Cooking with copper

Working pans: 30cm antique plat à sauter

VFC

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This pan is one of the most satisfying buys I have ever made.

This is what well-used tinned copper looks like. This pan is somewhere between 115 and 140 years old and I use it almost every time I cook. It has achieved what I consider an ideal state: the lining is low-stick, easy to cook on, and easy to clean. It has become the workhorse of my kitchen over the last six months and I want to show it to you in all its glory so you can see what tinned copper looks like when you really use it.

I took some photos of this pan when I got it so I can show you a sort of before and after. On the left is the pan as I received it in June 2020; on the right is the pan today, in February 2021. (I actually wish I’d taken more photos of it — at the time I didn’t know that I’d want to capture its condition in great detail.)

 

You will notice right away that I have not had the pan retinned. I have found that the best opportunity to restore and retin a pan is when I buy it because I can have it sent directly from the seller to my retinner of choice and save myself some shipping costs. But I don’t automatically send every piece for restoration. I have a mental decision tree I follow, and for me it comes down to considering the piece’s condition and my intended use for it. In the case of this specific piece, the exterior was in nice condition — it wasn’t mirror-shiny but it was bright and clean — and the tin lining was what I call “old tin”: a little discolored but clean and intact. I wasn’t sure whether I would use this pan or not for cooking, but if I did, I was comfortable with the state of the tin as it was.

Look closely at the photo on the right from the seller’s listing and you can see what I mean. The lining is not the bright silvery color of fresh tin but instead a darker pewter. But the key thing for me is that the surface is reflective and the tone is fairly even across the floor of the pan and up the sides. This pan has been kept clean and dry: there are some small black pockmarks here and there and some faint splotchiness, but I don’t see any patches of ashy-looking oxidation. Tinning is expensive and I try to make that investment judiciously, and this pan didn’t seem to need it.

When I received it I was immediately impressed by how sound it was for an antique piece and I decided to give it a try for cooking. I found it so easy and natural to use that I kept reaching for it again and again. There are two main reasons for this:

First, the pan’s size, shape, and weight are perfect for my home cooking. I cook for two most nights and this 30cm (11 inch) pan is the perfect size: up to four good-sized chicken breasts can fit; an entire salad-sized bag of spinach leaves can spread out and cook down; asparagus spears can lay flat. But it’s also shallow — it’s not as tall as a proper rondeau, but instead closer to a skillet — so it has the air flow that promotes browning without steaming. The short height also helps with the pan’s weight: it’s 2.5mm thick, a nice hefty mass for cooking, but it weighs just 2816g (6.8 lbs).

Second, the tin lining is perfect. By this I don’t mean that it’s pristine but instead that the floor of the pan has attained a state of maturity that is ideal for cooking and cleanup. The repeated heating and cooling cycles of cooking harden and toughen tin, over time turning it into a low- to virtually no-stick cooking surface. My experience with this pan is that a little cooking oil is all it takes, and even delicate things like scallops and salmon brown up nicely without tearing. And when it’s time to wash up, anything left in the pan comes off easily with a non-scratch sponge.

So this is what to expect when you cook with a tinned copper pan several times a week.

The brown patches are seasoning: polymerized cooking oils that have hardened into a very thin, hard, plastic-like layer that’s tough to remove. This is the same seasoning that we encourage on cast iron and carbon steel pans and it produces the same result on my pan here: a slick cooking surface that improves tin’s already low-stick properties. I leave the seasoning in place because I think it helps the pan’s cooking performance and because removing it would require hard abrasive scrubbing. (I wrote a bit about the psychology of seasoning and how I learned to appreciate it.)

The tarnish tells the story of how I use it.

 

 

The drip marks are from food acids that dissolved the topmost layer of tarnish. The handles are also tarnishing, which suggest that they’re either pure copper or a high-copper brass alloy that tarnishes like copper does. The rainbow patterns  of tarnish on the base are from the chemical compounds in the gas flame of my stovetop.  I don’t bother trying to clean any of this off because it will inevitably return, but also, the tarnish doesn’t bother me. Tarnish is, after all, a protective layer over the surface of the copper, and this armor has been honorably earned through this pan’s faithful service to me.

I just love this pan. It makes me happy every time I use it. And that means that I use it a lot!

