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Copper Cookware: Pros, Cons, Need-to-Knows

Copper pots sure look pretty, but how do they stack up in the kitchen? Before you splurge, here’s everything you need to know.

On the teal pegboard of a crammed but orderly U-shaped kitchen hangs a collection of copper pans and pots, the shape of each piece outlined with a black marker.

The copper—lovingly polished, showing signs of wear and age—gleams with a luster that defies the simplicity of its surroundings: to the left, a doorway to a pantry and a black, top-freezer fridge with magnets; to the right, maple-wood butcher-block countertops tall enough to be used as kitchen worktops.

Each piece has aged gracefully. The handles, slightly worn. The copper body darker in spots where the gas stove’s flame has kissed the bottom a bit too passionately. It’s as if the reddish-brown metal has absorbed the essence of every dish its owner—the icon of American cooking, Julia Child—has ever cooked in it.

“Copper pots are the most satisfactory of all to cook in,” Child wrote in her 1961 book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. “[T]hey hold and spread the heat well,” she goes on to explain, “and their tin lining does not discolor foods.”

Yet there’s a reason why copper pots and pans are typically reserved for the kitchens of iconic chefs and Michelin-starred restaurants. As praised as it may be, copper cookware comes with a price tag so steep, it’s prohibitive for most home cooks.

As of the time of writing this article, an All-Clad D3 12-inch stainless steel frying pan—hailed as the gold standard in stainless steel cookware—retails for just under $130. In contrast, a Mauviel M’Heritage 11.81-inch copper skillet will set you back just over $296. That’s more than twice the price for a pan slightly smaller in diameter.

Even if you can stomach the price and have the means to build your collection one or two copper pieces at a time, or perhaps to buy a full set, you may not be willing to put in the elbow grease and TLC that copper cookware demands from its owner.

This brings us to the two questions that anyone considering the purchase of copper pans and pots should be asking: Firstly, how superior is copper cookware to alternatives like cast iron, carbon steel, or stainless steel? Above all, is it really worth the money?

Pros of Copper Cookware

Copper Cookware Heats Quickly: Copper is a great conductor of heat. In practical terms, this means that copper pans and pots heat up quicker than those made from any other commonly used metal. But this isn’t just anecdotal evidence.

Compare the thermal conductivity of copper to that of other metals, and the difference is striking. Copper is 29 times more effective at conducting heat than stainless steel, about 7½ times better than cast iron and carbon steel, and twice as effective as aluminum.

According to The Engineering Toolbox, copper has a thermal conductivity of 413 W/m-K (a higher number indicates that the material is better at conducting heat). To put that in perspective, aluminum comes in at 237 W/m-K, carbon steel at 54 W/m-K, cast iron at 52 W/m-K, and 304-grade stainless steel, the type used by cookware manufacturers, at just 14.4 W/m-K.

In fact, the only metal suitable for cooking that’s better than copper in terms of conductivity is solid silver.

Copper Cookware Is More Responsive Than Any Other Cookware You’ve Used: Thermal conductivity goes both ways, meaning that copper cookware not only heats up quickly but also cools down just as fast. This is a highly desirable feature in the kitchen because it lets you change the temperature of cooking within a matter of seconds.

For instance, when making a delicate sauce like a béarnaise or hollandaise, the ability to quickly lower the heat is key to preventing the sauce from breaking. Similarly, when searing a steak, you may want to start with high heat to get a good crust and then lower the temperature to cook the inside to your desired doneness, keeping the meat with a crispy crust and tender center.

Copper Cookware Heats Evenly: Copper pans and pots distribute heat without hot and cold spots, from the center all the way around to the edges. This ensures your foods cook evenly—resulting in consistent sauces, well-prepared meats, golden brown pancakes, and rice dishes that don’t suffer from localized burning.

It’s also one of the numerous reasons why copper pans and pots shine on a gas stove. The cookware quickly absorbs the heat from the flame and distributes it proportionately across the cooking surface for just the right simmer, boil, hiss, or sizzle.

