Kitchen Confidence

Cooking in and Caring for Copper

By • October 23, 2012 • 38 Comments

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Inspired by conversations on the FOOD52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun. Today, a careful look at the prettiest kitchen metal there is. Want to add to your collection? Head over to the Food52 Shop!  

Set the stage for your dream kitchen. 

In all likelihood, there is an island, or at the very least, counters that go on for miles, on which you chop, dice, and mix. (You set up separate stations for each, just because you can.) There are appliances and tools ready for you at your every mixing and churning whimsy, places to bake, and then to cool, all of your latest creations. And somewhere -- maybe above the stove, maybe beside it -- there are likely copper pots, beautiful and shining and ready to simmer. 

But copper pots and pans are for more than just daydreams, for mind movies of cooking alongside Julia Child and flipping your own perfect omelette. There’s a reason these, to some, are the creme de le creme of cookware. For those of you who are lucky enough to own them -- or those who’d just like to treat them properly in the kitchens of their dreams -- we’re talking copper. 

Why Copper Makes You Look Like a Pro
Copper doesn’t just make your stove stylish, it lends you a helping hand while you cook. What we mean is this: as a metal, copper is one of the best conductors of heat. It warms quickly and stays warm, making for an even distribution of heat, and -- here’s the best part -- uniform cooking of your food. This means no more burnt spots, no more scalding. You have greater control over everything. See? Helping hand.

Be Nice to Your Copper. Trust Your Copper.
Copper is the decathlete of metals -- it’s ready to do anything you ask of it, and it will do it effortlessly. Since it’s extremely efficient with heat, there is generally no need to use a high flame, or to preheat before cooking. Keep your heat to moderate, and let the pan do the rest of the work.

If you accidentally got a little impatient with the heat and cranked the flame, discoloration could occur. If this happens, not to worry, there’ll just be a Wright’s Copper Cleaner (or Brasso) and a bit of elbow grease in your future. 

You heard a rumor about cleaning copper and it is:
Not true. One of the great myths of copper cookware is that it is difficult to care for. We are dispelling that, right here and now. These pots are built to last -- built to boil, sauté, and braise with the best of them -- and come out the other side alive. Most importantly, the majority of battle scars gleaned along the way can be successfully healed with just a pantry and a little patience. When you think of it that way, these beauties are actually quite low maintenance. Low maintenance? Copper? Yes, you’re reading this right. Follow these simple tips and home remedies, and yours is bound to last, too.

Heavy gauge copper -- like this pie pan -- will make sure your food cooks perfectly and uniformly.

And while we have you, we'll dispell another rumor, too: copper is 100% safe to cook in, so long as it is lined with another, non-reactive metal (and most copper cookware is). Most commonly, you'll find linings made of nickel, tin, or stainless steel. Throw anything and everything into these pans; the metal lining will keep you -- and your food -- safe.

Getting Your Copper to Shine as Brightly as the Day You Took it Home
After cleaning with warm soap and water, be sure to dry your pots thoroughly. Any residual water could lead to a quicker tarnishing of the copper.

Salt and Lemon
Cut a lemon in half, and sprinkle table salt on the cut side of one half. Now rub! Salt saves the day, acting as a mild abrasive. To up the ante, you can add cornstarch to the mix -- mix equal parts salt and non-iodized cornstarch with enough lemon juice to make a paste. Rub on pot with a soft cloth, rinse with warm water, and voila! Good as new. 

Vinegar
We don’t recommend using your best balsamic, but a little white vinegar goes a long way with copper. Simply soak a cloth and rub the surface of your pot, periodically changing to a new area of your cloth, and then smile -- the pot lid, now shiny beyond belief, doubles as a mirror in a pinch.

Channel Julia Child while you flip your omelettes in this late 19th century French sauté pan.

Tomato-like Things
The acid in tomatoes works wonders on copper. Cover the surface of your pot with tomato paste, let sit for a few minutes, and then wash it off with soap and water. Or, if you don’t have tomato paste, ketchup plays pinch hitter. Rub a small amount over your pot with a rag and rinse.

Baking Soda
After it makes your quickbreads rise, baking soda will polish up your best pots. Make a potion of equal parts baking soda and lemon juice, and rub away the tarnished spots with a soft cloth. Just watch -- this one is kind of like magic.

