Though, to be fair, it sells for a hell of a lot less than just about any car, even the most basic one, and most people own at least one of those, right? * I, a person who knows nothing about automobiles and who didn't get his driver's license until he was 29 years old, have no business writing car analogies.
Given the historic importance of copper in the kitchen, and its continued use in higher-end French restaurants and some homes, it helps to understand a bit about it. Here we'll take a look at copper cookware to suss out its strengths and weaknesses, and try to help you decide whether you want to go deeper by investing in some.
Since Serious Eats is a media company and not an investment bank, we unfortunately aren't in possession of the types of funds that would allow us to buy a large collection of copper cookware on which to get tons of firsthand experience. Jim gave us a tour of his factory, answered a litany of my copper questions, let me spin a couple pans with him, and allowed us to film him in action.
That makes the human relationship with copper about as old as agriculture, though for several millennia we didn't do much with it beyond shaping it into decorative objects. Several thousand years later, but still some time before the Egyptians raised their pyramids, our ancestors figured out how to hammer copper sheets into bowls and other vessels.
In a lot of ways, copper sits at the opposite end of the conduction and heat-retention spectrum as cast iron, making them two very different, yet complementary, materials for cooking. Put a handful of cooking geeks in a room and the conversation heats up faster than copper on a flame.
Arguments erupt over whether copper is good enough to justify its cost, and whether its relative merits really set it far enough apart from the crowd of more affordable cookware. Someone from the Modernist Cuisine team might point out that copper's unrivaled conduction isn't the full picture.
An engineer, trying to keep the peace, will kindly put together a summation of the pros and cons of the primary cookware metals, explaining in lay terms essential concepts like thermal conductivity, heat capacity, specific heat, and thermal diffusivity. But then it falls apart when specific pots and pans get called into question, and ultimately everyone just starts trolling everyone else, and we get nowhere.
I've been working as a professional cook for 15 years in restaurants and food media, and I've rarely used copper. I want to add that I personally find a well- made copper pan to be an object of beauty in the kitchen, like a great piece of vintage cast iron, and that aesthetic quality can have value in and of itself.
Second, and very importantly, tin is impressively nonstick all on its own, without any need for the seasoning we all strive to build up on cast iron. You can fry an egg, cook pancakes, or lightly sear a piece of fish on it and, for the most part, the food won't stick.
The downside is that tin has a low melting point of around 450 °F (230 °C), which a pan can quickly reach if left over a flame unattended and empty. For this reason, tin-lined copper should never be preheated while empty, and it should never be used for very high-heat searing (save your cast iron for that).
While it's a rare event, you do have to factor that in when buying tin-lined copper, as it's an extra cost in the lifetime of the pan. Lining copper with stainless steel is a much newer invention, since it's a heck of a lot more difficult to bond those two metals.
The disadvantage is that it absolutely sucks in terms of adhesiveness: food loves to stick to stainless steel. Unlike re-tinning, there's no easy way to fix a busted stainless steel–lined copper pan.
You will, on occasion, see copper lined with nickel, a practice that was briefly popular in the '90s, but has since fallen out of favor. Silver, it turns out, is an even better conductor of heat than copper (not that conduction matters much with these ultra-thin linings), and it's supposedly very nonstick, though given the price, I don't expect to ever be able to confirm this firsthand.
There's also a plain copper mixing bowl intended solely for beating egg whites: the copper prevents sulfur atoms in the whites from bonding too tightly, helping to maintain the integrity of the foamy peaks. You're probably okay down to about 2 mm, but any lower than that and you're getting into decorative pot territory: it may look nice in your kitchen but it won't perform well.
This is where a lot of companies try to skimp, so make sure to confirm how thick the copper is before handing over your credit card. If you want some tips on where to find quality copper cookware, look at Haman's tin- and silver-lined selections at Du parquet ; the tin-lined pots and pans from Brooklyn CopperCookware ; and famous old-school makers like Marvel and DE Buyer, which now focus on stainless steel–lined pans.
As expensive as copper is, you can sometimes find a deal when shopping vintage goods (I saw one guy online who bought a pot worth hundreds for just $14). If the piece is vintage, there's no chance it's lined with stainless steel, since that's a much more recent development.
Old copper pots can come from many parts of the world, but if you're in the United States, chances are good that the cookware came from either the US, Britain, or France. American copper pots tend to mimic the French rounded triangle, but with a more elongated shape that can begin to appear bar-like (sometimes it's very bar-like).
The French loophole looks like a teardrop, whereas in the UK it's more of a keyhole or an arch. No matter how dingy an old copper pot may look, remember that, short of extreme damage (say, a hole in it), it can be fixed up like new.
After re-tinning and polishing, what may have looked like a piece of trash could easily be an object of remarkable beauty and value.