 

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11 Comments

  1. Excellent post, great to see copper being put to use so regularly! I always wonder how many people barely ever touch their pieces expect for the occasional polish…
    I’m always worried about melting the tin when frying something that is significantly smaller than the pan unless I use an inordinate amount of oil. In your pictures with the different cuts of meat for example it looks like a large part of the pan isn’t covered and I guess you wouldn’t be constantly moving them around either. I thought you were supposed to be doing at least one of the two in order for the tin not to heat up to much.
    Out of curiosity: have you ever used any of your pans to the point of it needing to be retinned? I’m trying to gauge how long a new coat of tin would actually last for someone who cooks fairly regularly.

    1. Hey Peter! Thanks for your kind words. I’m relatively new to the world of tinned copper — I started getting into it in early 2018 (and launched this site in December 2018), believe it or not, so I can’t represent long-term use. But I have read comments on Chowhound from readers who have tin linings going on 10 years or more. Remember the mantra: wooden or silicone utensils, non-scratch sponges, hand-wash with soap and water. As for the smearing, my experience has been that my normal cooking doesn’t risk it — things cook up quite fine at sub-400 temps — and even when I do smear (and I have smeared almost all my dry-cooking stovetop pans!), it’s very minor and doesn’t affect the integrity of the lining. I know I’m giving contradictory advice here — “Be careful with your tin, but also, relax!” — and I’m sorry for that, but it really is something you figure out for YOUR pans on YOUR cooktop. My advice to new users is to keep the dial at halfway for the first few outings, and get a feel for how your pan is heating before you nudge it up from there. I cook at 1/2 about 90% of the time now, and nudge up to 3/4 only when I want a quick flash of heat. I hope my experience and encouragement help you — feel free to shoot me an email if you’d like to talk more.

      Any readers have longer-term experience with tin linings who can comment on longevity?

  2. Nice post VFC! It’s great to see a 100 + year-old pan still being a workhorse in the kitchen.

  3. I am pleased with this article, not only because it shows what tinned copper pans were actually made for. It conveys the joy of cooking, presents delicious dishes and may encourage you to question the frequent polishing of copper pots. Finally, the polish removes the patina, i.e. the protective layer that has formed due to the corrosion, and you accept a very small amount of abrasion with each polishing. There is also an aesthetic point of view. Whenever I’d polished my pots before a holiday, I asked myself afterwards whether they hadn’t looked nicer with their patina before. This question no longer arises. Since I love both “faces” of my pans, the polished ones and those with a patina, the much-used pans and the “collector’s items” now hang in harmony in my kitchen.

  4. Great post VFC, yes I have found good, old, bedded in, seasoned tin is often the best cooking surface of all. I love shiny copper pans, it reminds me of the great Batterie de Cuisines in the old hotels. On the other hand, old, marked, bumped and bruised pots and lids convey a happy kitchen, one where the cooking utensils are like old friends. Fabulous pictures as usual, VFC. A real treat.

  5. Sorry bro,

    (1) Your heat is too high and (2) You are not deglazing. The result, you have food burned into your tin.

    Try making a tart aux pommes a la solognote in that pan of yours. This recipe requires a close watch of pan temps.

    You have there, what looks to be a beautiful desert pan that you are using as a skillet.

    Cheers.

    1. Bob, that’s an excellent suggestion! I hadn’t thought about deglazing — I’m usually so preoccupied with serving food that I don’t think about clearing the pan. If you have experience cooking on tinned copper, would you be interested in sharing some of your expertise here? The “Cooking with Copper” section is still just a fledgling. I am a beginner cook and always looking to learn, and I’m sure readers would appreciate it too!

  6. I will toss this out there. This article is about cooking and copper. I have had two incidents where I have when cooking damaged the tin.

    One when I heated sugar too high that it burned. When that burnt on sugar came off during cleaning so did the tin under it. Hence sugar pots have no tin. This Tart Tatin pan is about 1.8 mm thick.

    Two, when I used, as I often do, my gratiné to crisp chicken skin before roasting in the oven. Gratinés are light and thin, but very useful for roasting, oven work. Well, this above medium heat caused, even with food and oil in the gratiné the tin to bubble. Usually, I crisp skin at slightly under medium heat.

    I use my copper, full on to cook. I don’t get upset, it’s just a hundred bucks to re-tin both. Only problem is, there’s pretty tin work and working tin work. My gratinés all have a ton on tin on them.

  7. I should not be so critical. Maybe. Just email articles to you for consideration? I think you have my email below.

    1. Bob, I appreciate your comments and perspective. I’d like to invite you to write some posts about how you use copper — I think I’d find it inspiring, and I also hope that I and other readers can learn from your experience. I will indeed send you an email — thank you!

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