Found naturally in many different fruit, tartaric acid is an organic acid that has a number of different uses in the kitchen. It has a much better-known salt form - potassium bitartrate or cream of tartar. This is a commonly used ingredient found in baked goods and household cleaning products. While the two can sometimes be used in place of one another, as the name suggests, potassium bitartrate has an additional potassium molecule so they cannot always be substituted. For example, pure tartaric acid can be dissolved in water, but potassium bitartrate cannot.
Tartaric acid is an alpha-hydroxy-carboxylic acid that has been known to occur naturally during the winemaking process for centuries. However, it was in 1769 that the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele, famed for his discovery of oxygen, first worked out how to actually isolate and extract tartaric acid. Less than a century later, his research was continued by Louis Pasteur, who used tweezers and a magnifying lens to sort crystals by hand. This process produced the first known sample of levotartaric acid.
Before this, tartaric acid was extracted from tamarinds in countries such as Sudan and Nigeria. By the 16th century, tartaric acid had spread to Mexico via travellers from Spain and Portugal and today, Mexico remains one of the leading producers and consumers of tartaric acid.
Tartaric acid in Mexican cooking
Because of its popularity in Mexican cuisine, tartaric acid is used in a variety of traditional and modern recipes. It is combined with baking soda to make a leavening agent that is widely used, but it is often found in its natural form as fresh or dried tamarinds.
Tamarind paste is a commonly used ingredient in a variety of sweet dishes including hard candies which are often coated in a combination of tamarind and chilli for a distinctive kick of flavour. Tamarinds are also used to make ‘agua de tamarindo’ which perfectly embodies the flavour of tartaric acid. Tartaric acid is a key taste in a range of recipes, from marinades and sauces to cocktails and teas, so for an authentic Mexican flavour, it is vital to have some on hand.
The health benefits of tartaric acid
The benefits of tartaric acid extend beyond its flavour and chemical properties: it also has a range of health benefits that make it an appealing option for adding flavour to a range of dishes. It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that make it an immune system booster. Tartaric acid can also aid digestion, and improve absorption in the intestines which can also help reduce flatulence and trapped wind.
Tartaric acid can increase your glucose intolerance making it a great supplement for people who are suffering from type 2 diabetes and those who suffer from other forms of glucose sensitivity. Tartaric acid is also an alpha-hydroxy acid and is often used to promote skin health.
Other uses of tartaric acid
There are a number of fruits that contain naturally high levels of tartaric acid, including pineapples, cherries, papayas, peaches and mangoes. It is found in some of the highest concentrations in grapes, and tartaric acid is responsible for the distinctive smell and flavour of wine. It is the compound that gives wine its tartness and bite.
It is tartaric acid that can form the crystals known as ‘wine diamonds’. These are crystals of potassium bitartrate that are occasionally found on corks in bottles of wine or on the inside of barrels.
Tartaric acid can be used to activate pectin in jam-making, to separate curds and whey in cheese-making and it can even be added to dough to improve its texture and prevent it from sticking. It is gluten free, kosher, halal and vegan, making it an ingredient that can come in handy whatever you are cooking.