Copper Cookware Recovers the Heat Swiftly: One of the less obvious yet incredibly valuable advantages of copper cookware is its rapid heat recovery after the temperature has been altered, particularly after pouring liquids or adding ingredients to the pan or pot.

This feature is quite necessary for recipes that demand precise timing and excellent temperature control. If you add cold chicken thighs to a hot pan and the pan is slow to recover the temperature, for instance, you risk ending up with steamed thighs rather than thighs with a golden brown sear.

Copper Cookware Is More Than a Kitchen Tool; It’s an Investment: When you buy copper cookware, you’re not just making a purchase—you’re making an investment. With proper care, these culinary treasures not only maintain their value but can even appreciate over time, becoming family heirlooms for future generations.

For aficionados who value the charm of bygone eras, vintage copper cookware from the 19th and 20th centuries can also be found on the Internet and offline. However, their often steep price tags make it essential to do your homework and inform yourself before making the purchase, or you may fall victim to a scam.

Note: While bowls are generally considered kitchenware rather than cookware, it’s worth mentioning the unique utility of copper bowls. When whipping egg whites in an unlined copper bowl, the metal interacts with a protein called conalbumin, stabilizing the egg whites and helping to create stiff peaks.

Cons of Copper Cookware

Copper Cookware Can’t Be Heated Dry: Tin, a common lining material for copper cookware, starts to melt at temperatures above 425°F (ca. 220°C).

If you heat a tin-lined copper pan or pot without any fat, oil, or liquid, the tin lining is at risk of melting even before you add your ingredients. This happens quickly—copper is the best conductor of heat among all metals commonly used for cookware. You’ll know it’s happening if you see the tin lining in your copper cookware turn to liquid and get bubbly.

The remedy is simple but requires discipline: add a generous amount of butter or enough cooking oil to coat the surface before cranking up the heat. For the same reasons, you should never let copper boil dry, or your pot, your meal, and your mood will be ruined.

If you forget this step and damage the lining, you can have the pan or pot re-tinned (depending on where you live and whom you need to bring/send the pan or pot to, doing so can be both time-consuming and costly).

Copper Cookware Is Incompatible With Induction Cooktops: Induction cooktops don’t work like gas and regular electric cooktops do. Rather than emitting heat themselves, they create a magnetic field that energizes cookware with enough iron content, causing its particles to vibrate so fiercely that they heat from the inside out.

Copper cookware, being made of copper rather than iron or steel, is not ferromagnetic and is therefore incompatible with induction cooktops. Place a copper pan or pot on one, and it simply won’t heat up! While there are workarounds, such as using copper induction plates or specialized equipment like the Vollrath Pro Induction Countertop, the reality for home cooks with induction cooktops is that copper cookware may not be the best fit; you’ll get the full benefits of neither induction cooking nor copper cookware.

Copper Cookware Can’t Go Under the Broiler: The broiler setting in most ovens heats to temperatures of 550– 600°F (ca. 290 to 315°C). Most copper pans and pots, on the other hand, are oven-safe only up to 450°F (ca. 230°C). While you can use copper cookware in the oven, placing it under the broiler would be a complete no-no—it can cause it to overheat and do serious damage to the lining.

Copper Cookware Is High Maintenance: Copper is susceptible to tarnishing, especially when exposed to the oxygen and moisture found in abundance in the kitchen. This tarnish can cause your copper cookware to lose its luster and become discolored over time.

If improperly cared for, copper cookware can even develop a patina or verdigris, a greenish form of corrosion. Tarnishing can even be caused by temperature changes during the delivery of a brand-new copper piece!

While some owners enjoy putting in the time and care, others may find it a chore, or even a nuisance. If you fall in the latter category, consider non-stick or clad stainless steel instead.

Copper Cookware Is Not Dishwasher-Safe: Copper pans and pots must be hand washed. They are not suitable for dishwasher cleaning, as the harsh chemicals and long cleaning cycles can harm them.

To clean copper cookware, scrub away the residue from the cooking surface and clean the copper body with a microfibre cloth and a copper-friendly cleaning product. Two of the best-rated products for cleaning copper carried by Amazon are Bar Keepers Friend or Wright’s Copper Cream. Never use corrosive cleaners containing bleach—it’ll cause pitting.

