How to Clean Copper Cookware for That Like-New Shine

No fuss, no rust, just sparkling-clean surfaces.

August  8, 2023
Photo by Ty Mecham

There’s no denying that copper pots and pans look stunning when displayed in the kitchen, but these shiny pieces also cost a pretty penny. To protect your investment and keep copper cookware looking as good as the day you bought it, it’s incredibly important to care for it properly.

Unlike stainless steel or cast iron, copper is fairly delicate and reactive to other substances, so you can’t just scrub away with steel wool. Plus, we all know what happens when you leave copper wet…great if you love the patina look, but not ideal if you want to preserve the red-orange color and bright luster.

The good news is that there are a number of ways to remove tarnish from copper, restoring that like-new shine, and the even better news is that many of these methods use pantry staples that only cost a few dollars. Read on for essential prep work and time-tested methods.

Prep Your Pots

Clean Tin Interiors with a Soft Sponge

Because copper is such a highly reactive metal, the majority of copper cookware is lined with another material—typically tin. This makes cleaning the interior easy, as tin is naturally non-stick (just think of how aluminum foil works). To clean up the interior of tin-lined pots and pans, you’ll want to use a sponge, soft brush, or washcloth along with some dish soap. Just get in there and give it a good scrub.

To remove particularly stuck-on food, you can let the pan soak for 10 or 15 minutes with hot, soapy water, then go in with your sponge again. After doing this, you’ll want to dry the pan thoroughly—especially the copper exterior—as moisture speeds up the rate at which copper tarnishes.

Check for Lacquer

Moving on to the exterior, the first thing you need to do is figure out whether your copper cookware is lacquered. This shiny, glossy finish serves as a protective layer for the metal, and it will prevent the copper from becoming discolored over time. It also makes it easier to clean. You can generally tell just by looking whether your copper pan is lacquered, but when in doubt, check the box or care manual.

If your pans are lacquered, you can simply wipe the exterior down using a soft cloth and mild dish soap. Be sure to rinse the soap off thoroughly, then dry your pan well before putting it back on display.

The Formula to Making Copper Shine

OK, so what about the exterior of unfinished copper cookware? As you might know, copper reacts with oxygen very slowly over time, and this results in copper oxide forming on the exterior of your pans.

This copper oxide is what many people refer to as “tarnish,” and it presents as a brownish-black coloration on the metal. If you don’t clean tarnish off, the chemical reaction will continue, forming a patina that results in the signature blueish-green hue of old copper. (We’re looking at you, Statue of Liberty.)

Assuming you want your copper cookware to retain its true copper coloring and original shine, you’ll need to clean the exterior when you see tarnish developing. There are several ways to do this, and you’ll soon discover that the magic formula almost always includes a combination of an acid and some salt. Sounds simple, but it’s truly effective!

Our Favorite Cleaning Combos

1. Tomato Paste and Salt

Brooklyn Copper Cookware recommends this method for polishing the exterior of copper pots and pans, and it’s every bit as effective as using a commercial cleaning product.

You’ll want to mix two parts tomato paste (an acidic ingredient) with one part course salt, then rub the mixture onto the copper. Let the paste work its magic for a few minutes, then wipe it off with a soft cloth. You can then rinse and dry your copper pan. Don’t let it drip-dry, else you may end up with water spots.

No tomato paste on hand? You can swap in ketchup, as well.

2. Lemon and Salt

If you let tarnish build up for too long, you might need to bring in a stronger acid to help cut through the build-up. Enter: lemon.

To use this tried-and-true method, cut a lemon in half, then dip it into kosher salt. Use the lemon like a scrub brush, rubbing the salt and lemon juice onto the unfinished copper. Let the mixture sit for a minute or two, and you should start to see the copper color returning. Immediately wash off the lemon and salt using soapy water, then thoroughly rinse and dry your cookware.

3. Boil It in Vinegar

Still having trouble getting your copper to really shine? Adding heat to the equation can act as a catalyst to break down the tarnish. This method works best for smaller pieces of cookware, such as a gratin dish or kettle, as you need to be able to fit the piece into a larger pot.

Start by mixing together 1 cup of vinegar, 3 cups of water, and 1 tablespoon of salt in a large stockpot. Place your tarnished copper piece into the pot (if needed, you can add more water to cover the copper), and bring the mixture to a boil. Let it boil until the tarnish begins to fall off your cookware, then remove the stockpot from the heat.

Let the water cool down before removing your copper piece. You can then go in with one of the methods above to remove any lingering tarnish.

4. Bring in Commercial Cleaner

Of course, there are also commercial copper cleaners available—though they’re often more expensive than simply using pantry items.

Wright’s Copper Cream, which uses a combination of citric acid and ammonium chloride, is one popular product. It has a mild, non-scratching formula that won’t hurt your copper, and it also leaves behind a protective coating that will help prevent future tarnishing.

What Not To Do

As with a lot of cookware, there are a few cardinal sins when cleaning copper. No matter what you do, you never, ever want to do the following to your copper cookware:

  • Put copper in the dishwasher.
  • Clean unfinished copper with bleach, which can lead to pitting or pockmarks.
  • Scrub with anything too abrasive, whether it’s a stiff brush, steel wool, or harsh ingredient.
  • Leave unfinished copper wet, which can speed up the oxidation process.
  • Cook in a pot or pan where the tin lining has worn down and copper is showing through.
  • Preheat or sear in tin-lined copper pans, as tin melts at 450 degrees.

When you follow these guidelines, you’ll be able to keep your copper kitchen essentials as pretty as a shiny penny for years to come.

This article, originally published in November 2020, has been updated.

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amazinc August 12, 2023
I might be singing to the choir, but you need to mention that you must NEVER use lacquered copper for cooking. Those pieces are for display ONLY. I learned the hard way.
Maggie K. March 18, 2023
My husband ran 2 copper pots through the dishwasher- pls help! What do I do to restore them? Are my pots ruined?
DulcieJules August 11, 2023
Do you urgently need professional retraining? Isn’t it frustrating trying to budget for everything in life? What if I told you that you could make up to $500 a day without leaving your e29 home? Would you be interested? In fact, general quality assurance knowledge should be enough to
info go here copy and open it….......
Auntie P. July 8, 2021
If I haven't gotten to my kettle in a bit, I'll use Wright's. But if I am a good copper mom and keep up with it, tomato and salt do just fine.
Rsmlem1 January 17, 2021
Is there a way to reapply the tin lining on a copper stockpot?
Auntie P. July 8, 2021
There are a few DIY videos on YouTube. But depending on the piece, you might want have if professionally re-tinned.
M November 17, 2020
Lemon and salt with a little heat works wonders on my copper coffee kettle and filter. The heat makes it clean a lot faster than if it is cold, so I just fill it with hot water while I rub the outside. And if it's a kettle that is used daily, make sure to wipe completely dry after each use, or it will only take a week or so for the copper to look speckled and terrible.
J November 17, 2020
What, no vinegar + salt? That’s the classic way to clean a copper bowl just before whipping up egg whites: a quick swish with just a touch of vinegar and a sprinkle of salt, roll it all ‘round, a rinse, and a wipe with a pristine towel—that’s how I was taught by Madeleine Kamman back in 1970! The acid is important for helping to set up the egg whites. Lemon juice would probably work as well, but pouring out a couple of tablespoons of vinegar is much easier!