Brightly gleaming copper makes for some of the most beautiful cookware that you can have in your kitchen. But is it the right material for your cooking style, stovetop, and budget?
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.
The Pros of Copper Pots and Pans
“Copper pots are the most satisfactory of all to cook in, as they hold and spread the heat well,” wrote Julia Child in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
How quickly copper cookware responds to changes in temperature has long made the malleable metal a favorite of professional chefs. Here are some of the pros to having it in your home kitchen as well:
1. Copper Gives You Excellent Control Over Temperature When Cooking
When compared to all other cookware materials, copper offers superior heat conductivity—the speed at which a material heats and cools.
Because copper offers high thermal conductivity, it reacts very quickly to turning the stovetop heat up or down, doing so almost immediately.
This unrivaled control allows you to braise and brown foods to perfection, and makes it perfect for everything from high-heat searing (depending on the lining), sautéing, and frying to gently simmering delicate sauces.
2. Copper Cookware Doesn’t Produce Hotspots
Isn’t it irksome when the contents of your pan cook at different temperatures, with some bunches burning while other are left underdone? This is due to your cookware’s uneven distribution of heat.
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.
3. Even Hefty, High-Quality Copper Cookware Isn’t Too Heavy to Lift With One Hand
When it comes to cookware, thicker is almost always better. However, as cast iron aficionados can attest, that heft can often come at the price of maneuverability. 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.
We’ll talk more about preferred thickness in the third installment of our copper series. However, if you are frustrated with the struggle to lift your pots or pans one-handed, an upgrade to copper cookware could offer relief.
4. Whether Smooth or Hammered, Copper Cookware Looks Opulent and Impressive
The rich, warm glow of copper cookware makes it as beautiful as it is functional in the kitchen. If you enjoy making an art of presenting your meals, these attractive pieces can do double duty going straight from the stovetop to the table—saving you from dirtying extra serving dishes as well.
The Cons of Copper Cookware
Copper cookware’s ability to heat quickly and evenly comes at a cost—literally. It’s one of the most expensive options that you can consider when looking to purchase new pots and pans.
For the price, you would think that each vessel would do its job better than a similar one made of other materials. However, copper has its cons:
1. There’s a Learning Curve When Switching From Non-stick to Copper Cookware
If you’re used to cooking in a non-stick pan, you might find copper cookware rather unforgiving at first. 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.
Because copper cookware is thicker than non-stick pans, cooking at low heat might take longer than you’re used to. Finally, because copper cookware heats so quickly, it’s necessary to have all your ingredients prepped and ready to go.
We’ll share more tips on how to use your copper cookware in part two. Just know that it takes a few practice sessions to get comfortable cooking with copper pots and pans, so don’t expect to sear like your favorite TV chef the first time you take them out of the box.
2. Copper Cookware Needs to Be Washed and Dried by Hand
You probably know that copper cookware demands some extra TLC. However, many people confuse three different reactions that can occur with copper, resulting in a changed appearance and possible damage. These reactions are:
Corrosion: Repeated or prolonged exposure to acidic substances, such as citrus juice or tomato sauce, will damage copper cookware.
Tarnish: Even in an arid, dry climate, copper will tarnish due to moisture in the air. Of course, humidity speeds things up. But, no matter where you live, your copper cookware will turn black over time. Thankfully, it’s not permanent and can be removed.
Patina: Separate from the grey-black film of tarnishing, a patina is the blue-green or grey-green film that you frequently see on outdoor statues. It’s caused by acids interacting with tarnish to produce three minerals: azurite, malachite, and brochantite.
Here’s how the above reactions apply to caring for copper cookware:
Place your copper cookware in the dishwasher and you risk permanently changing their color as well as damaging the delicate lining.
This means you’re committed to washing your copper pots and pans by hand. However, don’t think about letting your copper pots and pans sit out with bits of food still inside them. Doing so can lead to corrosion.
But you’re not done yet—copper also needs to be hand-dried. Allowing them to simply drip dry will speed up tarnishing, which will also accelerate a patina.
Now, it’s worth noting that copper cookware will develop tarnish and a patina no matter what eventually, which is why...
3. Copper Cookware Needs to Be Polished to Keep That Cherished Shine
If you’ve ever spent time polishing your family’s fancy silver tableware before the holidays, you know the pain (and smell) of restoring it to a gleaming shine. Copper cookware requires the same exertion of elbow grease to keep looking new.
