What is…Cream of Tartar vs. Tartar Sauce?

Language clash events just happen sometimes. They happen quite often in English. Scientific words get shortened, similarly spelled words invade from other languages, and they get shortened. The next thing you know you have a homographical, homophonical nightmare: words spelled the same, said the same, but aren’t the same.

‘Say what?


Cream of tartar, or potassium bitartrate, is a white powder used in food preparation. It is called “tartar’ because it is an acid salt separated from tartaric acid, which is a bi-product of winemaking. Tartaric acid is found in nature in grapes, bananas, and tamarinds.  Cream of tartar is found in the baking aisle of most major chain grocery stores, shelved with the spices, though it is not a spice.

Cream of tartar is more like a leavening agent. For example, you add just a pinch to stiffen meringue (aka whipped egg whites) after the whipping is complete. This is so the egg whites don’t melt back into their previous transparent jelly-like state.

Tartar sauce, meanwhile, has a different association. There is no cream of tartar or tartaric acid in Tartar sauce.

While creamy in color and taste, this is due to mayonnaise, its chief ingredient. Tartar sauce also includes pickles (aka gherkins), capers, white wine vinegar, oil, lemon juice, and parsley or tarragon.  In the US, this sauce is most frequently served on the side of cooked fish filets, nuggets, sandwiches, and its namesake dish, steak tartare. This “tartare” is how we have “Tartar sauce”.

Steak tartare is minced up cow or horse meat served raw, with a raw egg on top, rye bread beneath, and garnished with capers and tartar sauce. “Tartare” is a French word meaning “messengers and warriors on horseback”. “Tartars” (aka “Tatars” is the more universal term on the web these days) currently live in the Russian Federation and surrounding countries, they have North African, Mongol and Turkish roots. They were a nomadic people for centuries.

I cannot locate online proof that Tataric peoples ate this food or made this sauce; it is more likely that a French chef wanted to mentally link some manner of nomadic ruffians with this simple dish of eggs and meat in the eyes of the consumer. See, even then marketing was everything.This dish is also called “steak a la americaine”, and it is listed in French gastronomy books from the early 20th century. Who knows when the French started making it, but I would guess the 1800s at the latest. Why? ‘Note the events that followed…

The Straight Dope hints that when steak tartare was introduced in Hamburg, (the famous port city in northern Germany), they cooked it more and made it their own, and renamed it the “Hamburger”. Some time passes, Germans immigrate to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, one of the largest ethnic groups ever to do so. Fast forward to today, and not surprisingly, one of the hallmarks of American food is a “hamburger”, anywhere you go in this country.

These days it takes a brave soul to eat raw meat, as steak tartare was originally prepared, for fear of food poisoning. I do find interesting though is that tartar sauce contains vinegar. Vinegar and citrus fruit juice, when put on raw meat, denatures it, making it appear cooked. This doesn’t kill all the bacteria, but I would think it helps. In its description of steak tartare and raw meat dishes around the world, Wikipedia notes that local tastes dictate different animal meats are used, but it is fairly universal to use acidic marinades, hot peppers, mustard oil, ground fennel, grains, and olive oil to prepare that meat. These preparations make the food palatable, but I have to think there’s more to the story than that.

For any nomadic peoples, I would bet fresh kills, vinegar, vodka or wine, brined or pickled vegetables, and most of all, fire helped avoid some foodborne illness in nomadic food preparation. If there isn’t a book, perhaps there should be.  It’s possible Sandor Katz has beat me to it. For those that don’t know, Katz, aka Sandorkraut, is a self-made expert of fermented food and its history. Click his name to check out his books and website.


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