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 at it with steel wool or go to town with Bon Ami. 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.
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 wash cloth 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.
This Is the Formula to Making Copper Shine
OK, so what about the exterior of unfinished copper cookware? As you might know (if only because we’ve mentioned it already), 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!
1. Tomato Paste and Salt
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.
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.
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