digression: if you’re the kind of person who prefers to use the non-aluminum baking powders, be aware that mixing a sodium acid pyrophosphate-based baking powder with alkaline ingredients can actually trigger two deprotonations, rather than the usual one, which breaks down the baking powder further and results in a very bitter flavor. Some brands that include this ingredient: Fleischmann’s, Alsa, Argo, Bakewell Cream and Bob’s Red Mill.
Good news: almost nothing we eat is alkaline. Bad news: eggs (especially the whites, but whole eggs too) and some low-lactic acid varieties of milk are alkaline. So, yeah, there’s that. Other than that, coconut and dates are both slightly alkaline. I mean, hominy is, too, but you’re probably never going to have occasion to mix hominy into something with baking powder. So just be aware. (Edit: oh wait, hominy corn bread. Oops. Okay so hominy too.)
As a side note, in case someone asks, cream of tartar isn’t produced by finding something called tartars and creaming them. It’s named after tartaric acid, present in grapes, which collects in the bottom of casks of wine during fermentation. The acid is refined and half-neutralized, which turns it into a salt. There’s nothing magic about it and any acid will do; some older cake recipes use vinegar.
From a box sold in Canby, Oregon.
1 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
Beat 2 eggs
2 1/2 c. flour
2 1/2 t. cream of tartar
1 t. salt
1 t. soda
Bake in moderate oven, 350 deg. for 10 minutes.
Sugar cookie method (provided by Yesterdish)
- If your nutmeg is whole, start by grating yourself about a tablespoon of nutmeg. You may need more, but let’s start there.
- Cream the shortening and sugar. Beat in eggs.
- Sift together flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, and salt. On low speed (or slowly, if you’re using your arm and can’t find a speed adjustment knob on your shoulder blade), beat dry ingredients into wet ingredients.
- Cover and refrigerate dough for one hour.
- I ASSURE YOU I AM NOT MAKING A MISTAKE. I ASSURE YOU THIS IS WHAT YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO DO. Okay? We cool? Do you feel ready to proceed?
- Using a 1-1/2 Tbsp. cookie scoop (or with your eye and your tablespoon), scoop up 1-1/2 Tbsp. of dough and form it into balls. Drop the balls onto an ungreased cookie sheet.
- Then, with the bottom of an immaculately clean and sturdy drinking glass; or the flat side of an immaculately clean meat pounder; or anything flat, sturdy and immaculately clean; rub a little dab of butter on the flat side and press it into the balls of cookie dough. Flatten each ball to about 1/8″ by pressing down with the drinking glass (or flat, sturdy, and immaculate glass-substitute).
- Once flattened, sprinkle nutmeg on top of the flattened cookies and bake for about ten minutes.