Want to start (or add to) a copper pot kitchen fleet of your own? Pick out your favorite pots and bakeware here

Jump to Comments (38)

Tags: kitchen confidence, copper, cooking, cleaning, caring for, how-to & diy

Comments (38)

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2 months ago Lo Trenberth

I have a thing about Poached eggs and Im very particular that they must be "Medium".. thats firm whites and runny yolks! Im Gluten Free so I toast up a multigrain slice of bread and I sometimes butter it! I poach up 2 eggs and place them atop of baby spinach and or baby kale barely heated in a small pan which has a tsp of finely chopped garlic and a TBS of coconut oil in it! I place a lid on it to steam and wilt for a few minutes, then plate it all up. I drizzle over a little Trader Joes Cilantro dressing and Volia!! I often season with lemon pepper and alittle pink Himilayan Salt A beautiful, tasty and nutrious breakfast, lunch or dinner... Couldnt be easier

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5 months ago blazabla

LG Gonzales in New Orleans is the best at re-tinning copper cookware. It's all he does and his is the most affordable pricing structure in the game. Best part, you have to call him, no online presence for this guy. He doesn't even have a cell phone! (504) 944-7825 and check out this article about him - he's a hoot! http://www.myneworleans...

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7 months ago Siouxiq

Thanks Robert, for the good info!

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7 months ago Robert Ruiz

In response to Siouxiq on where to get copper retinned, I've had good luck sending it to East Coast Tinning. See: http://www.eastcoasttinning...

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almost 2 years ago Siouxiq

Do you know where to get copper pots retinned?

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almost 2 years ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

As noted below in response to a similar question:
This question was one of the first I asked on the old foodpickle (the prior name of the Hotline), while it was still in beta.
Here is the thread, where you'll find a lot of useful information, including a specialist who will be very frank with you about whether you actually need to re-tin, or not. http://www.food52.com/foodpickle... ;o)

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almost 2 years ago Bella Field

Nice article - I appreciate all the cleaning tips! Droplet's mention that copper does not hold heat is an important note; because it is an excellent conductor, it heat very evenly, quickly, and the moment you remove it from the heat, it cools, which gives you good control over delicate items like caramelizing sugar, and cooking eggs, fish, fruit... It would be great to chat a little too about unlined copper, it's benefits and how to use it safely - sugar pots, meringue bowls, preserving pans and the like :) Cheers!

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almost 2 years ago CoppermillKitchen

Very good points Bella! I could never see a traditional copper mixing bowl lined with tin as its excellent and safe to use unlined and same with a sugar pan! I would love to chat about this because its a stigma copper has gotten over time and the items you mentioned are normally used unlined.. I especially like to use my preserve pan as a serving piece to serve a side dish when have a dinner party! Thanks Bella!

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almost 2 years ago Bella Field

Cook's Illustrated had a succinct piece on copper years ago. Here is an excerpt of the article, particular to unlined copper uses: "With regard to sugar syrups, confectionery and cookware industry experts agree that copper’s outstanding heat conductivity and quick reaction to temperature changes offers precise control over the different stages of sugar syrup, caramel, and chocolate preparation. Copper’s speedy distribution of heat is also considered an advantage when making jam and preserves because the fruit and sugar reach the desired consistency quickly, before the fruit loses its natural color and fresh flavor."
I think the key things to remember when using unlined copper are: have a good reason to use unlined (the reactivity of the copper to your ingredients i.e., egg proteins pick up copper ions while you whip, strengthening their bonding; and quick heat control i.e., caramelizing sugar perfectly) and make sure the copper is extremely clean before you use it. I detail my pots with lemon and salt, and rinse and dry thoroughly just before cooking so there is no tarnish on the cooking surfaces. I only have one lined piece - an 8" Mauviel saute pan which I love for eggs, fish, scallops and the like. I use a preserve pot I found in France all the time (J.Pouteau is the mark - very pretty, very heavy, hammered piece. I have been wary of dovetailing as I thought the seam might eventually come apart, but I notice you are a fan and it is gorgeous). I also use a sugar pot for ganaches, caramels, etc. So, ha, I am certainly a fan!
And I love your site, Beth Ann - so appreciate your pursuit of your copper passion!

