1. Getting started
What’s so special about vintage French copper cookware?
Beginning in the 1700s, French food became a recognized element of French culture, and French craftsmen developed high-quality copper cookware in which to cook it. Many antique pans from the early 1800s and into the 1920s are made of extra-thick copper with ornate brass or cast-iron handles. They’re beautiful objects made with pure copper that’s often thicker than anything made today, and when restored with a good lining of tin they are as wonderful for cooking food now as they were 150 years ago.
The second great era of French copper cookware began after World War II. In the 1950s, Julia Child popularized French cuisine and US stores like Williams Sonoma and Sur La Table began importing French copper cookware for home cooks. Even though copper from this era was made with modern manufacturing techniques and does not have the same handmade feel as antique copper, it can be just as thick and high-quality.
Can a vintage French copper pot be used for cooking?
Yes, if it’s in good physical condition and its lining is intact. For French copper pots and pans made before the 1970s, the lining will most likely be a layer of tin, which can be worn away as it’s used. If you get a pan with a worn-out lining, you need to have it relined with new tin before you cook with it.
Where do you buy vintage French copper?
By definition, vintage French copper isn’t made any more, so you need to look on eBay, Etsy, and antique stores and estate sales. While a lot of good copper pieces have already been imported into the US, more are still being “discovered” in France and Europe, often in an unrestored state. Some copper sellers will restore a piece before posting it for sale, while others will sell it to you in unrestored condition at a lower price.
Why buy vintage French copper instead of new copper cookware?
I can’t tell you what to do, but I can tell you why I’ve bought so much of it.
- Because it’s thicker than copper cookware made today. Antique French copper was routinely made to be 3mm thick, and sometimes approaching 4mm or even 5mm. Mauviel is the only copper manufacturer that I know of today making copper over 3mm thick but it’s hard to find and they don’t guarantee the thickness of individual pieces. (Mauviel has also reduced the quality of their copper cookware across the board since 2014 and I don’t recommend buying it new.)
- Because thicker copper cookware has unique beneficial properties for cooking. I’ll speak to this below, but in my opinion the best qualities of copper for cooking start to kick in around 3mm of thickness.
- Because I’ve accepted the costs of ownership. I am willing to pay more for a piece of vintage copper and the expenses of restoration and retinning.
- Because I can work with the properties of tin. I understand how to cook with and clean my tin-lined copper and I have other pans for the occasions when tinned copper isn’t the best choice.
- Because it’s beautiful and makes me happy. I love the look and feel of vintage copper. I love displaying it in my home. And I absolutely love cooking with it.
Is thicker copper better?
This ultimately comes down to preference. For the kind of cooking I do, I have built my cookware collection around pans that are at least 2.5mm thick, with the majority 3mm thick or more.
For cooking, thin copper (2mm or less) is useful for relatively few cooking tasks, while thicker copper (2.5mm or more) is useful for a great many more. A thin copper pan heats up and cools down quickly, and I would want that responsiveness for things like very delicate sauces so I can yank them off the heat and keep them from curdling or burning. A thicker copper pan changes temperature more slowly, and once it’s hot it hangs onto that heat. I want that steady heat for the majority of my cooking — browning meat and sautéing vegetables. (Chowhound has epic threads on this topic. Start with Copper Cookware Thickness, and then for a discussion about which types of pans benefit best from being thick, continue to Copper, piece of cookware that best utilizes heat transfer properties.)
Interestingly, copper does not confer a benefit for heating water. The cooking performance of a copper pot filled with water isn’t affected much by the properties of the copper, but instead by the water within it. A pot filled with water will heat up and cool down about the same whether it’s made of copper, steel, aluminum, or iron.
As for collectible copper, yes, across the board, thicker copper is more desirable.
Can a copper pot be too thick?
In my opinion, yes, when it gets to be too heavy to manage. I have a number of restaurant-grade pieces that are really big and really heavy — 15 pounds or more when empty. In a big commercial kitchen, a pot like this would spend the whole evening on the cooktop and when it was time to clean it up there were plenty of strong-armed men to haul it around. But realistically, I may never use mine for cooking. (My heaviest pot weighs 40 pounds and I use it for firewood.)
What are some of the downsides to vintage French copper?
When people complain about it, here are some of the things they complain about. (I’m not going to go into the counterpoints here — that’s what the rest of the site is for!)
- It’s expensive to buy. Bearing in mind that “expensive” is a subjective judgement, copper pots and pans cost more than pans made from other materials.
- It’s also expensive to ship. When you buy a pot on Etsy or eBay, expect at least an additional $30 for shipping, up to $100 or more for a big piece. (And “free shipping” is never free but rather integrated into the purchase price.) You’ll also pay similar rates when you send your pots off for retinning.
- It’s too heavy for cooking. Copper is a dense metal. My 30cm aluminum stewpot weighs 5 pounds, while the same stewpot in copper weighs 15 pounds. You will need more arm and hand strength to move copper pots and pans around than you’d need for other types of cookware.
- You can’t cook at high heat with it. Tin’s melting point is 450°F (232°C), a temperature that most kitchen cooktops can induce within a few minutes. If you cook with a tin-lined pan on High, you could very well bring the surface of the pan to the point where the tin smears or forms bubbles.
- Retinning is a nuisance. Tin-lined pans need to have their lining renewed when it wears out, which means taking (or shipping) the pan to a retinner and waiting a few weeks for its return. This costs money and also downtime for the pan. You can greatly prolong the life of a tin lining but you cannot change the fact that it will wear away over use.
- It’s high maintenance. In addition to taking care of the inside of the pot, there’s also the issue of inevitable tarnish on the exterior. If you want to maintain the shine and bright copper color, you will need to clean the tarnish off periodically.
2. About tin-lined copper
Why are vintage French copper pots and pans lined with tin?
Copper in direct contact with the acids in some foods will react with them and can produce chemical compounds that are mildly toxic — they can make you sick to your stomach. To prevent this, copper needs to be shielded from direct contact with food, ideally with a substance that won’t get in the way of the heat transfer from copper into the food. To our great good fortune, tin happens to be a handy substance for this: it can be found in natural deposits, it transfers heat quite well, and it melts at a reasonable temperature (450°F or 232°C) so it can be wiped into the interior of a copper pan where it will stick firmly in place. Metallurgists figured this out in antiquity and tin was the only lining for copper cookware up until the 1970s, when they developed industrial techniques to bond copper to stainless steel, nickel, and aluminum.
You can find French copper cookware that’s not lined at all, but these are specialty tools for cooking with eggs, sugar, and fruit — foods that don’t react with copper to produce the harmful compounds. That’s why copper mixing bowls, confectionary sugar melters, and jam pans don’t have a silvery lining. But everyday pots and pans — saucepans, skillets, sauté pans, stewpots, stockpots, and so forth — need to be lined.
Why aren’t copper pots lined with tin any more?
But tin is not a perfect material. It’s a soft metal, so you can scrape tin away if you go at it with a scrub sponge and an abrasive cleaner like Comet, Bar Keeper’s Friend, Bon Ami, or Soft Scrub. (That’s also why you should never use metal utensils in a tin-lined pan.) Another issue with tin is that it begins to melt at 450°F (232°C), which means it’s not best suited to broiling and high-heat searing.
The majority of modern-era copper cookware is lined with stainless steel instead of tin because steel stands up better to high-heat cooking and rough cleaning. But stainless steel is not a perfect lining material either — it’s “sticky,” meaning that food tends to adhere to it when you cook. And steel-lined copper pots and pans top out at 2.5mm of total thickness, which means you’re missing out on the qualities of thick copper that’s 3mm thick or more.
How do you retin a pan?
The process entails removing any trace of old tin and re-applying a layer of molten tin. This takes intense heat, specialty tools and chemicals, protective gear, and skill. Most importantly, the tin needs to be exceptionally pure — 99% pure or better — to be “food-grade” as a cooking surface.
How do you know if a pan needs to be retinned?
In my experience, tin wears out in two ways.
First, it can physically wear down to the point where you can see streaks or spots of copper. (Bear in mind that modern dishwashing soap wasn’t invented until the mid-20th century; prior to that, copper pots and pans were scoured with sand to clean them — no wonder they were retinned every few months!) A little bit of copper showing is not a big deal, but when the exposed copper over the entire cooking surface of the pan adds up to a square inch or so, it’s time to retin.
The second way is when the tin has been unused for some time and has built up an unattractive (but harmless) layer of oxidation, which looks like dark, rough, dusty-looking splotches. You can scrub this off with an abrasive but you might also scrape right through the remaining tin to the copper underneath. In my opinion, you’re better off having an old splotchy tin lining replaced before you start using it, because cleaning it off might wear the lining away to the point where it needs retinning anyway.
When I buy a pot online, I have my own decision process about whether or not it needs retinning right away, which might help inform you.
Do pans lined with nickel, steel, or aluminum need to be relined?
Steel and aluminum don’t wear through like tin. Nickel is much harder than tin but can still be worn through if you scrub it hard or scratch it.
However, steel- and aluminum-lined pans can fail. If the lining separates (or “delaminates”) from the copper for any reason — for example, if salt sits on the steel and pits it deeply enough to penetrate through to the copper — the pan is ruined. A nickel-lined pan could theoretically be relined again, but it’s probably more practical to reline it with tin instead.
Can you retin a pan at home?
Yes, but I do not think you should. The heat and chemicals involved are dangerous and it takes skill to apply the tin in an even layer. The differences between a professionally lined pan and one done by an amateur are immediately apparent: while any hand-wiped tin lining will always have slight swirl marks and other imperfections, a badly-done lining will be thick, uneven, drippy, and bumpy. If you hope to use a pan for cooking or plan to sell it or give it away, the lining should be applied by a professional.
Why is retinning so expensive?
In my experience, there are a couple factors in play.
- Cost of services: Each retinner has a formula for the cost of preparing and relining the pan. Retinners will also fix dents, tighten rivets, and address other problems, which can add repair costs.
- Shipping charges: Copper pans are heavy and need to be packed securely, increasing the cost of shipping them to the retinner and back.
You can find ways to economize on the shipping, but I would recommend against trying to cut corners on the retinning itself. I did once, and it didn’t work out.
Can you avoid retinning?
You can’t avoid it completely but you can certainly prolong the life of the tin in your pots. I’ve put together a post on how I use and clean my tin-lined copper with the common-sense things I do that are working for me.
3. Buying vintage copper
Are all old French copper pots and pans potentially valuable?
In my opinion, no, not all of them are. I think of vintage French copper like vintage cars: some old cars are incredibly valuable even in a somewhat dilapidated state, while others have outlived their usefulness and are, unfortunately, junk. Distinguishing one from the other comes down to objective common sense as well as subjective perceptions of beauty and value. Some common-sense factors include the thickness of the copper, the physical condition of the pot, and its provenance — if it was made by a well-known maker, owned by someone famous, or used at a well-known restaurant. Some subjective factors might be things like perceived rarity, aesthetic appeal, and usefulness.
What’s the best way to figure out what a piece of vintage French copper is worth?
Search eBay and Etsy to get a feel for the prices of comparable pieces. In my experience, antique dealers tend to have high prices that aren’t representative of true market value.
Factors that increase objective value are high copper thickness, good to excellent physical condition, and interesting history or provenance. For example, an unrestored saucepan with a Gaillard or Jacquotot stamp can sell for a hundred dollars more than an unstamped but restored saucepan of the exact same dimensions and quality.
What’s the best way to start buying vintage French copper?
I’ve bought a lot of vintage copper from a variety of sources and the single most important piece of advice I have for you is to know yourself. Why are you interested in this? Do you want to cook with it? Do you want to collect it? Do you want to decorate your house with it? Think through not only how much you want to spend, but what level of use you can expect at the price point you have in mind. Thin copper is much less expensive than thick copper and can be just as beautiful for display, but it will perform quite differently on the cooktop. Is your budget in line with your expectations?
When you’re ready to buy, start with some buyer protection: that is, buy within marketplaces like eBay and Etsy that have defined procedures for mediating between buyers and sellers in the case of a problem. Using PayPal for payment also adds their Purchase Protection to the transaction. These services add fees to the transaction but you and the seller have a mechanism to resolve disputes and enforce guarantees.
Some eBay and Etsy sellers are copper dealers or retinners who also operate their own standalone online stores. I would feel comfortable buying through the online store of a seller with a good track record on eBay or Etsy, but I still encourage you to use PayPal for payment.
I have heard some disappointing stories of purchases from pop-up Instagram stores and other “lifestyle” sellers who are excellent at photographing and presenting copper that turns out to be of lower quality than expected. Outside of the buyer protection structures of eBay, Etsy, and PayPal, there is little a buyer can do if the copper was misrepresented. Until you develop a good eye for copper and some trust relationships with sellers, I recommend staying within regulated marketplaces that can mediate a dispute.
For my specific endorsement of sellers I like, please see Where I buy copper. (As always, my endorsements are based on my own experiences buying copper from them, and I’m not compensated in any way.)
What piece of copper should I buy first?
I would not recommend a really big piece of copper as your first acquisition right out of the gate — look for a sauté pan or a rondeau, maybe 11 inches (28cm) in diameter or less, but as thick as you can find it. A 3mm pot like that should weigh around 9 pounds (4 kilos).
What other questions would you like to see addressed here? Send me an email at VFC at vintagefrenchcopper.com.