Getting started with copper

Getting started with copper

First time with real copper? Let’s get started.

Congratulations — you’ve made an investment. Real copper pans — that is, copper with a thin inner lining of tin, steel, nickel, silver, or aluminum — are wonderful for cooking. They also come with a story: some are antiques from the 19th and early 20th century, some are vintage from the heyday of Julia Child and Chuck Williams, and some are present-day pieces hand-crafted by artisans who are sustaining the old ways. Whatever kind of pot or pan you have, you’re treating yourself to cookware that is famous for its excellent cooking properties.

If this is the first time you’re using copper, it’s worth knowing a few things about your pan before you start using it.

What’s the lining on your pan?

How you cook with and clean your copper will vary depending on what it’s lined with, so that’s the first thing you need to know about the pieces you have.

Getting started with copper
The pan in front is steel-lined and the saucepan in back is tinned.

Copper pots for stovetop cooking are given a lining on the inside where the food sits in the pan. This is because copper metal in direct contact with certain food acids will produce some chemical compounds that can make you sick to your stomach. (The bad compound is bright green verdigris that is very easy to spot.) The lining prevents that contact and it’s important that it’s complete and intact over the cooking surface.

  • Tin is the traditional lining for antique copper. It has many advantages but is also the most high-maintenance kind of lining. It can wear away over time and needs to be renewed, a process called retinning.
  • Silver became available as a lining in the early 20th century. It is electroplated onto the copper.
  • Stainless steel, nickel, and aluminum came along in the 1960s and 1970s as the technology was developed to bond them to copper. These metals are harder than tin and don’t wear away as easily (or in the case of steel, at all!).
  • Some pans are bare copper by design: big jam pans for boiling fruit and berries for preserves, and smaller pans with a spout and a conical metal handle for melting sugar into caramel. These cooking tasks don’t generate the kind of food acids that react with copper, so the pans don’t need a protective lining.
Click here for a quick visual guide to the different linings.

Here are different linings as shown in photos from online listings that I’ve bought in the past. Click the photos to see them close up.

This is a brand-new tin lining. It is bright and shiny. The wipe marks are clearly visible.
This is a brand-new tin lining from a different tinner, and it has a different look. You need to look more closely to see the wipe marks.
This is an older lining, but there is still shiny tin. The wipe marks are easier to see.
This is tin that has been used for cooking. The tin has reacted (harmlessly) with the food and has darkened. I would have this lining redone before cooking with it.
This tin lining is worn out and needs to be replaced. This is not safe for cooking and needs to be relined.

If the lining isn’t tin, then a second option is that it could be silver.

This is a silver lining. Silver is brighter and more blue-toned than tin. The silver is electroplated onto the copper, so there will be no wipe marks.

If the lining is not tin or silver, then it’s a bi-metal that has been bonded directly to the copper. The three options are stainless steel, nickel, or aluminum.

This is stainless steel that has been polished with a circular grinder to produce lines like a vinyl record. Interior finishes on stainless-lined pans
This is stainless steel that has been polished to a mirror finish. Interior finishes on stainless-lined pans
This is stainless steel that has been “bead blasted” to produce a uniform surface. Interior finishes on stainless-lined pans
This is a nickel lining. It looks a lot like stainless steel and many copper sellers don’t know that the piece they’re selling isn’t stainless! How to tell nickel from stainless may help you to recognize nickel. Cupretam, Cuprinox, and Cupronil
This is an aluminum lining. Aluminum is a fairly reactive metal and aluminum linings accumulate pits and surface discoloration very easily.

I hope this helps you identify your lining! Here are a few more detailed posts if you’d like more examples.

How is copper different?

Getting started with copperThe first thing to learn is that you don’t need to heat copper pans as intensely as you do other pans. Copper is so thermally efficient that it captures and spreads heat faster and more extensively than steel or cast iron. The first time you cook with your new copper, limit yourself to halfway on the dial of your cooktop and observe how it goes. When I started using copper, I found that I could achieve nice brisk sauté temperatures at a much lower heat setting than before. If I need a little more heat, I nudge the dial up a tad and watch — I can usually see the change within a few seconds.

The exception? Boiling water. Water absorbs a ton of heat before it will come to a boil, so it’s fine to crank the heat up. (Common sense reminder: Don’t let any pan boil dry!)

Also, know your lining when you reach for cooking utensils. Tin, silver, nickel, and aluminum are softer than stainless steel, and so steel spoons and spatulas can scratch these linings. For these pans, use wooden, plastic, silicone, or coated spoons and spatulas. For steel-lined copper, you’re fine with steel tools.

What’s the worst than can happen?

In my opinion, overheating. Copper is known for heat management qualities that help avoid burning and scorching, but if you heat it up blazing hot as though it’s a slab of cast iron, all that heat is going to burn the heck out of your food. Once again, as you start cooking with copper, limit yourself to halfway up the dial and see how hot this gets your pan.

Getting started with copper
This is what smearing looks like on a tinned pan.

A second caution with heat applies if you’re using tin-lined copper. Tin has a relatively low melting point — about 450°F (230°C) — and at temperatures above its melting point, it will begin to soften and bubble, an effect called “smearing.” This is not the end of the world — the effects are usually just cosmetic swipes in the tin, or small bubbles — but smearing tin is usually a sign that you’re running the pan a bit too hot. (Keep in mind that 450°F/230°C is pretty hot for food as well — above the burning point of olive oil!)

The exception, again: boiling water. As above, water needs a lot of thermal energy to get to a boil. It’s perfectly safe, even with tinned copper, to put a water-filled pot atop a burner on high to bring it to a boil more quickly. (Again, common sense reminder — don’t let any pan boil dry.)

How do you care for it?

First things first: Copper shouldn’t go in the dishwasher. I mean, it’s your pan and you can do whatever you want with it, but the dishwashing process can cause chemical reactions that eat away at the copper. Your pan won’t dissolve or anything like that but the surface will eventually turn dull and will need professional polishing to be shiny again.

Use dish soap, hot water, and a non-scratch sponge to wash the pan inside and out. Don’t be afraid to use a firm touch on food stuck to the lining, but what you want to avoid is scouring — pressing so hard that you begin to wear into the lining metal itself.

Getting started with copperKnow your lining before you use an abrasive cleaner like Comet, Ajax, Bon Ami, or Bar Keeper’s Friend. These cleaners can scratch the heck out of copper, tin, aluminum, nickel, and silver — the only surface they aren’t likely to scratch is stainless steel.

Soak the lining, not the pan. If food is tough to remove, fill the pan with water to cover the area and let it soften. Don’t immerse the entire pan in a sink full of water because this gets water into the handle crevices that’s hard to remove.

Wash and dry the area around the handle, particularly for iron-handled pans. Water and food oils inevitably get into the crevices, but you can slow this down with routine cleaning. And if you have a pan with an iron handle, keeping this area clean and dry will help prevent rusting.

In summary…

  • Know your lining! Tin-, silver-, nickel-, and aluminum-lined pans need a gentler touch than steel-lined pans.
  • Limit the heat to halfway up the dial while you get a feel for how your pan handles heat on your stovetop.
  • Use wood, plastic, silicone, or coated steel cooking utensils unless your pan is lined with stainless steel.
  • Wash by hand with dish soap and a non-scratch sponge.
  • Soak the lining, not the pan. Instead of scouring tough spots, fill the pan with water and let it sit to soften food residue.
  • Wash and dry around the handle to keep the area clean and rust-free.

Ready for more?

See the Cooking with vintage copper and Caring for vintage copper sections for more posts.