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almost 2 years ago katstreet

We love our copper pans, and these tips for shining are great. However, we need to have two of them re-tinned on the inside. Can you talk about that a little? Are there any go to sources that we can send them too? THANKS!

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almost 2 years ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

This question was one of the first I asked on the old foodpickle (the prior name of the Hotline), while it was still in beta.
Here is the thread, where you'll find a lot of useful information, including a specialist who will be very frank with you about whether you actually need to re-tin, or not. http://www.food52.com/foodpickle... ;o)

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almost 2 years ago CoppermillKitchen

This is a excellent link! Thanks for sharing!Yes all the information is spot on! If you see any copper showing through your tin you may want to consider re tinning for safety. Glad you love your copper pans!!

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7 months ago Robert Ruiz

I've had good luck sending mine to East Coast Tinning. See: http://www.eastcoasttinning.... Very nice work, and a fairly quick return in the post.

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almost 2 years ago Andreas

Copper isn't right for everything. It should not be compared to steel or cast iron because it does a very different job. I would never use a copper pot for a slow stew, that's where cast iron shines. On the other hand, when cooking a piece of fish au point, copper is in its element.

As far as cleaning is concerned, sorry for the detour, I don't really worry about it. My copper is old, stained and bashed about and that's the way I like it. Every now and then I scrub it with soap and water, but it would never occur to me to polish it.

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almost 2 years ago CoppermillKitchen

Andreas thank you for your fun comment! Beside my business I own a little collection for my own personal use and I too keep it looking used because I cook with them so much. Because of their origin and character polished or not they always look beautiful and always serve their function for me. Glad to hear you use yours!

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almost 2 years ago Andreas

There's something deeply pleasurable, at least to me, about cooking with an old copper pot. I make porridge for my family every morning that way. A great way to start the day.

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almost 2 years ago CoppermillKitchen

YES indeed! Or lately I have been making hot chocolate for my son in my mini pot bellied saucepan. I used my pie tart two weekends ago to make a apple pie it worked brilliantly .

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almost 2 years ago cara592

I have one fairly blackened pan that i have tried to get back to its original shine for a long time. It's blackened on the inside and the outside. Is it a lost cause? or just a matter of time and elbow grease before it is restored? I'm worrried that constant rubbing on the tin with Twinkle or Bar Keeper's friend is going to render the inside unusable (unless I get it re-tinned).

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almost 2 years ago CoppermillKitchen

Hi Cara! I'm happy to introduce myself as the pictures of these copper pieces in this article are my collection! May I ask what you have used on this pot so far? Any discoloration from heat use? Twinkle is a good cleaner however mainly is a cleaner for silver but can work on easy cleaning surfaces of copper.Bar keepers can also be a bit abrasive on the copper itself. Have you tried a piece of wool and detergent on the inside? Do you prefer to use all natural method of cleaning or will you use a non homemade option for the outside? Kind Regards Beth

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almost 2 years ago cara592

I've only used the Twinkle and BKF so far. I don't need to use a homemade methos to clean it. The black stuff just doesn't want to come off. I think heat it the main reason it's discolored. I'm more concerned about the inside of the pan than the out side. I have other copper pans, and i definitely don't want to create this problem for myself again. What is a good daily cleaner that is gentle as well? I use them all the time.

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almost 2 years ago CoppermillKitchen

Hi Cara! A few tips
With copper try not to heat empty as this will cause that discoloration whether you pre heat or leave it sitting on a flame empty.
Have you tried a piece of wool (from hardware store) and scrub with detergent?
Glad to hear you are getting good use with them!

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almost 2 years ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Is there any way to improve the look of aged tin linings, where that tin is still fine for cooking, but looks rather battered, is discolored, etc.? ;o)

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almost 2 years ago paseo

Have you tried baking soda (2T-1c water) simmered? Might help a bit. Tin is so soft, it's easy to damage with enthusiastic cleaning as I am sure you know. I think it's the nature of the beast to look well used - as it should be.

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almost 2 years ago paseo

Try simmering baking soda in water (2T -1c) might help a bit. But it's the nature of the beast to look well used - as it should be.