It’s worth noting that you don’t have to polish your copper cookware—it works with the same superior responsiveness whether tarnished and patinated or not.
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.
4. Most Copper Cookware Isn’t Compatible With Induction Cooktops
Induction cooktops rely on an electromagnetic field to vibrate the atoms in your cookware. This creates heat through molecular friction—but requires a magnetic metal to work.
If you have an induction cooktop 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.
The Pros and Cons of Copper Linings: Stainless vs. Tin
According to Amy Conway of Martha Stewart Weddings, in addition to being prone to tarnish, copper metal is highly reactive. When it “comes into contact with acidic ingredients a toxic reaction occurs,” and, if you consume acidic foods cooked in unlined copper regularly, you can develop copperiedus—literally an excess of copper in the body.
“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.
Note: While unlined copper isn’t appropriate for daily use, “exceptions include pots for making caramel and jam, as well as bowls for beating egg whites, since the whites react harmlessly with the copper, becoming extra-fluffy and stable.”
The Pros and Cons of Tin-Lined Copper Cookware
Long before Teflon-style non-stick coatings, tin was the preferred cookware material for giving hot foods the slip. It also transfers heat almost as quickly as copper, ensuring that you won't lose a fraction of your copper cookware’s thermal conductivity.
Tin lining will discolor with age and use. This doesn’t affect your ingredients, but some dislike the aesthetic change.
On the downside, tin lining is delicate and requires special care not to get scratched. Just like when cooking with modern non-stick coatings, you should avoid using metal utensils, instead opting for wood or silicone spoons and spatulas.
After several years of use, your tin-lined copper cookware will eventually need to be re-tinned. You know it’s time when the copper starts to show through your cookware’s interior lining.
Image via Navarini Copper
Unless you live near a re-tinning specialist, you’ll have to send your copper cookware off for a beauty treatment via mail. Thankfully, the service isn’t particularly expensive and generally includes polishing. Expect to pay approximately $5 per square inch on average, while larger or oval-shaped items might cost as much as $8 per square inch for re-tinning.
While the prospect of re-tinning throughout copper cookware’s lifetime might be a deal breaker for some, there is a silver (tin) lining: If your cookware lining is scratched or pitted, you can have it re-tinned for a fraction of replacing the piece. (Unlike stainless steel-lined copper, which can’t be repaired.)
If you’re interested in learning more about the process of re-tinning, you can do so here.
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.
Tin lining is hardy enough to brown meats. 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. Should you ever see your tin lining start to glisten, remove the cookware from the heat source and allow it to cool.
The Pros and Cons of Stainless Steel Lined Copper Cookware
When it comes to choosing a lining, copper cookware traditionalists prefer tin. However, if you’re looking for the lowest maintenance option, stainless steel lining is far superior.
Most notably in that stainless steel-lined copper cookware can be used with metal utensils and, of course, never has to be re-lined.
Purists may claim that stainless steel doesn’t heat up as quickly as copper; however, that’s somewhat of an oversimplification. From our research, we’ve gleaned that there are three factors that influence the relationship between copper cookware, its lining, and the ingredients you’re cooking:
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.
Responsiveness: How quickly copper responds to changes in temperature is the other part of its core appeal. Again, because the bulk of copper cookware’s thermal mass is, well, copper, a thin lining of stainless steel won’t impact how quickly it reacts turning up or down the dial.
Vertical heat transfer: How quickly the heat transfers up through the lining to your food is likely the least important of these three factors, and it’s the only area in which stainless steel is at a disadvantage. Tin is slightly better at transferring heat. However, because the lining is so thin, the difference is unlikely to be noticed in practice.
The difference between tin and stainless steel lining comes down to preference. 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).
If you’d prefer to use your stainless steel utensils and want to scrub the inside of your copper cookware without worry, stainless steel lining is the way to go. Just remember that pits and nicks will irreparably damage the piece, as it can’t be re-lined, and it still can’t go in the dishwasher.
Is Copper Cookware Right for Your Kitchen?
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.
If you’re turned off by copper’s need for extra attention, we suggest exploring stainless steel cookware with copper cladding. The process of sandwiching stainless steel around a copper core allows clad cookware to transmit heat beautifully, without requiring the extra steps in care.
Interested in using copper cookware? Read our next installment, in which we’ll explore how to cure, cook with, clean, and maintain your copper pots and pans to ensure it lasts a lifetime.