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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.”
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 holiday 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.”
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 brass handles—there’s something for everyone, and as the holidays approach, there’s something for everyone on your list. 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!