Reader Theo had a copper emergency.
Can you help me with this problem. I need to verify that a Mauviel frying pan is a fake… The seller said that they only used it for decoration in the kitchen and never used it for cooking. When I received it we used it carefully over a gentle heat to cook some salmon fillets. When we removed it from the gas we found that the copper had gone glassy. When I washed it it looked really faded.
The next morning I put it over the heat turned down low but for longer to see what would happen. The copper surface went black and flaked off leaving an awful swirling mutl-coloured pattern. What do you think has happened here? Is it real and will it clean up with copper brite, or is it fake and need to be sent back?
Yikes. What Theo is seeing is not normal. Yes, bright fresh copper picks up tarnish when you cook with it — flip your new pan over after you’ve used it for the first time and you will see a tarnish pattern that matches the arrangement of your heat source. But there’s something else going on here. Take a good look at this close-up photo below.
The crisp-looking layer that’s flaking away? That, my friends, is burnt lacquer.
If you’ve never heard of such a thing, know that it’s not a completely crazy idea: a layer of clear lacquer on top of copper will seal it from the atmosphere and thereby prevent tarnish. Some copper makers applied it at the factory to ensure that the copper stayed clean and bright all the way to the retail shelf: Lecellier lacquered their pieces and Baumalu still does to this day. I’m a little surprised to see a Mauviel piece with lacquer on it — I’m not aware that this is or was Mauviel’s practice — but perhaps the prior owner applied it himself. I’ve heard of copper tinners who will lacquer pieces on request.
But the problem with lacquer is that it will burn when it’s heated, and that is why lacquered pieces usually carry instructions for the first owner to remove the lacquer before use. As the product insert for Lecellier says, “All our products, in order to preserve their beautiful presentation, are covered with an external coat of removable varnish. Before putting it on the heat, immerse your pan in hot water for twenty minutes, and the varnish will lift away like a sheet of cellophane.”
Unfortunately Theo didn’t get this advice. It looks like the lacquer on his pan held its ground for his first outing with the salmon, but it carbonized with more exposure to heat. It looks terrible — I don’t blame Theo a bit for wondering if the pan was a fake that was falling apart.
I told Theo that the good news was that I didn’t think the copper had been harmed. But the bad news is that burnt lacquer can be difficult to remove, particularly if it has been heated to the point where it polymerizes. My advice to Theo was to start with some copper cleaner (such as Bistro or Wright’s). If the copper cleaner didn’t remove the dark residue, the next step would be to try acetone and fine-grained steel wool. (I went through this with a pommes Anna pan with a spot of polymerized adhesive — the residue of a price sticker.)
But this story has a happy ending: the copper responded immediately to copper cleaner. The lacquer was removed before it could harden and the copper is good as new.
This is a good reminder: as much care as we take of it, as careful as we are with tin and scratching and all that, copper is actually pretty tough. Many a gross-looking old pan has emerged bright and fresh from a good cleaning; many a dented, out-of-round piece has come home from the tinner straight and true. Copper forgives us, and I am grateful for that grace.
And best of all, this pan is not a low-quality fake as Theo feared, but genuine Mauviel. I hope it gives Theo many years of wonderful cooking.