You may have noticed that more than a few of my baking recipes, especially for scones and quick breads, both here and in my cookbook (if you've bought it...hint, hint) call for something called cream of tartar.

Many of you may know what cream of tartar is but I think just as many don't, judging from the questions I keep getting about it, including, "what is it?", "why is it called cream when it's a powder?", "will it cause tooth decay?" and "why are you putting tartar sauce in a cake ?!?"

Cream of tartar is perfectly safe, in fact, it's a natural by product of the wine making industry. Grapes naturally contain tartaric acid from which cream of tartar is derived and its biggest commercial use is as the acid component of commercially prepared baking powder.

Baking powder is basically one part baking soda to two parts cream of tartar with some filler and aluminum salts thrown in. Some people object to these fillers and especially, to the aluminum salts, fearing a link to Alzheimer's Disease. Hence, they prefer to make up their own baking powder by using this ratio of baking soda to cream of tartar, or more simply, to use baking soda in combination with an acidic liquid like sour milk, sour cream, yoghurt or buttermilk.

I am of course mindful of health issues, after all, health really is wealth, but to be honest, my main motivation for using cream of tartar and baking soda is that they seem to have more leavening and raising bang, in combination, than just plain old baking powder. My cakes and quick breads are lighter, rise magnificently and there is never that awful, caustic aftertaste that invariably occurs when you use anything more than 2 teaspoons of baking powder or baking soda on its own. This is especially apparent in scones, other quick breads and pancakes which often require rather large amounts of baking powder or baking soda to rise dependably.

It is also a very effective aid when whisking egg whites for meringues. The acidity helps to neutralise any grease or fat (from traces of egg yolk or a poorly washed mixing bowl or whisk) that might otherwise hamper the expansion of the egg whites during whisking.

So, no, cream of tartar has no relation to dental tartar or plaque build up, it will not poison you slowly and you do not put it on your fish and chips. I don't know why though, it's called "cream" and agree that the term seems a bit of a misnomer ; anyone?