Copper is one of the oldest metals known to humanity. We make wires from it, coat pennies with it, and drink cocktails from copper mugs. But is it a good material for making frying pans? I’ve spent several years researching, buying, and cooking with various cookware — and here’s what I’ve found.
Copper cookware doesn’t come cheap. And yet, chefs and home cooks agree that it’s the best compared to other metals. Copper heats quickly and evenly, and provides unmatched control over the cooking temperature.
Humanity has a long history of using copper. In fact, copper was the first material shaped into tools and decorations by human hands. Though it isn’t the strongest and toughest metal, it’s easy to work with. This is probably why the first coppersmiths picked it up 11,000 years ago. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t until the Romans when we started to make copper cookware.
Copper is a heavy metal known for its ability to conduct electricity and heat. It’s by far the best metal for making electrical wires (nowadays, most wires are made from cheaper alternatives).
Copper pans heat up really quickly and cool down just as fast. This is the exact behavior you’re looking for when turning the heat knob on your stovetop up or down. Unless you want to cook in the residual heat, which copper pans are not ideal for. In terms of behavior, a copper pan is the exact opposite of a cast-iron pan, which takes a long time to heat up and can hold on to that heat for just as much.
Many people will compare a copper pan to a sports car. Like a sports car, a copper frying pan is not for everyone. Most home cooks choose cast iron or stainless steel pans because of the price tag. For example, a 12-inch cast-iron pan costs $25-$75 and a stainless steel pan of the same size will set you back $50-$150. This makes copper more than 10 times more expensive than cast iron and at least twice as expensive as stainless steel.
The reason copper pans are more expensive than pans made from other materials is simple: copper’s price as a metal is much higher. On the day of publishing this post, copper cost $3/lb, stainless steel $1.25/lb, and iron sold for $0.05/lb on the commodities market.
Why Copper Pans Are Better
Professional chefs, foodies, and home cooks who see the investment as worth the money favor copper pans over pans from any other material. Ask most of them, and they’ll tell you that no other pan gives them the same level of control over the temperature when searing and sautéing food.
A copper pan’s base is thick enough to make it solid and sturdy but not too heavy for lifting with one hand. The thickness and the thermal conductivity of copper mean that the pan heats up quickly and evenly. This isn’t true for most other pans that tend to have hot spots and cold spots.
Cons of Cooking With a Copper Pan
Copper pans are not induction-friendly. As a metal, copper doesn’t have the electromagnetic properties that activate an induction cooktop. There are workarounds, but they defy the reason to cook with copper in the first place. Either change your stovetop or don’t buy copper cookware.
Copper pans are also on the heavier side. One of the things I absolutely love about a copper pan is how thick and solid it feels in your hand. A heavy pan is something that you either like or not. If you’re looking for a really light pan, copper is not the best material for you. Consider non-stick or ceramic.
Do Copper Pans Conduct Heat Better?
A copper pan captures and spreads heat better than any other pan on the market. This is because, as a metal, copper has better thermal conductivity than any other material used to make frying pans today.
I created the table below to help you understand why. It compares the thermal conductivity of copper to that of aluminum, cast iron, carbon steel, and stainless steel. Metallurgists use thermal conductivity to measure a material’s ability to conduct heat. The standard unit for thermal conductivity is W/m K, which stands for Watts per meter-Kelvin.
|Aluminum||237 W/m K|
|Copper||413 W/m K|
|Cast iron||52 W/m K|
|Carbon steel (1.5% carbon)||36 W/m K|
|Stainless steel||14.4 W/m K|
That’s right. On average, a copper pan conducts heat approximately 8 times better than a pan made from cast iron, 11.5 times better than one made from carbon steel, and a whopping 28.6 times better than stainless steel.
So here’s my two cents for new copper pan owners:
The first time you cook with a copper frying pan, use half of the heat you’d normally use and see how it goes. The pan will preheat very quickly and be very responsive to temperature changes as you turn the heat dial up or down.
In my experience, with a copper pan, I can sear meats and sauté veggies at 40% to 50% less heat than when I use a cast-iron skillet. If I try to apply the same amount of heat I’d use when cooking with cast iron or stainless steel, my food will burn.
Think of it this way: If a cast iron skillet is your kitchen workhorse, a copper frying pan is like a race car. As long as you know how to use it, it’s more responsive and performant than any other piece of cookware in your kitchen. Because of the price, it’s also not for everyone.
Are Copper Pans Safe to Cook In?
Contrary to popular belief, copper pans are not unsafe to cook in. Yes, copper itself is a reactive metal. When you cook acidic foods like tomatoes or vinegar in a pure copper pan, it will react with your food and leach copper in it. But copper pans are seldom bare copper pans. Instead, they come with a lining on the cooking surface.
That lining is made from stainless steel, silver, or tin. The first material that people used was tin because tinning a copper pan didn’t require complex technology and could be done by hand. In the 20th century, the technology to electroplate silver onto copper became available. Then, newer production methods allowed the use of stainless steel.
What’s the Best Lining for Copper Pans?
Copper pans used for stovetop cooking are given a lining on the inside. That lining is usually made from tin, silver, or stainless steel, nickel, and aluminum. When copper comes in direct contact with acidic foods, it will produce compounds that will make you sick to your stomach. The lining prevents that chemical reaction from happening.
There are historical reasons why people chose these materials for lining copper pans. Tin was widely available and easily workable before more modern manufacturing methods allowed coppersmiths and cookware makers to use other materials.
Electricity and electroplating allowed cookware makers to make silver-lined copper pans. But silver is an expensive metal. This is why, over time, aluminum, nickel, and stainless steel became the materials of choice.
- Tin is the traditional lining for copper pans and pots since coppersmiths started to mass-produce them in Europe and America in the 1700s. The problem is that tin is thin and therefore wears out quickly.
