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.
To help fill in some of our knowledge gaps, we headed up to East Greenwich, Rhode Island, to visit Jim Haman at the industrial complex where he runs his two copper cookware companies, East Coast Tinning (dedicated to vintage copper cookware restoration) and Du parquet Copper Cookware (where he makes his own line of copper pots and pans). 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. 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.
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 Copper Cookware ; 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. Copper pots from the UK can be recognized by the sharp triangular shape of the pot-handle attachment, while French pots have a rounded triangle.
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.
Good pots and pans tend to be expensive, and that’s especially true for copper cookware, which looks gorgeous, has a sort of timeless aesthetic appeal, and is often dramatically more expensive than even its high quality stainless steel equivalents. According to Mac Kohler, the co-owner of Brooklyn Copper Cookware, copper offers unparalleled heat conduction, which makes it well suited not just for stove top pots and pans, but also for roasting pans.
If you’re the kind of cook who wants your pan to reach a specific temperature, there’s no beating copper. Copper also tarnishes easily, and it’s difficult to maintain the soft gleam that makes it so beautiful.
It’s a soft metal that’s prone to scratching and denting, and when exposed to acidic foods it will develop verdigris, that greenish patina that you’ll find on pennies (and the exterior of the Statue of Liberty). For many people the benefits outweigh the downsides, and the thought of having a kitchen filled with gleaming copper pots is incredibly alluring.
It’s beautiful, is unlikely to get banged up (since you likely won’t be using utensils inside it, other than to make a pan gravy), and performs incredibly well. Jacob Dean is a food and travel writer and psychologist based in New York.
He likes beer, less traveled airports, and is allergic to grasshoppers (the insect, not the mixed drink.) To help you make your decision, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of copper cookware followed by the advantages and disadvantages of different interior linings.
How quickly copper cookware responds to changes in temperature has long made the malleable metal a favorite of professional chefs. Because copper offers high thermal conductivity, it reacts very quickly to turning the stove top heat up or down, doing so almost immediately.
Isn’t it irksome when the contents of your pan cook at different temperatures, with some bunches burning while other are left underdone? But, thanks to copper ’s excellent thermal conductivity, it doesn’t get hot in just the center area that’s directly over a heat source.
Instead, heat rapidly transfers throughout the bottom of your pot or pan, eliminating hot spots and allowing your ingredients to cook evenly whether they’re in the center or near the edge. Even quality stainless steel cookware can be too heavy to comfortably handle, due to thick-clad bottoms that attempt to assist the material’s otherwise poor thermal conductivity.
Partially because copper can’t be preheated empty, it takes some time to figure out the right amount of oil or butter and correct temperature to keep foods from sticking to the pan’s surface. However, many people confuse three different reactions that can occur with copper, resulting in a changed appearance and possible damage.
Corrosion: Repeated or prolonged exposure to acidic substances, such as citrus juice or tomato sauce, will damage copper cookware. Place your copper cookware in the dishwasher and you risk permanently changing their color as well as damaging the delicate lining.
The only difference is if your cookware in unlined (more on this soon), in which case it’s important to remove any green cast before cooking, lest those minerals interfere with the taste of your food. If you have an induction cook top and are in love with the idea of copper cookware, be sure to catch our third article in this series to explore your options.
However, know that finding a good match will take some extra legwork, so don’t order copper pots and pans just yet. According to Amy Conway of Martha Stewart Weddings, in addition to being prone to tarnish, copper metal is highly reactive.
“For safety, copper cookware is generally lined with a layer of tin or, for more recently made pieces, stainless steel.” Each has its pros and cons, and we’ll continue to point out their differences throughout this series. Just like when cooking with modern non-stick coatings, you should avoid using metal utensils, instead opting for wood or silicone spoons and spatulas.
Even if you can cope with tin’s needs for an occasional revamping, there’s a final flaw in the material’s usefulness: It can’t stand the heat necessary to produce a high sear on your steak. However, it’s melt-point (about 450-degrees) is lower than that required to create a crust on thick slabs of beef (about 600-degrees), and shouldn’t be used for this purpose.
Even heat diffusion: An important perk of copper cookware is the lack of hotspots created, thanks to its excellent thermal conductivity. This is largely a function of the primary material of a man or pot, so a thin lining of stainless steel isn’t going to create hot spots.
If you’re willing to stick with wooden or silicone utensils and don’t mind the extra effort that comes with babying tin lining, you can enjoy a slight increase in non-stick vertical heat transfer and moderate non-stick benefits (though not as much slip as offered by PTFE/ Teflon coatings). In short, copper makes for a wonderful cookware material if you have the time and patience to accommodate its quirks.
Offering versatility, maximum responsiveness in temperature control, and lack of hotspots mean that copper is more than just a pretty face in the kitchen. However, when shifting to copper from a stainless steel set, you’ll also experience a steep learning curve, increased time cleaning, and significant polishing to keep it looking beautiful.
The process of sandwiching stainless steel around a copper core allows to clad cookware to transmit heat beautifully, without requiring the extra steps in care. Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience by objectively investigating topics and products in the kitchenware industry and shopping to provide you with takeaway advice.