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almost 2 years ago FancyFood

These pieces are beautiful! Hard to find cookware like this anymore..

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almost 2 years ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Regarding your comment at the outset that one might dream of having a lot of copper hanging over the stove: I cannot imagine a worse place to hang any pan. Whenever I see that in a photo, I think that whoever is using that kitchen must not be using their stove. Or else they don't mind looking at the dull finish of a greasy coating on their pans (because even the best hood cannot prevent that) or they like taking them all down and washing them, often. My all-time favorite copper cleaner is Twinkle cream. My father has used it since my mother first started her collection of French copper in the sixties, and I prefer it, too. I've tried all sorts of products and home ingredient cleaners, but always go back to Twinkle. Bar Keepers' Friend polishes copper, too, so when I have some really tough spots -- stuff cooked on -- I use that. ;o)

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almost 2 years ago Kenzi Wilbur

Kenzi is the Managing Editor of Food52.

Thanks for your cleaning tips! Regarding the placement of pots and pans in kitchens, I think that wherever you may put them ("somewhere, above, or beside the stove") is simply not the point of the post. Like people have preferences on their cookware, they also have them on where to store it well. Consider yours known!

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almost 2 years ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Thanks for the not-so-subtle reminder to seek to understand before seeking to be understood. ;o)

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almost 2 years ago paseo

Wow, what a snarky and disappointing response from Kenzi. AJ's comment may not have "been the point of the post" but was perfectly legitimate - to say nothing of being right.

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almost 2 years ago Kenzi Wilbur

Kenzi is the Managing Editor of Food52.

So sorry if my comment was taken as snarky -- that's not how it was intended! I was trying to bring the focus back to copper. Pretty, lovely copper. That's all! Apologies to all who took it for more than that.

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almost 2 years ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

And for the record, the topic of the piece includes "caring for copper," and my point was largely about just that. Given the extensive content here on "first kitchens" and on kitchen design / makeovers, I respectfully suggest that my comment could be helpful for those who might not otherwise realize the potential cleaning issues associated with that design feature. And how it might make it difficult to keep copper pretty and lovely. I realize in retrospect that I could have stated the comment more diplomatically, to avoid a defensive reply. Next time I'll know better. ;o)

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almost 2 years ago Panfusine

The Salt & lemon treatment works fabulously, in face you dont even need to cut up a lemon, just use up those scooped hemispherical half rinds that remain after juicing one..

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almost 2 years ago Kenzi Wilbur

Kenzi is the Managing Editor of Food52.

That is a fantastic tip!

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almost 2 years ago Droplet

I believe the physical characteristics of copper as described above are in part incorrect--exactly because of copper's outstanding conductivity, it heats quickly and it cools quickly, which is what allows for a greater control and precision when dealing with temperature sensitive food such as sauces, chocolate...but it does not stay warm as stated. Whoever shined these pots did a great job, though. I have wondered whether old tin lined copper cookware has a greater tendency to warp in general, since both metals are soft? Does anyone who owns a well loved set have observations?

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almost 2 years ago FancyFood

I own several pieces that are very old and have not noticed any warp..They have been very good to me! :)

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almost 2 years ago Droplet

Thank you, FancyFood :)

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almost 2 years ago matthewcarberry

I've cooked with copper and stainless steel and aluminum and cast iron before, and I've found that copper offers near no advantage to the other three. It does heat up quickly, but not any faster than aluminum, and copper itself doesn't actually retain heat well. Also, copper is a reactive metal, so wouldn't you want to avoid using acidic substances on it as much as possible? I've found through my uses that copper provides a lot aesthetically, but very little anywhere else. Oh, and they're expensive.

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almost 2 years ago Kenzi Wilbur

Kenzi is the Managing Editor of Food52.

When it comes to cookware, I've found that people draw hard lines in the sand -- it looks like you may not be on copper's side, but there are plenty out there who are. I was lucky enough to receive a Mauviel pan as a gift, and it far outshines all of the other pots on my shelf. And note the section where we talk about copper being unsafe to cook in -- you're right, it's reactive, but so long as your pan is lined, it's safe to cook whatever you please.