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Caring for Precious Copperware Is Easier Than You Think

A selection of Coppermill Kitchen's vintage assortment Photo by Ty Mecham

There’s something intrinsically alluring about a kitchen full of copper cookware—the pots and pans hanging just-so above the island, the intricate molds placed like art on the wall, a gleaming tea kettle whistling on the stove. It hints at a kitchen helmed by a cook who knows what they’re doing and who values quality equipment, as well as a kitchen helmed by someone with an eye for beauty. Copper cookware has been a mainstay of kitchens grand and humble for countless generations, and its appeal endures. And while today there are new spins on copper cookware, like special coatings and heat-conducting cores, purists are looking back to eras past for classic pieces that have stood the test of time and still have years of simmering, baking, and molding left in them.

Beth Sweeney of Coppermill Kitchen has made it her life’s work to find these stunning pieces and return them to their original glory. “From the moment my husband proposed, I rushed straight out to register for Mauviel copperwares!” she recalls. “I was a copper girl back then and I still am. The only difference is, as I've aged, I have found I love how copper ages as well, and hence begun my love affair with vintage copperwares.”

Beth Sweeney with some of her stunning copper wares. Photo by Emily Dryden

She began sourcing vintage copper pieces around the globe—often in very rough condition—and has them meticulously restored before they’re made available for sale at Coppermill Kitchen or on Food52. She explained her restoration process to us back in 2015: “We dip them in acid baths for however many days it takes to strip the residue, and then they go through a tinning process and removal of dents. If there’s planish (a very worn spot), those are polished out, and sometimes really loose fixtures need to be soldered. Black and rusty pieces can actually take two to three restorations, and I will send them back over and over to be redone. At minimum, it takes a month. I draw all over the pieces with a magic marker to point out flaws that need fixing.”

Thankfully, her impeccably-restored pieces still retain the wonderful character that only comes with age. “I love the handmade sculpted details, how there is usually only one, and of course the story that it will tell when you bring a price home to use for generations,” says Sweeney. “Think about it: I purchase a piece from 1880 and then give to my kids when they get married and so forth. Think about the constant joy and love this one piece of cookware has seen!” For this year’s collection, she focused on finding pieces with even more special details: “Most of what we launched even has a mark in some way. Whether it was original owners’ initials, a maker’s mark, or a detailed crown! They all have stories.”

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Top Comment:
“My large-ish round copper gratin dish is one of the most versatile, and far and away the most beautiful, piece on my holiday sideboard. So convenient for heating sliced turkey with gravy and taking directly from the stove top to the dining room. It's a stunning piece of serve ware that also performs yeoman's service on the stove and in the oven for a wide variety of dishes throughout the holiday season and nearly every dinner party I host. ;o)”
— AntoniaJames
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And her latest batch of exquisite finds are available here at Food52—from a 19th-century ice cream mold to a vintage French saucepan with iron handles—there’s something for everyone. These hundred-plus-year-old pieces will live to cook for decades more, with the proper care, of course. Sweeney lets us in on her secrets for keeping her personal collection in tip-top shape. (Hint: It’s a lot easier to care for antique copper than you might think.)

Virginia Van Zanten: How do you clean copper after regular daily use?

Beth Sweeney: Copper will clean up very easily. After I cook in them, I just clean with soap and a sponge. Fill the pan with water and dish soap and let it sit for about 15 minutes. Your copper should be washed with non-abrasive products and sponges. The key is to dry right away. They don't do well with air-drying as hard water is not copper’s friend—it will leave hard water spots. As the tin is a nonstick surface, I don't need to scrub the interior too much. I don't stick my copperwares in the dishwasher either. You hand wash, but it's worth it to have such beautiful cookware.

VVZ: How often do you bring out the polish?

BS: It's funny, I don't clean my personal copper pieces with copper cleaner all that much—maybe once every eight months.

VVZ: What are your favorite products for cleaning and maintaining vintage copper?

BS: When I do clean for that extra sparkle, my favorite go-to, easy-to-find copper cleaner is Wrights Copper Cream. It's very cost-friendly and it should last a while. It's easy to use: just wipe on and see results immediately; then rinse, then dry.

VVZ: Is there anything folks should never do with copper?

BS: Before first use, please clean the tin lining with soap and water. Always dry thoroughly. Use low flame. No need to pre-heat or heat empty as this can cause the tin lining to melt and the copper to burn. Do not sear in copper cookware. When baking, please do not heat above 450°F, as tin can melt at 460°F. Use only with wood or non-abrasive utensils to avoid damaging the copper surface.

VVZ: Are there any foods you should avoid cooking in copper?

BS: Because we re-line our cookware with tin, it's a non-reactive metal you can cook just about anything in. The only time you need to be cautious is when cooking in unlined copper. We don’t do this unless the item is decorative or it is a jam pan, which is always unlined.

VVZ: What are the differences, if any, between caring for vintage copper and new copper?

BS: There are none. The vintage has seen more life for sure and may need to be treated more carefully as they are older; but as far as cooking and cleaning, it's the same.

