Any mention of copper cookware takes the mind to the photographic setting of an idyllic kitchen, with beautiful copper pots and pans on display hanging from a rustic pot rack. While it may be well known for its beauty, copper was in fact the first metal used by humans, meaning copper cookware is one of the most ancient types of cooking materials.
With so many other materials to choose from — including stainless steel, aluminum, cast iron, ceramic, glass and nonstick treated — the choice of cookware for the kitchen is deeply personal. Copper is an attractive choice, but is it superior?
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Choosing Safe Cookware
Like all cookware materials, there are advantages and disadvantages to copper pots and pans as well as a variety of types on the market. Copper's main advantage is its high thermal conductivity, enabling the cooking surface to heat quickly and evenly as well as respond quickly to changes in cooking temperature. This high thermal conductivity enables copper pots and pans to quickly establish an equal temperature throughout the bottom surface, eliminating hot spots that could burn or stick.
There are, however, a few distinct disadvantages to this type of cookware. You might wonder, "are copper cooking utensils and copper pans safe?" The most critical disadvantage is that untreated copper cookware used in acidic dishes (tomatoes, vinegar) can result in copper leaching away from the pan and into the food. Copper is a toxic metal that should not be ingested. To resolve this, copper cookware is usually lined, either with tin or stainless steel.
Tin Cookware Lining
Tin is an inert metal that produces an incredibly smooth nonstick surface and conducts heat nearly as well as copper, leaving most of the cooking advantages intact. Tin is far less likely to leach into cooking food, is easy to clean and will prevent potential exposure to copper.
The disadvantage is that tin is a softer metal than other cookware materials, which means it will wear out over time and is liable to scratches and dents. Careful use of tin-lined vessels is important; don't use metal implements on a tin coating, and don't use harsh scrubbing methods. Additionally, the melting point of tin is 450 F, so extreme caution must be taken any time cooking nears 400 F.
Stainless Steel Lining
Stainless steel is the other option for lining copper vessels. Although stainless steel does not conduct heat as well as copper or tin, it can be applied in a very thin layer to leave as much of that powerful heat conduction as possible. Stainless steel is known not to tarnish, rust or oxidize, and will not easily scratch or dent.
Some stainless-steel-lined copper cookware can even be run through the dishwasher, though it's best to do this with caution and check with the manufacturer first. The biggest disadvantage to stainless steel is that the surface of the metal is rougher when compared to other materials, meaning food is much more likely to stick. Cleaning can be a hassle with these types of pots and pans.
Copper Cookware Disadvantages
Another disadvantage to copper cookware is that it is expensive. Copper metal is much more costly than most other cookware materials as it stands, and crafting quality cookware with additional linings only adds to the cost. To meet the needs of most average cooks, there's a good chance that there will be a similar pot or pan made in another material that's much more affordable. However, for those who want to enjoy that quickly responding thermal conductivity, there are safe ways to use copper cookware as long as it is cared for.
Using Copper Cookware
Since copper pots and pans heat up so quickly, you'll likely want to turn the burner down to a lower setting; you should be able to get good, even heat distributed throughout the entire pan without needing the burner on high. Since copper is an even, nonstick surface, this makes it easy to juggle meals that require multiple pans.
A copper pan won't need as much attention as other materials that may develop hot spots. Also, due to its excellent heating, copper cookware makes excellent sauté and frying pans to experiment with recipes. They're great for sautéing onions and garlic, or frying up eggs, especially with a smooth tin lining that will not stick.
Copper saucepans are also beneficial for dairy-based cooking tasks such as warming milk. Again, the material will evenly warm the milk on a low temperature without producing hot spots that can curdle or boil the dairy product. They can be incredibly helpful for any recipe that involves warm dairy products.
When using copper cookware, it's important to be aware of its conductive properties for more than just cooking: Brushing the side of a hot pot or pan can cause a painful burn. If you're not used to cooking with a metal as thermally responsive as copper, stay aware as you learn how the cookware responds and use oven mitts to carry around copper cookware vessels.
Storing Copper Cookware
Many people store their copper cookware on display, which is a perfectly acceptable way to store it. Storage outside a cupboard or closet will obviously result in more washing due to the dust, dirt, cooking byproducts, fingerprints and so on that the cookware will be exposed to, but these are usually things that can be easily washed off.
Copper will eventually tarnish over time. Some people enjoy that tarnished look, while others choose to polish their cookware regularly. Obviously, storing cookware on a pan rack in the open will result in faster tarnishing.
For copper storage in a cupboard or closet, pans can technically be stacked, but copper and tin are softer metals and care should be taken to not scratch, dent or otherwise damage the surfaces of these pots and pans. A separator with small shelves is recommended for copper-tin cookware so that pans aren't stacked deep enough to cause damage.
The copper-stainless-steel variant is slightly more durable, but the copper surface is still soft. Also, be sure to keep these pots and pans away from cookware made of harder materials like pure stainless steel or hard anodized aluminum; these harder materials can dent or scratch softer pans.
Cleaning Copper Cookware
Since copper is such a soft metal, care needs to be taken when cleaning copper cookware. The best way to keep these pots and pans clean is to be careful and cautious when washing them.
- Use dish soap and a sponge to gently clean off any residue on the copper cookware. A soft sponge or rag is best to avoid damaging the surface.
- The owners of copper cookware have a decision to make: embrace the patina that comes with age as copper tarnishes, or keep it shining. Mixtures of lemon, baking soda and/or vinegar can be used to remove the tarnish and polish the pot. A salt scrub can be used, but check the manufacturer's information and be careful with stainless steel linings that could pit. Salt is the best way to restore polish, but check for recommendations from the vendor before use.
- Never put copper cookware in the dishwasher and never scrub it with steel wool or scouring pads. This can irreparably scratch or otherwise damage the copper or the lining.
Following these guidelines, copper pots and pans should be able to last a long lifetime.