Word to the wise: If your copper pans and pots have a lacquered finish, you should clean them with water and mild dish soap only. When in doubt, check the owner’s manual.

Is Copper Cookware Worth It?

If you have a gas, electric coil, or radiant electric range, are committed to providing the necessary care, and have the budget to make the initial investment, then copper cookware is absolutely worth it.

When it comes to thermal conductivity and temperature control, copper cookware is second only to solid silver cookware—a luxury reserved for the ultra-wealthy.

However, if you’re constrained by budget, own an induction cooktop, or are in search of low-maintenance cookware that can go in the dishwasher, look elsewhere; you’ll get more value for the money from anodized aluminum or stainless steel.

But Wait, Is Copper Cookware Even Safe?

Like cast iron and carbon steel, copper is a reactive metal. This means that cooking acidic foods such as tomatoes or citrus fruits in an unlined copper pan can result in the metal leaching into your food. Unlike iron and steel, however, the accumulation of copper in the body can lead to copper poisoning. But don’t stop reading just yet.

Humans have been cooking with copper for thousands upon thousands of years. Before the advent of iron smelting and the production of steel, copper was one of the few metals available for culinary use. Over time, we’ve found a solution to the reactivity of copper pans and pots: lining their interior with another metal.

By lining copper cookware with another metal—whether that’s tin, silver, or stainless steel—we neutralize its reactivity. This allows us to enjoy the benefits of copper pans and pots without the risk of copper poisoning, especially when preparing acidic foods.

Copper Linings, Explained

Copper cookware comes in two varieties: lined and unlined. Unlined copper pots are traditionally favored for making jams and preserves, but their utility is limited. Cooking acidic foods in unlined copper can leave you with copper toxicity.

When it comes to lined copper cookware, you have a choice between tin, stainless steel, or silver linings.

Tin is the most budget-friendly of all options. However, it comes with its own set of challenges. It has a low melting point of 425°F (ca. 220°C), which means you could inadvertently melt the lining if the pot is heated empty, left to boil dry, or placed under a broiler.

Stainless steel and silver linings are more durable and more functional—their melting point is hard to exceed in the kitchen and they yield a smoother, significantly less sticky cooking surface. Unfortunately, they come at a much higher cost.

Don’t Fall For Cheap “Copper” Cookware

Beware of bargain “copper” cookware; you truly get what you pay for.

It’s understandable to get excited when you stumble upon a $100 copper cookware piece online. But before you hit that “Buy now” button, scrutinize the product description and customer reviews meticulously.

Many budget-friendly “copper” options are actually made of aluminum and merely coated with a copper-colored finish, offering none of the benefits of genuine copper cookware.

Moreover, most pots and pans in this price range feature a stainless steel core with a thin copper coating—usually between 0.2 and 0.3 mm thick. While this coating is durable enough to resist scratching, it’s too thin to offer any of the cooking advantages associated with real copper.

When it comes to authentic copper cookware, be prepared to invest a few hundred dollars per piece. Tin-lined options generally fall in the lower end of this price range, while stainless steel or silver-lined pieces command higher prices.

What to Remember

Copper is a classic material for cookware that offers several advantages. It heats up quickly and distributes heat evenly from the base to the sidewalls, eliminating hot or cold spots. This provides you, the cook, with precise temperature control, aiding you in mastering cooking methods to perfection.

However, copper cookware does have its limitations. It’s not compatible with induction cooktops and may be prohibitively expensive for the average home cook. While high-quality linings offer benefits, they also add extra cost. Moreover, copper cookware is not dishwasher-safe and requires regular maintenance—including cleaning and polishing—a commitment that not every potential owner may be willing to make.

Know your author

Written by

Dim is a food writer, cookbook author, and the editor of Home Cook World. His first book, Cooking Methods & Techniques, was published in 2022. He is a certified food handler with Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates in Food Hygiene and Safety for Catering, and a trained cook with a Level 3 Professional Chef Diploma.