Vintage Copper Cookware
Periodically, we encounter pieces or even entire sets of vintage copper cookware in the estates that we handle. There are some things that collectors and users of copper cookware look for when purchasing vintage pieces that perhaps the average non-collector might not be aware of. We hope to shed some light on the benefits, pitfalls and character traits to look for when purchasing vintage copper pieces.
There's Just Something About Copper
The use of copper for cookery dates back thousands of years. It has long been hailed for its superior, uniform heat conductivity across the bottom and sides of a pot or pan. Additionally, it is also believed by baking enthusiasts and professionals that beating egg whites in a copper bowl provides better "lift" in the end result (just watch a few Julia Child's cooking shows where she is working with egg whites). As a result, copperware has become a kitchen essential and the preference of amateur and professional chefs alike. Furthermore, copper cookware and utensils can offer durability and natural beauty to any kitchen environment.
As mentioned earlier, copper has an excellent uniformity in heating. It's consistent. And if there's anything cooks and chefs need most in their cookware, it is consistency! Copper is also a great conductor for heat transfer and is versatile across a variety of cooking surfaces: gas, electric, glass, and ceramic stove tops alike (see comment below in "Pitfalls" for induction heating). Copper is also a completely natural metal and has been used for thousands of years in cookware throughout the world.
Copper is reactive! In other words, it will react to certain acidic substances. For example, cooking a red tomato sauce in straight copper would not only discolor your sauce, but it could lead to "copper toxicity." Yikes! That is why copper pots are almost always lined with some sort of other metal; typically tin or stainless steel -- each having its pros and cons. Also, if you have an induction stove top, your copper cookware may not heat -- that is because copper is not magnetic by nature and induction cooking works with magnetic metals. If you have any doubts, try testing the copper piece(s) with a magnet. It the magnet sticks to the pan, then it might work. If if does not stick, then you know for sure that the pan will not work with an induction stove.
For copper pot purists, tin has always been the traditional lining for copper cookware -- dating back centuries. Tin (long before silicon coatings) has some non-stick properties, as well as excellent heat conductivity (better than stainless steel) that makes it appealing. The caveat is that tin has a relatively low melting point 449.47 degrees compared to other metals. Meaning, you can only use a tin-lined piece at temperatures lower than 449 degrees. Anything higher and your tin will run faster than the Tin Man from the Wicked Witch of the East's rain storm! Also, tin tends to scratch easily, so you should not use any type of abrasive cleaners nor metal utensils on it -- wooden and silicone coated utensils are fine. Finally, over the course of a tin-lined piece's lifespan, you may need to "re-tin" your piece. In other words, reline it, which can be rather pricey.
For most modern day cooks, the ease and durability of stainless steel far outweighs the few pitfalls it presents. Stainless steel is not by nature non-stick. It might take years of "seasoning" your pan before you attain any sort of resemblance of non-stick properties, which might be meager at best. Also, stainless steel can be subject to scratching, which typically is not repairable.
Characteristics to Think About:
1. It's Hammer-time!
Hammered vs. unhammered finishes tend to be more of an aesthetic decision for most common household buyers. However, there is actually more to the hammered finish than most people realize. In fact, hammering copper creates small divots or indentations on the surface of the copper. Not only does it make the copper look more interesting, it also hardens the metal which causes heat to travel faster throughout.
2. Type of Lining!
Tin vs. stainless steel. This is a time honored battle between tin and stainless steel. We mentioned the benefits and pitfalls for both so only you can make this choice!
3. Thickness Counts!
Simply put, a thicker based copper pot or pan is more durable and is typically better made. It will not warp, nor will it need additional structural support. This also adds versatility in the type of appliance it is being used -- electric vs. glass vs. glasstop vs. ceramic-top stoves. (Really old copper cookware might be as thick as 3 mm at the base, but vintage and quality modern pieces tend to be in the 2 mm to 2.5 mm range.) Also, copper is a precious metal. So thicker copper equals a more valuable piece of cookware. Do not waste your time (unless you are purely interested in decorative copper pieces) with anything less than 2 mm thick.
Trick: Don't know what 2 mm thick is? Do the "nickel test." A nickel is 1.95 mm thick. So a pot whose base is thicker than a nickel will be at least 2 mm thick!
4. Just Handle It!
The handles and the manner which handles are affixed to the cookware is as important to the quality of the cookware as is the metal itself. But what's in a handle? Well, look for handles that are riveted to the copper itself -- not through the copper and tin (the tin should overlay or line the inside part of the pan/pot covering the rivet). Most vintage and antique pieces are made really well, but make sure you check for this. Also, the material used for the handle itself is important. Typically, bronze, brass, stainless steel, or cast iron are used for handles. Larger pans need a bit more strength, so definitely look for cast iron which provides less heat conductivity than other metals and stays relatively cooler to the touch. Stainless steel follows as a second choice. Unless you're looking for pieces that will be purely used in a decorative capacity, you might want to avoid brass or bronze handles on larger pots or pans.
5. Whip It!
A sturdy copper bowl is perfect for dessert making -- particularly for whipping egg whites (again, tapping in to old episodes of Julia Child's cooking shows) and cream. Because it offers very precise temperature control, it is also particularly useful in working with tempered chocolate and sugar (caramel, candy, etc.), provided that the other ingredients are non-acidic. So go ahead with plain, unlined copper for bowls!
At the end of the day, choosing pieces to use in your kitchen is a highly subjective thing. There are a multitude of variables that go into the decision making process: ease, aesthetic, practicality, usefulness, and quality just to name a few.
If you are a collector or user of copper cookware and utensils, let us know your thoughts. If you have any tips or pointers you would like to share or even favorite vintage brands of copper cookware, please let us know!