Thank you, Beth, for your helpful tips! How (and how often) do you care for your prized copperware? Share your tips with us below!

18 Comments

Smaug May 12, 2018
Not really my field, but I have been warned by expert furniture restorers that traditional copper polishes containing ammonia are absolutely to be avoided on anything you care about; I'd check further if I actually had any antique copper, but I think Wright's is considered safe.
 
Mary H. November 18, 2017
Most certainly, the title of this article is misleading. I regularly cook with tin-lined copper pots and pans. I have found that the best way to maintain copper items is to use Wright's Copper Cream after each use. If you do that, tarnish and discoloration come off easily and immediately with nothing more than a quick wipe-around using a dab of the cream and a little water on the sponge that comes in the jar. (Hand wash the item in soapy water, then wash the copper with the copper cream, then wash the item again in soapy water to remove all the polish, rinse, and dry.) It's adding an extra step to the normal process of washing a pot, but it's quick and easy to do--and so satisfying to see a brilliantly shiny copper item. Sometimes, the heat of cooking will cause copper to take on a pretty purple or yellow color. If I think the copper looks nice that way, I might not "polish" with Wright's until the next time. (The key to easy maintenance is not to let the copper get horribly tarnished or coated with caked-on grease.) Once in a blue moon/every year or so or when I feel like it, to give my copper a mirror finish, I polish my items with Met-All's Brass & Copper Polish. That process takes a bit of rubbing, and the polishing cloth will turn black, but the results are outstanding! (Alternatively, I believe some people use polishing cloths that are impregnated with jeweler's rouge.) Sometimes I put 3M Anti-Tarnish Strips in the cupboard that holds copper items I don't use very often. Food tends not to stick to tin linings, but if it does, fill the pot with water and let it sit for a little while, until the food residue can be dislodged easily. Never let an iron handle soak in water, because it will rust.
 
Catherine M. November 17, 2017
I have a hammered copper plate - decorative, not culinary, it hangs on the wall - that has a lot of subtle color shifts in the finish. I don't want to use anything on it that will strip those colors off and leave it looking pink. Any recommendations?
 
Catherine M. November 17, 2017
I have a hammered copper plate - decorative, not culinary, it hangs on the wall - that has a lot of subtle color shifts in the finish. I don't want to use anything on it that will strip those colors off and leave it looking pink. Any recommendations?
 
Spud G. November 17, 2017
Is there an easy - or at least a tried and true way - to get the protective shellac off of new copper pieces? Neither hot water nor acetone really gets the job done.
 
CoppermillKitchen November 17, 2017
Honestly you should take it to a local polisher and should be removed by him. It's affordable as well.
 
Linda November 17, 2017
How does the ordinary owner of copper pans have them retinned?<br />Mine have definite worn spots .
 
AntoniaJames November 17, 2017
There's a company in Brooklyn http://www.brooklyncoppercookware.com/ More here in this Hotline thread https://food52.com/hotline/199-how-do-you-know-when-it-s-time-to-have-a-french-copper-gratin-pan-re-tinned See my answer for details. ;o)
 
CoppermillKitchen November 17, 2017
Hi Linda <br />A friend of mine is amazing he's wonderful call Rocky Mountain retinning in Colorado.
 
Linda November 17, 2017
Thank you!!
 
Linda November 17, 2017
I will try to contact them<br />I have some beautiful pans from Paris ,they need some help !!
 
Karin B. July 9, 2018
I have been using them for years, they are fantastic. I have 3 pots ready to go now. Thanks for reminding me,
 
Sarah M. November 17, 2017
These are beautiful pieces, but do you realize you actually never mention how to easily clean copper as the title suggests? Quite the opposite - a month long acid soak - is suggested. Isn't there a secret recipe of lemon water, vinegar or something? I'm dying how to know how to clean my pans without hours of elbow grease!
 
CoppermillKitchen November 17, 2017
Hi there <br />Wrights copper is very easy to use and only $3-4 . You can use ketchup to but weights works wonders and simple to use.
 
CoppermillKitchen November 17, 2017
Sorry typo wrights
 
AntoniaJames November 16, 2017
What a shame that not a single photo with this piece includes a gratin pan. My large-ish round copper gratin dish is one of the most versatile, and far and away the most beautiful, piece on my holiday sideboard. So convenient for heating sliced turkey with gravy and taking directly from the stove top to the dining room. It's a stunning piece of serve ware that also performs yeoman's service on the stove and in the oven for a wide variety of dishes throughout the holiday season and nearly every dinner party I host. ;o)
 
Hana A. November 16, 2017
Hi AntoniaJames - that was an oversight on my part! I, too, am a gratin pan fan and can speak to its versatility (and of course, beauty). Some options have been added for your perusal above. :) Thanks for your comment!
 
Denise November 18, 2017
Are you saying it s safe to cook from antiques copper cookware? When I was learning to be a chef our kitchens has copper all around , chef would make us polish the copper pipes every Friday night after service with lemon and Kosher salt. Rub rub and it would be shiny. Is that practice bad for cookware.