The Unlucky German Chemist Who Unlocked the Magic of Cream of Tartar

My sister’s sister-in-law, Ann, is the queen of cookies.   I’m lucky to be one of her guinea pigs for her new recipes.   I’ve tasted countless chocolate chip cookies – the winner being the recipe with brown butter and sea salt. But last night she brought four batches of my fave cookie, the snickerdoodle, for us to taste.   The winner was the one with white chocolate chips and the highest amount of cinnamon.

For me, the brilliance of the snickerdoodle is a very cinnamon forward taste, with a crunchy exterior and a luscious, chewy interior.      Ann told us what gives the snickerdoodle both its traditional tanginess and its chewiness is cream of tartar.   And inclusion of this magic ingredient is what separates a standard sugar cookie from a snickerdoodle.    As an acidulant, tartaric acid has a taste that is naturally sour and gives food sharp, tart flavors.

Cream of tartar, also known as tartaric acid is an acidic regulator in food systems.    It enhances fruit flavors and stabilizes batter systems and color.   Its particularly known to stabilize whipped egg whites or meringue.    It also prevents sugar systems from crystallizing, and is a leavener.   It’s part of the two ingredient system of baking powder, which includes it and baking soda.   The tartaric acid neutralizes the bitterness of baking soda, but allows it’s leavening super powers to unfold.   If you don’t have Cream of Tartar, equivalent substitutes are lemon juice or buttermilk.

The chemical name of tartaric acid is dihydroxybutanedioic acid.    It was first isolated in 1769 by a German born chemist in Sweden by the name of Carl Wilhelm Scheele.   Scheele was born in Pomerania, in the northwest corner of the Germanic kingdoms that is now part of Poland.     Although winemakers knew about tartaric acid for centuries as a biproduct of fermentation of the grape, he was the first to develop a technique to extract the crystalline organic acid chemically.

Scheele is an obscure chemist, never given full credit for all his work.     His most famous discovery was oxygen, which he called “fire-air” because it helped in combustion.   The problem was another scientist beat him to the printer and wrote about it before he could.    As it turns out he was the Jan to many scientific Marshas who took credit for the work he did.    He went on to discover six elements – barium, chlorine, molybdenum, manganese, nitrogen and tungsten.   British chemist Sir Humphrey Davy took credit for chlorine and barium.     Peter Jacob Hjelm took credit for molybdenum.

Scheele was known to taste and smell his experiments, and as a result he died prematurely in his forties in 1786, the official cause of death, mercury poisoning.   On his deathbed, Scheele married the widow of the town’s drugstore, who was his ‘housekeeper’ so she could inherit the pharmacy.    He has a statue in Sweden erected in his honor and a poisonous pigment with his name.

Scheele’s statue in Stockholm, Sweden.

The one legacy given to Scheel is a poisonous compound known as Scheele’s Green, that over the years has killed untold number of people, including perhaps Napoleon.    Scheele’s Green is a yellow-green pigment that was used to dye paper, wallpaper, cotton, linen, and some children’s toys.   It is a compound of the super-poisonous arsenic.    Back in his day, the toxicity of arsenic was not known, so people used his pigment in wallpapers in their rooms, ladies’ dresses, newspaper ads.    During Napoleon’s exile in St. Helena, he resided in a house with rooms painted bright green, his favorite color.   Although he died of stomach cancer, arsenic exposure is known to increase the risk of gastric carcinoma.   And analysis of samples of Napoleon’s hair revealed significant amounts of arsenic.

One thought on “The Unlucky German Chemist Who Unlocked the Magic of Cream of Tartar

  1. Nice article! Never knew about Scheele. In case you were not aware, Lawrenceburg antique flea market sells snickerdoodles. 🙂 As soon as you walk in the main entrance, the building on the right, go to the back counter for ur snickerdoodle fix.


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