Copper pots are the most satisfactory of all to cook in, as they hold and spread the heat well and their tin lining does not discolor food.
– Julia Child
I was never one of those people who were into having a French kitchen. I was vaguely aware that French cooking and decor was kind of a “thing” for some folks, but it was never really on my radar. Julia Child was before my time, after all, and I was raised on good ol’ country cooking with a side of Mexican or Chinese take out.
Then I discovered French copper. Lord have mercy on my pocketbook, for I am in love with the stuff.
Just look at it. It’s so beautiful. More than just a kitchen tool, these pots and pans become part of the decor. I adore the small details that show how these have been used and loved in someone else’s kitchen long before they found their way into mine. I find myself wondering, who cooked with these? What kinds of dishes did they make? Did meals come out of these dishes feeding friends, family, loved ones? Or, maybe they were used in a restaurant or cafe. What string of circumstances led to these pots finding their way from France to my kitchen in Tennessee? So many unanswerable questions, but I know that somewhere along the line these pots were chosen by someone else, just like they were eventually chosen by me. And so their legacy continues.
Cooking with copper is not quite the same as cooking with stainless steel — or any other metal, for that matter. I use a wide variety of pots, pans, and skillets when cooking. Cast iron is of course one of my favorites — no kitchen is complete without a cast iron skillet. I also sometimes use stainless steel, enameled cast iron, lightweight enamel, and even sometimes a small nonstick skillet if I’m feeling particularly lazy. Each type of cookware is unique, as you probably know if you’ve ever cooked.
Overall, I think vintage/antique copper cookware is hecka underrated. You hear all the time about cast iron, deservedly so, but I didn’t even know copper cookware was a thing until the past year. Suddenly I feel like a whole new world of kitchen possibilities has opened up! Now I’m cooking with French pots, I have a French cow (Mille the Normande), I’m planning a French-style potager garden, and I’m going to learn some French cooking as well. Croissants, I’m looking at you. Would I describe myself as a full-on Francophile now? No, not really. But, ever an eclectic, I’m picking up elements of rustic French country charm and happily applying it to my kitchen. Courtesy in large part of inspiration from some of my favorite homesteaders to follow — Shaye of The Elliott Homestead, Angela the Parissean Farmgirl, and Cat of Sunday Brocantes, the copper expert herself.
If you are as enamored with this cookware as I am, here’s some things you need to know:
Copper heats quickly. I found immediately that the copper heats rapidly and, in my experience, responds more quickly to adjustments in heat level. This is something I personally love most about it. One should never heat copper over a high flame or risk damaging the pot. It will cause discoloration on the outside and likely scorch your food, too.
Copper is tin-lined (with the exception of jam pots). Tin is a soft metal, which means you cannot use any metal or sharp utensil in the pan. Always use wood or silicone. You also cannot heat the pots and pans empty, as tin will melt at 425 degrees F.
One cool thing about the tin lining is that it results in a nearly nonstick surface without the weird nonstick chemicals and black flecks falling off into your food.
If you start to see copper peaking through your tin lining, avoid using acidic foods in the pan or, depending on severity, have it retinned (see below).
Vintage and Antique copper needs to be expertly restored for daily use. While there are still a couple of companies manufacturing authentic copper pots and pans, you’re more likely to find older pieces. On the one hand, you can purchase fully restored pieces from someone like Rabbit Hill Farm (where all my copper has come from to date). I prefer to go this route personally, because I know my copper is coming to me ready to use and I trust the source.
On the other hand, you can also find older copper pieces that have not been restored and handle the restoration yourself either by doing your own tinning, if you are a brave and adventurous soul looking for a new skill, or finding a tin smith to restore it for you. It’s a fairly involved process, so be sure to do your research before attempting it yourself.
Not all copper is created equal. Just like some modern cookware is higher quality than others, the same can be said about old copper. If you are buying from a source you don’t know, or if you happen upon a treasure at an estate sale or flea market, pay attention to the thickness of the walls, the balance, and the brand stamped into the metal. Cat of Rabbit Hill has good information about this on her website. Remember that even after being retinned, a poor quality or badly damaged/warped piece will still be lower quality.
Copper pots are oven safe, but can’t be used on certain cook tops. Copper pots typically have either cast iron or brass handles and can be used in the oven. Be sure to always have food in them just as if you were using them on the stove top. Don’t use a broil setting with your copper, as this will expose the pan to too much heat.
Copper also cannot be used on induction burners. Gas or electric ranges are safe, as is a wood stove as long as you don’t let flames lick the pan. There’s a scientific explanation for why induction won’t work, but I’ll refer you to this website if you’d like to go more in depth. If your stove top is induction, don’t despair; you can buy a ferro-magnetic interface plate to convert it.
Avoid using abrasive cleaning tools both inside and outside of your copper, as you don’t want to scratch the finish. Copper will naturally develop a patina with continued use. It can be shined with lemon juice.
I love my copper pots and pans. I truly believe they’re one of the best investments you can make for your kitchen if you love to cook, and they have been proven to stand the test of the time so you know they’re in it for the long haul as long as you take care of them.
In the words of Julia Child (and a lot of other people), bon appétit!