Comparing Cookware: Stainless Steel vs. Copper (Part 2)

In the first part of our cookware series, we talked about understanding why you wanted any given pot or pan, as it’s intended purpose is most important in dictating what material and shape make up the best choice. We also explained the difference between reactive and non-reactive metals, as well as what works best with different cooktops.

Next up, we’ll look at materials. However, it’s not as simple as picking a single metal. There are multiple combinations and design philosophies to choose from. A saucepan, for example, can be made of:

  • Only stainless steel
  • Stainless steel with a conductive base of either aluminum or copper
  • Raw aluminum
  • Aluminum with an interior lining of stainless steel
  • Fully clad aluminum with stainless steel on both the inside and the outside
  • Heavy copper with an interior lining of stainless steel

Since there’s so much to know about each, we’ve broken up our materials guide into two parts—just in case you want a snack break. Here in part two of the series, you’ll find an up close look at stainless steel and copper cookware. In part three, we’ll cover other popular materials such as cast iron, aluminum, non-stick versions, and more.

Stainless Steel Cookware

Cooking with stainless steel for the first time can be an adventurous journey. Not knowing how much oil to add, frying attempts that result in a fried pan, or losing half your scrambled eggs to the skillet are just a few of the kitchen disasters that make stainless steel pans a formidable first choice for cookware.

Despite its temperament, stainless steel is absolutely everywhere in the kitchen. If you don't have sleek stainless steel appliances or kitchen islands, you probably have stainless steel pans, mixing bowls, and utensils.

How did stainless steel come to be so universal in cooking? This versatile, durable, worry-free metal provides more than just good looks.

The Pros of Stainless Steel Cookware

Stainless steel is an iron alloy—which means it’s as strong as strong can be. Sure, a deep enough gouge can scratch its surface. However, stainless steel doesn't chip, bend, or crack easily. Plus, with proper care, your stainless steel cookware will stay shiny over years of use.

Not only will stainless steel not react to tough wear and tear, but it's also a non-reactive material. This means that food won’t pick up any flavors from stainless steel pots and pans, so you can go ahead and simmer your favorite acidic foods, such as tomato sauce or melt some ooey-gooey cheese.

Another positive is that this heavy, durable material is dishwasher-safe and is available at a range of price points. Just be aware that while basic models remain relatively inexpensive, they’re more prone to hot spots. However, the more expensive options, such as stainless steel cookware with an added inner of copper or aluminum to improve heat conductivity, will last a lifetime.

The Cons of Stainless Steel Cookware

As we mentioned in our breakdown of non-reactive metals in “Finding the Perfect Pots & Pans for Your Cooking Style,” stainless steel’s weak point is evenly conducting heat. Particularly cheaper (i.e. thinner) stainless steel cookware can result in hot spots that cause food to cook unevenly or burn.

Another less attractive aspect of stainless steel is that recipes often require some additional grease—elbow grease, that is—when it’s time for clean up. Because it’s prone to hotspots, stainless steel can acquire bits of stuck on food that call for serious scrubbing to stay shiny. However, soap and steel wool generally do the trick.

Finally, stainless steel is prone to rust if exposed to constant moisture. While rust spots can be scrubbed off, anyone that lives in a humid climate might defer to metal cookware that’s coated to avoid the unnecessary exercise.

How To Care For Your Stainless Steel Cookware

Since it’s prone to rusty blooms (not the kind you’d buy in a bouquet), stainless steel requires some particular care to keep it looking tip top. But don’t worry, the metal isn’t too finicky.

Stainless steel is a metal alloy with about 10-11% chromium. When exposed to air, the chromium in the metal forms a film of chromium oxide over the surface. This film is passive and non-toxic, and most importantly, it prevents the steel from rusting by shielding it from air and moisture. Even if the metal gets scratched, the chromium oxide reforms seamlessly.

The solution to keeping stainless steel shiny relies, in fact, on your cleansing solution—or lack thereof. Regular bleach can strip away the protective chromium oxide layer, leaving stainless steel exposed to the elements.

Instead of using bleach on your stainless steel, simply scrub the surface to remove any rust and dry it thoroughly. The layer of chromium oxide will reform on its own over the next few days.

If your stainless steel cookware is plagued by some extra-troublesome blooms, many sources recommend using Bar Keepers Friend to clean away rust. Or, if you'd like to go a more natural route, try using a paste of lemon juice and cream of tartar. In either case, use a plastic scrubby pad for cleaning, as using steel wool can cause further damage.

What To Look For When Buying Stainless Steel Cookware

Despite being one of the most popular materials for cookware, not all stainless steel is the same quality. Keep these tips in mind when you shop for the best stainless steel cookware for your kitchen:

Buy 18/10 stainless cookware for quality. To ensure that the cookware set you're looking at will last, look at the types of metal used to make it. For example, an 18/10 stainless steel cookware set contains 18 percent chromium and 10 percent nickel and is considered very durable. Chromium protects stainless steel from stains and rust, while nickel makes chromium more effective and gives your pots and pans a glossy shine. The higher the numbers are, the more corrosion-resistant the cookware set is.

Purchase sets with durable handles and lids. While the quality of metal in your stainless cookware is important, you'll also want to buy pots and pans that have sturdy handles and lids. You can often find stainless steel cookware with cool-touch, easy-to-grip handles, but you'll also want to consider whether you need handles that can go from stovetop to oven for the recipes you like. Make sure the set includes lids, as many recipes will require them for food to cook properly.

Look for stainless cookware with an aluminum core. While pure stainless steel cookware is durable and doesn't corrode, it doesn't retain heat well and can cook food unevenly. To solve this problem, stainless steel cookware often features aluminum or copper cores in both the base and side walls of each pan. You can even find a stainless steel cookware set that includes both aluminum and copper in the base. This helps your food cook more evenly and helps the pan retain heat when you add more food.

