Copper’s glow and beauty seduces cooks. It inspires collections strung above kitchen islands, almost too burnished to use. And, since gold utensils and brass cabinet handles have become particularly trendy of late, warm metals are having a moment. But the reality, of course, is that copper cookware isn’t just beautiful—nor is it a trend. Copper is the oldest metal used by man. It boasts unrivaled conductivity and heats quickly and evenly, making it a powerful tool in your kitchen.
It’s also not cheap! And it requires some care. Still, if you can’t stop staring at sauciers, sauté pans, jam pots, canelé molds—and, by the way, can we talk about those mini butter warmers?— here’s exactly what you need to know before you buy copper cookware.
What's the history?
Copper is a naturally occurring metal, first used to make tools in the Middle East around 10,000 years ago. One of the oldest pieces, dated to about 8700 B.C., was found in Northern Iraq.
You might associate it mainly with France. Mauviel was founded in Normandy in 1830, and remains the big name for copper cookware in Europe. Following World War II, Chuck Williams of Williams-Sonoma stumbled into Dehillerin, the beloved cookware shop in Paris, and got lost in the vast array of shiny, rosy copper pots and pans in every shape and size.
“Copper pots are the most satisfactory of all to cook in, as they hold and spread the heat well,” Julia Child advised in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, helping to popularize the material in the imaginations of American home cooks. But in fact, America has had her own copper tradition all along. Paul Revere was a coppersmith. In fact, many countries and cuisines feature copper in the kitchen, for examples you can look to Indian kadhais and Mexican cazos.
How should you use copper cookware?
Copper’s ultimate strength is its incredible conductivity. It heats quickly and diffuses evenly, all the way to the edges of the pan. Set a copper sauté pan on a French top stove and it rips hot. Pull it off and it cools rapidly. Thanks to that quick, nimble reactivity, copper excels at searing, sautéing, sauces, and jams. Use it to cook anything that requires immediate heat for searing, or that needs to reach a specific consistency. “I’ll go so far as to say that the Maillard reaction and French mother sauces all exist because of copper cookware,” says Mac Kohler of Brooklyn Copper Cookware. “They could have never been finessed without these finely calibrated pans.”
Like most materials, there are advantages and disadvantages to copper as a cooking surface. According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, copper ions have positive effects, such as stabilizing egg whites and preserving the green color of vegetables. But copper ions also have negative effects: they react with acid, resulting in off flavors. In excessive amounts, they can be toxic. Copper shouldn’t be used to cook sauces with ingredients like lemon juice, wine, tomatoes. In the end, most copper pots and pans have to be lined for everyday cooking.
Do you want copper lined with tin or stainless steel?
Tin is the traditional lining for copper pots. Tin bonds chemically with copper—it's very malleable and melts easily, so it melds beautifully into the lining of a copper pot. Tin also makes a good lining because it doesn’t react to acid and is relatively nonstick (not compared to, say, contemporary Teflon, but compared to stainless steel). Unfortunately, it has a low melting point of 450°F, so it can wear through. In France, restaurants regularly send out their pots and pans to be retinned. In the US, few chefs make the commitment to copper lined with tin, but there are some dedicated collectors.
Copper lined with stainless steel is an option designed with modern convenience in mind since stainless steel is more durable than tin. However, stainless doesn’t bond well with copper. The two have to be bonded mechanically—the materials do not have a natural affinity, so the layers have to be forced together, and if a stainless steel-lined copper pan is left over the heat, it can delaminate and explode.
While these pans are much more durable than copper lined with tin, stainless steel doesn't conduct heat as well, so it tends to dull the magic of the copper. Still, because of the convenience and durability, Mauviel, All-Clad, and other big brands in the US nearly all use copper lined with stainless steel, as do most American restaurants.
Copper cores, plates, or layers in stainless steel cookware attempt to forge convenience and conductivity. While the marketing claims might be glowing, and the cookware’s price definitely goes up as compared to regular stainless steel pots and pans, the results are debatable. Often you're paying over 100 dollars more for a very thin layer of copper, sandwiched in the middle of four other layers of stainless steel, resulting in maybe slightly better performance.
$395.00, Williams Sonoma
$75.00, Williams Sonoma
Even though fruit contains acid, there’s enough sugar in jam to neutralize it. Pastry chefs like Michelle Polzine of 20th Century Cafe and Nicole Krasinski of State Bird Provisions swear copper makes the “shiniest, sexiest jam you can imagine.”
$280.00, Williams Sonoma
How do you shop for copper cookware?
Mauviel, the iconic French manufacturer, has been family run for seven generations and nearly two centuries. The company still makes beautiful pots and pans. Falk is a Belgian company established in the ‘50s with a patented method for stainless steel bonding. All-Clad, the American pioneer of stainless steel in the ‘60s added copper cores to their pans and now sponsors many pro kitchens.
$355.00, Williams Sonoma
Smaller makers are bringing back the art of American coppersmithing. “After 20 years of collecting copper cookware, I realized that I didn’t have a single American piece,” says Kohler. “It hadn’t really been made here since the late ‘70s.” Today, Kohler’s company Brooklyn Copper Cookware crafts copper cookware by hand and lines it with tin. Jim Hamman of Duparquet acquired the name of a maker who closed during the Great Depression—he now uses those antique pans as casting models for a replica line.
$650.00, Brooklyn Copper Cookware
$490.00, Duparquet Copper Cookware
For vintage finds, Beth Sweeney of Coppermill Kitchen sources and sells antique copper cookware and fortunately her discoveries are now carried by both the Food52 Shop and Anthropologie. Beyond France, she favors copper’s rich history in England, seeking out pre-industrial pieces from William Souter and Benham & Sons, whose maker’s marks reveal stories of posh hotels and aristocratic families. “I’ve always loved the pink bling of copper in the kitchen, and I first registered for Mauviel for my wedding,” Sweeney says. “But my heart will always go to that piece that was made by hand centuries ago.”
In addition to the usual sauce and sauté pans, she loves tea kettles and big stockpots. She first stumbled across a copper tea kettle on Portobello Road in London. “I drink tea three times a day, and it brings water to a boil is so fast, it would shock you,” she says. “Plus, I’m raising three boys, so I’m using my favorite stock pot several times a week to make big batches of soup, stew, and chili, which come up to a simmer and stay there seamlessly.”
If you want to shop antique stores and flea markets, Sweeney recommends looking for handmade rivets and dovetailing—not machine-made perfection—and at least 3 mm of thickness for a sturdy sauté pan (“honestly, the heavier the better”). Avoid any dents, creases, or repairs. Fortunately, Food52 and Anthropologie now both carry the pots she finds.
How do you clean copper cookware?
Copper darkens over time, developing a patina which is actually desirable, and a sign that the pan is well conditioned. But you want to avoid gray-green verdigris (even if it’s regal on the Statue of Liberty), which can eventually blacken and rust. Brand new factory pieces and recently retinned antiques get a complete acid dip, which is why they’re so sparkly and new. If you miss the shine, just apply acid, either with polish or a natural home remedy.
Sweeney recommends Wright’s Copper Cream, while Kohler prefers Brasso. The easiest home method is to stir together lemon juice and salt, rub it in with a cloth, and let it rest. (Sweeney adds a drop of lavender or wild orange essential oil, purely for the aroma.) Then simply wash with soap and warm water and dry completely, until warm and shiny.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious