Here’s my guidance on how to start and grow your batterie de cuisine en cuivre.
2.5mm thickness is a good place to start
Copper pans aren’t like most other modern cookware because they come in different thicknesses, and this is what determines how the pan handles heat on the cooktop. Put simply, copper heats and cools quickly and efficiently, and adding thickness to the pan slows this down. Thin copper pans get fiery hot quite rapidly even on moderate heat and in my opinion this creates the greatest risk of unintentionally overheating and burning food; thicker copper pans are slower to heat and cool, which means that they can take several seconds to respond when you dial the temperature up and down.
For your first pan, I think you should aim for the thickness that balances performance and weight. Copper-wielding cooks before us have already tried out all shapes and sizes and thicknesses of copper pans, and the general consensus is that copper around 2.5mm thick works very well on most home cooktops and ovens. Of course there is no perfect pan for everyone — we all have different stovetops, different cooking repertoires, and different levels of skill. But if you are looking for a good first pan to start with, I’m pretty confident that a 2.5mm thick copper pan is a great introduction to the copper cooking experience, and a sauté pan or rondeau is a useful shape of pan that you will have plenty of opportunities to use.
I’m also advising you to choose a tin lining. I believe it provides the best cooking experience and it’s also available on the widest range of copper pieces. I also believe that if you are reading this site, you are already aware of and willing to undertake the common-sense level of maintenance and care that tin asks of you. I have plenty of advice and guidance on this in my Caring for vintage copper section.
Growing your collection
You can’t go far wrong if you stick to 2.5mm thick copper, but there are a lot of other options out there.
Less than 2mm is light-duty copper.
This is what I call “light duty” copper for display, to serve cooked food at the table, or for occasional specialized use. Copper less than 2mm thick does not have enough mass to manage the level of heat put out by the average home stovetop, which means that the pan will heat up very quickly and get quite hot with a relatively low level of heat. In other words, you will need to keep a very close eye on the pan while you cook with it to keep it from overheating, and if it’s lined with tin, there is also a risk of smearing and bubbling the lining. These are not insurmountable challenges, of course, but I am a beginner-intermediate cook and with a 2mm pan on the stovetop I would be constantly worried I was about to burn food.
Exceptions and nuance
Some specialized cooking vessels are less than 2mm thick by design. A good example are fish poaching pans like turbotières and poissonières. Liquid cooking doesn’t require thick copper to spread and even out heat because the water absorbs and spreads the heat far more effectively than the copper. Fish poaching pans are usually made of 2mm (or thinner) copper with a rolled rim to hold the pan’s shape.
In my opinion, Mauviel M’150 is table service copper. I see the combination of 1.2mm of copper and .3mm of steel in these pans as the marriage of opposites: the thin copper is fragile and quick to overheat — high-strung, so to speak — while the steel is calm and stolid, resisting the heat and slowing down its movement. What you get is, in my opinion, an ersatz copper experience, more like a decent-quality piece of clad cookware than the smooth even heat management you would expect from copper.
Some antique pieces that measure less than 2mm at the rim may be thicker towards the base. The base is the business end of a pan, and thick copper here gives you the most benefit. You should always consider a pan’s weight to be a more reliable indicator of its total mass of copper than its measurement at the rim. I publish reference tables of pans by measurement, weight, and thickness to serve as comparison — if the pan you’re considering is unusually heavy for its size, chances are it’s thicker in the base, which is a wonderful quality to have.
2mm to 3mm is everyday cooking copper.
This is the zone of copper thickness that balances weight with performance. There is enough copper in the pan to absorb and spread the heat from a modern cooktop — again, remember that copper needs less heat applied to it to achieve cooking temperatures than steel or iron pans — but the weight of the pans themselves remains manageable for a home cook.
2.5mm is a great thickness target for stovetop pans. Not every type of pan needs to be this thick — I’ll talk about that below — but pieces that are 2.5mm thick will give you a great balance of sturdiness, heat management, and weight in the hand.
Exceptions and nuance
Stockpots and saucepans are fine at less than 2.5mm. These are pans that usually heat liquids (water, stock, soups, sauces, et cetera), and I will repeat the point I made above about fish poaching pans: Liquid cooking doesn’t require thick copper to conduct heat because the water absorbs and spreads the heat far more effectively than the copper. There is negligible cooking benefit in my opinion to having a 3mm stockpot or saucepan instead of a 2mm one.
Sauté pans, rondeaux, and skillets benefit from being 2.5mm or greater. These pans are shaped for dry cooking — laying down individual pieces of meat or fish or vegetables that pick up heat from contact with the pan’s surface. This is where copper really excels because it equalizes the temperature across the floor of the pan so there are no cold (or hot) spots. Imagine flopping down two big steaks: they’re cool compared to the pre-heated pan, and immediately absorb all the heat where they rest on the pan. On a poorly-conductive cast iron or steel pan, this can create a cold spot for several seconds until the metal reheats, but a highly-conductive copper pan instantly equalizes the heat and the steaks begin cooking right away. Likewise, a copper pan won’t develop hot spots over the heat source — instead, the entire base of the pan sustains the heat evenly. In my opinion, these are great conditions for stovetop cooking.
Stewpots benefit from being 2.5mm or greater because of the nature of stews. In my experience, many stew recipes start with browning the meat and vegetables — in other words, dry-cooking. Having 2.5mm or more copper in the base of the pan helps equalize the heat and facilitate even sautéing. Furthermore, even though stews are partially liquid — and therefore have some internal convective currents working to spread temperature — they’re also viscous and chunky, which can trap superheated pockets at the pan surface that can scorch. For thicker stews and sauces, the copper pot needs to play an active role to spread and even out the heat around the base and sides.
Greater than 3mm thick is emotional cooking and collecting copper.
In my experience, copper achieves its cooking purpose by 3mm for most pans (and most cooks), and copper thicker than that doesn’t offer a functional benefit that I can detect. So what’s the point of spending more — way more — for super-thick copper? In my opinion, it’s not about the food.
I coined this term to describe the sense of meaning and satisfaction derived from the act of cooking, beyond the production of a meal. My emotions around cooking come from feeling like a beginner: shame that I’m not better at this stage in my life, hope that I can learn and improve, and gratification when I do. My expensive copper is more than a tool — it’s a totem that gives me confidence in an area of my life where it is needed.
The investment I’ve made in my copper also encourages me to use it. I don’t always look forward to cooking dinner, but I always feel better about myself when I’ve done it. Some days, the inner voice that says You’ve spent all this money on this stuff, and you’re not going to use it?! is just what I need to hear in order to overcome my inertia.
And finally, super-thick copper is a luxury item. A battery-powered Timex can keep better time than a high-end mechanical watch, and yet lots of people spend many thousands of dollars on Rolex and Panerai watches anyway. If you enjoy hunting down and acquiring “the best,” even if this judgement is based on exclusivity rather than performance, then super-thick antique copper falls squarely in that category of cookware.
The second reason to buy super-thick copper is for the pleasure of collecting it. In my experience, pieces between 3mm and 4mm are uncommon; pieces over 4mm are truly rare. Each of them is a survivor. What I call the golden age of copper cookware — 1870 or so to the 1920s — is now a century or more in the past. These things were made for hard work in their time; if they were lucky, they were used well for a few decades and then stored, hidden away to survive a war or two without being scrapped. Even pieces that are unsuitable for cooking in the present day still have a dignity to them that evokes reverence.
There is also the possibility that these are tangible assets that will significantly increase in value. This is already the case, as collectible copper cookware already sells for many multiples of its scrap price. But is it possible that pieces that sell for US$500 today will command US$1000 or more sometime in the future? As they say, everything happens in the long run. One copper seller of my acquaintance tells me of a customer who buys pieces and stashes them away, untouched, for just this eventuality.
Whatever your motivation to collect copper — sentimentality, self-interest, or a healthy combination of both — copper over 3mm thick is where scarcity and exclusivity start to kick in.
Exceptions and nuance
Thin antique copper can be collectible, too. As far as I can tell, up until the 1860s or so, the best copper was 2mm thick because that was the limit of what hammers and hand-cranked metalworking machinery could bend. Steam-powered and hydraulic machinery greatly increased the force that could be applied to metal sheets and by the 1880s I begin to see 3mm and 4mm pieces produced in Paris. In my opinion, there is a collectibility tradeoff here: super-thick copper of the 1880s-1920s is by definition only partially hand-made, and so if you are looking for truly 100% hand-made copper cookware, you’ll need to look to thinner antiques from the mid-19th century or earlier. These pieces can be extraordinarily beautiful — the few I have held are among the most well-balanced and pleasing that I have encountered — but they are do not have the mass of copper suitable for the level of heat produced by modern stoves. It would be like driving a 1908 Ford Model T on a busy highway: sure, you’ll get to your destination eventually, but you’d be limited to tootling along in the slow lane while the rest of the cars zoom past you. I think it sounds kinda fun once or twice, but even the most die-hard early Ford enthusiasts don’t drive them every day. My advice is to buy the early antiques for their charm and collectibility, but they do not have the functional value of the thicker copper that followed.
For thick modern-era copper, look to 1970s-1990s Mauviel. During the heyday of the Mauviel Cupretam era, they produced a steady stream of high-thickness (3.2-3.8mm or so) hammered-finish stewpots, rondeaux, and sauté pans. Most of them are in the 28-40cm range, but there are a few smaller ones out there as well. These pieces are not stamped for Mauviel but will either be unstamped or will have a store stamp for Williams-Sonoma, Verbeelen, Chomette-Favor, BonJour, Lamalle, or Matfer. (There are more store stamps than this, of course, but these are among the most common.)
Sub-28cm, 3mm-plus pieces are the real gems. Most golden-age French makers produced thick copper for restaurant use and these tend to be large-scale pieces — 36cm (14 inches) diameter or more, up to 60cm (24 inches). I own a few of them and, to be honest, they are challenging to use. Don’t get me wrong — they are fabulous, and the thick copper spans multiple hobs to create a sort of plancha — but they are quite heavy and unwieldy to handle and clean. My real treasures are my 3-4mm pieces that are under 28cm diameter because they’re home-cooking scale and I get more use out of them.
If you’re serious about finding high-thickness pieces, ask for precise weight and learn how to evaluate it. Every copper seller says their copper is “heavy” but that’s not useful data when you’re trying to decide whether to spend a lot of money. The weight of the piece is the best indicator of the mass of copper in it, and I have pulled together as many reliable measurements as I can on my reference weights and measurements page to give you some data for comparison.
- Ask the seller to weigh the piece in grams, not imperial pounds and ounces. In my experience, sellers tend to round up the reported weight of pieces, and “5 pounds 14 ounces” is not precise enough to evaluate.
- Make sure you are accounting for the weight of the lid. Lids are wonderful but they do not contribute to the thickness of the pan body. Ask the seller to specify the weight of the body of the pan separate from its lid.
- Some bottom-heavy antique pans are effectively 3-4mm thick even though their sidewalls are thinner. The hardest-working copper in your pan is in the base: this is where heat enters and where food rests, so the copper here needs to capture, spread, retain, and equalize heat. Thickness here helps with all of these processes. Many of the best French makers intentionally made their pans bottom-heavy, and the only way to recognize one of these is by comparing its weight to others to see if it is heavier than its rim measurement suggests.
These are my opinions, and I hope my perspective helps you decide what’s right for you. If you have any questions for me, please Contact me!