Or, stainless steel cookware with a copper core. Some manufacturers also offer stainless steel pans lined with a copper core. This combination allows for greater heat conductivity than a stainless steel/ aluminum combination. That’s because copper core pans react more quickly to temperature changes, offering greater control over the cooking process.

Copper Cookware

With its beautiful appearance and admirable workability, copper cookware has been a favorite amongst culinary and gastronomic experts for centuries.

Traditionally, copper cookware was made with a tin interior, which prevented food from reacting with the copper. Modern copper cookware is lined with stainless steel for the added benefit of durability and ease of cleaning.

The Pros of Copper Cookware

Copper pans are loved for being quick to warm and for their extremely even heat distribution, giving you greater control over the cooking process.

They are often specifically called for in candy-making and other heat-sensitive recipes, but copper is useful for almost all your cooking, since the increased control and evenness of temperature makes everything easier.

Professional chefs prize them for their ability to quickly achieve precise temperatures and maintain them, making them perfect for sauces, browning and braising. Another bonus? Copper is naturally anti-microbial, meaning that the material resists bacteria.

The Cons of Copper Cookware

Almost as renowned as copper cookware's precision is its daunting price and their reactiveness to acid. This is why most are lined—pure copper pots impart a metallic taste to food and can leave gray streaks.

Copper cookware is also high-maintenance, requiring frequent polishing to keep up that beautiful shine. But, be gentle—they can dent fairly easily. If you loathe the idea of constant polishing but have your heart set on copper, some manufacturers offer a brushed finish which develops a beautiful patina over time.

Additionally, you absolutely should not use copper cookware on a ceramic-glass-top stove as it may leave metal marks on the stove’s surface.

Finally, investing copper cookware will cost you a pretty penny, as it’s one of the most expensive types you can purchase.

How To Care For Your Copper Cookware

Whether or not you choose to polish your copper is really a personal preference—while not doing so will affect its appearance, your cookware will work just as well either way.

To polish copper cookware, you can use special copper polish or anything lightly acidic — lemon, vinegar, or tomato juice work particularly well. Just make sure to clean the pan with soap and water after.

If you don't polish it, the tarnish will actually protect the copper underneath from wear. Don't worry about polishing the inside; tin naturally darkens with use, and there is little you can do to prevent it.

Washing copper cookware is fairly straightforward. However, if you have hard, baked-on foods such as caramel, it's better to soak your copper cookware rather than scrub them. Always use the soft side of the sponge to avoid scratching the soft, thin layers of metal.

A Tip For Cooking With Copper Cookware

Copper is so conductive people often have to relearn what temperatures to cook different foods at. A good rule of thumb is to use half the heat (or flame) you would on a non-copper pan, and never ever heat an empty pan.

For example, if you cook eggs on medium-high in a stainless steel skillet, use medium low for copper. The reason for this is two-fold: to not burn the food, and to not melt the tin lining (tin is also a soft metal which melts around 450°F).

Because of this temperature restriction, it’s also recommended that you avoid using copper pans in an oven above 325°F, since most ovens fluctuate 50°F or more in both directions while maintaining a single temperature. Additionally, watch out for extremely acidic or salty foods, as long-term contact will corrode your pan.

What To Look For When Buying Copper Cookware

There are two important considerations when shopping for copper cookware: thickness and lining.

The first and most important thing to look for is the thickness of the copper—it should be at least 2.5mm thick for the best thermal conductivity, since that’s why you’re buying copper pots in the first place.

As we mentioned above, you can find unlined copper cookware or items lined in tin or nickel. However, most of today’s high-end copper is lined with stainless steel.

If you’re going to invest in copper, we recommend this combination, as it provides the best of both types of professional cookware—copper for the thermal properties and steel for hardness and durability.

A note about non-stick coatings on copper cookware: Some manufacturers offer copper cookware lined in non-stick coating—two that have been reviewed here on HighYa include Red Copper Pan and Copper Chef. Depending on the thickness of the copper and overall quality of the cookware, you’d think that these mash-ups could offer the same cooking experience of copper with the added bonus of non-stick ease. However, there are some serious health concerns to be considered when shopping non-stick.

If you do decide to shop for copper with a non-stick coating, look for a thick, durable, PFOA-free interior that allows you to cook with minimal oil and is dishwasher safe.

Finally, if you’re considering using copper pans, always inspect the interior of the pan to make sure this lining is intact, with no pitting and no verdigris (blue copper patina). Almost all of the care with copper pans is about maintaining this lining.

When Comparing Stainless Steel & Copper Cookware

Price and functionality are key considerations when choosing pots, pans, and other cookware. It’s true that neither copper nor stainless steel are particularly budget-friendly. However, they’re each renowned for their excellent performance.

Which of the above is best suited for your needs? That’s totally subjective. Just remember that having at least one high-quality workhorse provides you with the following benefits:

  • You get responsive heat. Good heat conductors are responsive to temperature changes. They'll do what the heat source tells them to do—heat up, cool down—almost instantly.
  • You get fast heat flow. Heat flows more easily through a good heat conductor, assuring quick temperature equalization on the cooking surface.
  • You get even heat diffusion. A thicker pan has more distance between the cooking surface and the heat source. By the time the heat flows to the cooking surface, it will have spread out evenly, because heat diffuses as it flows.
  • You get more heat. Mass holds heat (heat is vibrating mass, so the more mass there is to vibrate, the more heat there will be). The more pan there is to heat, the more heat the pan can hold, so there's more constant heat for better browning, faster reducing, and hotter frying.

Next up, join us for a closer look at cast iron, aluminum, non-stick versions, and more.


Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


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