On its own, copper readily reacts to acid. Unless it’s coated with another material, copper cookware will leach significant amounts of the metal when cooking acidic foods.
This introduces the risk of copper toxicity, a type of poisoning that occurs when you have more than the normal range of copper levels, or 85-180 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL), flowing in your blood.
Mild cases of copper toxicity can cause stomach pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. According to the University of Rochester’s Medical Center, copper toxicity can cause heart and kidney failure, liver damage, brain disease or disorder, and even death in more severe forms.
Contrary to what most people believe, the list of foods that copper reacts to isn’t just limited to recipes calling for wine, vinegar, or tomatoes.
Cabbage absorbs enough of the metal to cause concerns for your health within one hour of simmering, Scientific American reports. The magazine explains that this is also the case for salted water.
Simply said, you shouldn’t cook with uncoated copper cookware. While this used to be the norm a few centuries ago, studies in recent years have definitively concluded that the amounts of copper leached into your food isn’t safe, especially for daily cooking.
So, most of the time, what is copper cookware coated with?
Copper pans and pots are typically lined with tin, stainless steel, or silver. Tin is least expensive but scratches easily and wears off quickly. Stainless steel coatings are sturdy and durable, but foods stick to them. Silver lasts the longest and is the most conductive but comes at a steep price tag.
Nickel, a silvery-white metal with a slight golden tinge, is another traditional coating that you’ll see on many vintage copper pans and pots. In recent decades, it’s grown out of favor due to the number of people with nickel allergies, known to cause allergic contact dermatitis.
My great-grandma, who used to cook the most delicious French fries on her cast-iron wood-burning stove, passed down a few pieces of tin-lined copper cookware to me a decade or so ago. While I don’t use them every day, I’ve been cooking with and looking after them ever since.
Inheriting tin-lined copper cookware helped me develop a genuine appreciation for its practicalities over time.
Tin-Lined Copper Cookware
Tin has non-stick properties, so, as a cooking surface, it’s easy to sear meats, sauté veggies, and thicken sauces on. As long as you cook with silicone or wooden utensils in it and clean it with non-abrasive cleaners, the tin coating can last north of a decade.
However, tin-lined copper cookware also has a few drawbacks.
Occasionally, it needs to be retinned. The average cost of retinning copper cookware in the United States is $7.5 to $12.5 per measured inch, excluding shipping. The price will vary with the location and may or may not cover polishing, depending on the service provider.
The measurement is usually the sum of the diameter of the cookware plus two times its height.
Suppose you’re lining a copper pot with a diameter of 8 inches and a height of 4 inches. At the cost of $10 per measured inch, the total cost of lining will be calculated as:
Price x (Diameter x (2x Height)) = $10 x (8″ + (2x 4″)) = $10 x 16″ = $160
Another disadvantage of tin-lined copper cookware is that you should handle it with care when using high heat.
Compared to stainless steel or silver, tin has a low melting point of 450°F (232°C). If you set the heat dial on your stove to high and preheat an empty pan of pot for enough time, you can easily heat it to that temperature, causing the tin to melt and bubble.
To avoid this, use a cooking oil or fat with a slightly lower smoke point. My favorites are butter, extra virgin olive oil, duck fat, and lard. Canola oil and sunflower oil are two more affordable options carried by most grocery stores.
When the oil or fat in your pan or pot starts smoking, this is a sign that you’re getting close to the melting point of the tin lining; turn the heat down a notch immediately.
Stainless Steel-Lined Copper Cookware
Compared to its tin-lined counterparts, stainless steel-lined copper cookware tends to cost twice as much. Yet the coating won’t wear off (and you won’t need to recoat it), so its total cost of ownership over a lifetime is actually lower.
Copper pans and pots lined with stainless steel are sturdy and durable. You can safely use a metal spatula or fork when cooking with them, and you can bring them up to high heat without having to worry about the consequences. Apart from a few unlucky exceptions covered by most manufacturer’s warranties, 99% of the time, there are none.
These features attract many home cooks to stainless-lined copper.
But an equal number are taken aback by the fact that foods high in protein and low in fat are prone to sticking to stainless steel, which can make their daily use in the kitchen more burdensome.
Which lining is best is a never-ending debate—and I doubt it will ever come to a definitive and correct answer. For example, if you’re already used to cooking with stainless steel (as I am, too), then stickiness may not be a problem for you in the first place.
Silver-Lined Copper Cookware
Nothing can compete with silver-lined copper cookware when it comes to heat responsiveness and overall performance on your stove.
According to Engineering Toolbox, silver’s thermal conductivity is better than that of copper’s (403 W/m K compared to 413 W/m K). So this type of cookware lets you control the cooking temperature almost instantly.
Silver won’t react with acidic foods, making silver-lined copper cookware generally safe to use, even when cooking with highly acidic ingredients or liquids like wine, vinegar, or tomatoes.
Last but not least, silver has the best non-stick properties of all copper linings. Cooking with it feels exactly the same as when using a PTFE or ceramic pan (and you get to skimp on the man-made chemicals).
Both copper and silver are considered precious metals, which brings me silver-lined copper cookware’s most significant drawback… it’s incredibly costly!
On average, copper pans and pots lined with silver cost 5 to 7 times more than their tin-lined counterparts. That’s a high price to pay, considering that copper already makes the highest-end cookware of all metals.
Which Lining is the Right One for You?
Most copper cookware is lined with tin, stainless steel, or silver. Here’s how to decide which type of lining is best for your needs (and budget).
Those of you shopping for copper cookware on a budget will probably want to go for tin-lined pieces that you can slowly acquire one at a time (this is also what most of my friends, as well as the copper geeks I follow, tend to do).
If you’re looking for low-maintenance copper cookware that doesn’t require relining and a non-stick cooking surface isn’t a must, go for copper pans and pots lined with stainless steel. They’ll set you back more at first, but their total cost of ownership will end up being lower than tin over a lifetime.
When the price is of no concern whatsoever, and you want the absolute best in terms of responsiveness to heat, a non-stick surface, and safety of cooking, silver-lined copper cookware should be on top of your list.
Each of these three options is a good one and will ultimately appeal to the preferences of home cooks with differing needs. No matter which one you choose, one thing’s for sure: copper pans and pots are totally worth it.
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