Comparing Cookware: Stainless Steel vs. Copper

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 articles—just in case you want a snack break. Here, you’ll find an up-close look at stainless steel and copper cookware. In the other article, 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.

Still, whether it’s appliances, kitchen islands, pans, mixing, bowls, or utensils, you’ll find stainless steel everywhere in the kitchen. Why is this material so universal? Let’s start off with its benefits.

The Pros of Stainless Steel Cookware

As an iron alloy, stainless steel doesn’t have a tendency to easily chip, bend, or crack. Plus, it will remain shiny for years, as long as it’s cared for properly.

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

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’s alloy contains about 10-11 percent chromium, which forms a chromium oxide film when exposed to air that protects it from air and moisture. This non-toxic film even forms if the stainless steel is scratched.

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 cookware materials, not all stainless steel is created equal. When shopping, keep these tips in mind:

  • Look for quality 18/10 stainless cookware. This means that it contains 18 percent chromium and 10 percent nickel, which creates a very durable mix that can protect against stains and rust while delivering a glossy shine. The higher the chromium content the more corrosion protection it will provide.

  • Pay attention to handles and lids. It might be easy to overlook, but make sure your pots and pans feature sturdy handles and lids that can move from the stovetop to the oven. This is especially important if you’re considering a set with cool-touch, easy-to-grip handles, which may not be resistant to higher heat. Also, lids can ensure you have the proper equipment for various recipes that might require them.

  • Stainless steel cookware with an aluminum core—whether in the base, sidewalls, or both—can help provide more even, longer-lasting heat.

  • Stainless steel pans lined with a copper core can deliver improved heat conductivity since copper has a reputation for providing greater control over temperature changes.  

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

Perhaps one of the biggest benefits related to copper cookware is that it warms quickly and evenly distributes heat, thereby providing greater control over cooking.

Because of this, copper cookware is often used in candy-making and other recipes where heat management is critical, although its control and temperature evenness can also be useful for all your cooking needs.

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.

» Learn More: The Pros and Cons of Copper Cookware

How to Care for Your Copper Cookware

Polishing copper cookware will certainly improve its appearance, but won’t affect its performance. As a result, it’s up to you to decide if the extra elbow grease will provide a solid return on investment.

If you decide to proceed, though, you don’t necessarily need to use a specialized copper product. In fact, you might already have foods in your kitchen that could work just as well, such as half a lemon with coarse salt, flour and vinegar, or ketchup straight out of the bottle. Once you’re finished, be sure to thoroughly wash with soap and rinse with water.

On the other hand, if you decide not to polish, this exterior tarnish can help prevent the raw copper interior from excessive wear and tear. Since tin naturally darkens with time and use and there’s not much you can do from a prevention standpoint, you can forego polishing the inside.

Washing copper cookware isn’t rocket science, but you’ll want to soak it beforehand if you have any stuck-on foods. When scrubbing, use the sponge’s soft side to avoid scratches.

A Tip for Cooking With Copper Cookware

If you’ve never prepared food with copper cookware before, you could be in for a bit of a learning curve. Why? Because copper is highly efficient at conducting heat, so you might need to re-discover the appropriate cooking temperatures.

Pro tip: As a solid starting point, many experts recommend using 50 percent of the heat/flame as you would on a standard pan. Also, you should never heat a copper pan when empty.

This means that if you currently cook one type of food on medium, you’ll want to reduce this to low when using a copper skillet. This helps ensure you won’t scorch your food or melt the interior tin (which is soft and tends to melt around the 450°F mark).

A good rule of thumb is that copper pans shouldn’t be heated to temperatures greater than 325°F, as 50°F temperature fluctuations in either direction are common when cooking in ovens. Foods that contain a lot of acid or salt can also react with copper pans and lead to corrosion.

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 with 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. 

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, it’s important to make sure that it has an intact lining, no pitting, and no blue patina.

» See Also: How to Buy the Best Copper Cookware: Comparison of Top Brands

When Comparing Stainless Steel vs. Copper Cookware

While neither copper nor stainless steel is particularly budget-friendly, their range of capabilities and reputation for excellent performance can enhance the cooking experience.

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:

  • Responsive heat: Cookware that conducts heat well will be responsive to temperature changes, including heating up and cooling down almost instantly.

  • Fast heat flow: Cookware that conducts heat well also helps ensure quick temperature equalization at the surface. 

  • Even heat diffusion: The thicker your pan, the more time it takes for heat to flow to the cooking surface. And by the time it gets there, it will have diffused evenly.

  • You get more heat: The more mass your pan has, the more heat it can hold, resulting in better browning, faster reducing, and hotter frying.

» See Also: Comparing Cookware: Cast Iron, Aluminum, Non-Stick and Carbon Steel

Autumn Yates

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.

Comparing Cookware: Stainless Steel vs. Copper