I began this post as a simple analysis of using citric acid in place of cream or tartar. Since citric acid is much more common In Israel than cream of tartar, I figured it was worth investigating whether I could substitute something easy to find in the spice section of your local Israeli market for something redonkulously expensive and equally hard to find.
I realized that simply stating it as fact wouldn’t be all that helpful, so I started thinking about how I could turn this into a post into a practical demonstration of the principle of how acids interact in cooking.
I got a little carried away.
Cooking is, in its own way, edible science. While you don’t have to have a complete understanding of every fundamental chemical and physical reaction in the kitchen, a little knowledge of certain things isn’t a bad thing. Of course it stands to reason that the more you know, the more you can experiment.
The pH (percent Hydrogen) scale determines the acidity or alkalinity of something. Acids have a pH value ranging from 0-6. Water is 7[ish], and alkalines like baking soda [sodium bicarbonate, or NaHCO3] have a pH value ranging from 8-14. Cream of tartar is a powder that has a pH of 5. Citric acid is a powder that has a pH of 3. Since citric acid has a lower pH value, it is a stronger acid than cream of tartar.
[If you understand chemistry and want to debate this in the comments (Krebs cycle, molarity, solution concentration, etc.) be my guest. Have a blast.]
Why is this important? So glad you asked. Keep reading.
By using baking soda – a common chemical leavening agent in baking – and an acidic element [nerds say “reagent”], I was able to demonstrate that there is no appreciable difference between using citric acid and cream of tartar. While the actual results weren’t measured to a scientific degree of accuracy, for the purposes of my requirements for food substitution I was able to determine that when baking soda is in a water solution, lemon juice, citric acid and cream of tartar all created an acid-base reaction as expected. By judging the force, speed and duration of the reaction, I was able to determine that when I used a 1:4 ratio of citric acid to baking soda, it reacted with similar intensity to a solution of cream of tartar and baking soda.
In short, it worked. Now on to practical application of our new-found knowledge.