- In the 20th century, silver became the new norm for lining copper cookware. Silver can be electroplated into the copper. Silver-lined copper pans are more expensive than tin pans, but the lining is highly durable.
- In the 1960s, aluminum, nickel, and stainless steel became the go-to linings for copper cookware. These materials are harder than tin and, thanks to the technology that bonds them to copper, don’t wear away as easily (or, as is the case with stainless steel, at all).
The best lining for copper pans is stainless steel. Unlike tin and silver, stainless steel lining won’t wear out, rust, tarnish or discolor. Copper pans lined with stainless steel can also be used at higher temperatures, in some cases, up to 600°F (315°C).
Die-hard fans of tin lining will tell you that stainless steel lining makes your copper pan less conductive. This is not true. No matter if the lining is made from tin, silver, or stainless steel, it’s so thin that it doesn’t affect your frying pan’s heat conductivity.
Are Copper Pans Hard to Clean?
There’s a general belief that copper pans are hard to clean. Indeed, a copper pan is not as easy to clean as a non-stick or ceramic one. But, in my experience, cleaning a copper pan is not any more difficult than cleaning a pan made of stainless steel. 9/10 times, cleaning the pan by hand in soapy water is more than enough.
The most important thing you need to know about cleaning a copper pan is not to scrub it hard. This is true both for the copper exterior and for the interior lining, whether it’s made from tin, silver, or stainless steel. Always use a soft sponge and never a steel scourer.
This leaves you with limited options for cleaning your pan when soapy water doesn’t work. But I’ve found two simple and natural ways to clean any stain from a copper pan, no matter how stubborn.
Make a Cleaning Paste With Lemon Juice and Kosher Salt
If your pan has stubborn stains and soapy water isn’t helping to get them off, try this simple and natural method.
Mix equal parts lemon juice and kosher salt into a homemade cleaning paste. Then spread the paste on the cooking surface of the pan, letting it rest for 15-20 minutes. Afterward, scrub it with a soft sponge and rinse under running water.
Simmer Water and Baking Soda to Dissolve Burnt Fats
When you sear the steak in a copper pan, animal fat can carbonize and burn on the surface, leaving stubborn brown or black stains. Dissolve these stains with baking soda.
Add water to the pan, bring it to a simmer, and pour a handful of baking soda where the stains are. Continue cooking and adding baking soda until the carbonized oils and fats have dissolved into the water. Then clean off with soapy water and a soft sponge.
Don’t Put Copper Pans in the Dishwasher
Some copper cookware makers will tell you that their copper pans — especially those lined with stainless steel — are dishwasher safe. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t put my best cookware anywhere near the dishwasher, especially if I bought it at this price tag.
Can You Use a Copper Pan on an Induction Cooktop?
Copper doesn’t have the magnetic and electrical properties that make it induction friendly. This is why the majority of copper pans do not work on an induction stovetop.
Some manufacturers have come up with solutions, like adding a thin layer of stainless steel to a pan’s underside or attaching a magnetic plate to it to activate it on an induction stovetop.
These pans will be labeled as induction friendly. However, it’s difficult to determine if that additional lining doesn’t change the thermal conductivity of the pan itself. Copper is just not fit for induction cooktops.
The Best Copper Frying Pan
The first thing you need to consider when buying a copper pan is the size. Should you buy an 8-, 10-, or 12-inch copper frying pan?
An 8-inch frying pan is large enough for searing two chicken thighs or cooking four eggs at a time. The problem is that they don’t give you much room for searing red meat or for sautéing vegetables.
Which leaves you with a choice of 10- or 12-inch frying pans. 10 inches are enough for a ribeye, a couple of filets, or several (3-4) chicken thighs. For most people, this is the size to go for.
Personally, I’d buy a 12-inch copper pan. 12 inches are enough for two large steaks or pork tenderloins. You have more than enough room for searing meats and sautéing vegetables, which will be your primary use cases for a copper pan.
I cook with 10 and 12 inches. Once you’re used to a spacious 12-inch frying pan, you start to miss the cooking space when cooking with the 10-inch one.
Since this is a personal choice, I’m going to recommend a frying pan you can buy in both sizes. It’s the Mauviel M’Heritage Copper M150S (at Amazon). Made of copper and lined with stainless steel, this pan comes with a thick exterior and comfortable handle that give you superior control over the cooking temperature and make it easy for you to handle it on the stovetop.
You can use the Mauviel M’Heritage Copper M150S on electric, gas, and halogen cooktops. It’s also oven safe. As every Mauviel piece (the French company has been around since 1830), it’s made in France and comes with a lifetime warranty.
My second pick is the De Buyer Prima Matera (at Amazon). De Buyer is also a French cookware maker founded in 1830, and they do make an excellent copper frying pan.
N.B. If you’re looking for real copper cookware, please stay away from the cheap stuff. The only similarity between a $25 “copper” pan and an authentic piece of cookware like Mauviel’s or De Buyer’s is the exterior’s color, which cheap cookware is made to imitate and resemble. Just look at the non-fake reviews, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Copper pans are some of the most expensive cookware money can buy. But for the professional chef and home cook who knows how to make the best use of them, they’re worth every single dollar.
Thick, heavy, and conductive to heat, a copper pan gives you superior control over the cooking temperature you won’t get from any other available material on the market today. It will also look great in your home kitchen.
As long as you’re not using an induction stovetop and willing to care for your copper pan by not using metal utensils on it and cleaning it by hand, it’s going to last you for a lifetime. And, if you teach your kids and grandkids to care for it as passionately as you did, it could last for decades and, why not, centuries.
When you look at it from that perspective, copper cookware becomes priceless.