Wednesday, June 16, 2010
In keeping with my part-old-school-bistro, part-northern-Italian-home kitchen fixation, I've become obsessed with copper cookware. I'm the first to tell you that I'm no accomplished cook, and part of me feels like I have no business cooking with such great stuff.
Images at top:
Left: Copper pots hung on the Place St André des Arts, Paris VIe, France, by Julie Kertezs. Right: Julia Child's kitchen, via the Smithsonian.
But good-quality copper pots and pans are the kind of thing that never go out of style, and which even the dilettante cook can grow into over years and years. Plus, enough of my baking exploits utilize the stove (pastry creams and frostings and such) that I'm grateful for a set of really good saucepans.
I've mentioned my beloved copper bowl before, the one that's made buttercreams so much easier - that was my first copper purchase. The rest I've found on Craigslist (one woman sold me her entire 20-piece collection, including a $400 Bourgeat pan, for $150!) and eBay. Though it's possible to spend two grand on a new set of good copper cookware, if you arm yourself with some knowledge, you can outfit your kitchen forty dollars at a time.
Above: My favorite copper pan, a 9 3/4" pan weighing 8 pounds, won on eBay for $30
Chowhound forums have been my best tool for learning about copper cookware. If I run across a brand on eBay that I've never heard of before, Chowhound users have often already answered all my questions about it.
The first few thing I learned about copper cookware is that it should be heavy. Copper is an excellent conductor of heat, but in order to properly hold heat and transmit it to food, the copper needs to be fairly thick - ideally at least 2 millimeters thick, although thicknesses vary from less that 1 millimeter to more than 3.
This thickness translates to very heavy pots and pans. A simple rule of thumb is that a good copper pan should be about as heavy as its cast-iron counterpart. My 8" Bourgeat saucepan, for instance, weighs nearly six pounds. If you can find out the weight of a piece of cookware you're thinking of buying (most eBay sellers will weigh an item for you), it might be helpful to compare its weight to that of a similarly-sized piece of Falk cookware (one of the only companies who publishes weights alongside item descriptions).
Judging by weight alone, however, can be misleading, as many copper pans have heavy brass or cast-iron handles that add significant weight to a piece. The best way to determine thickness is by using calipers, aiming for that magic threshold of 2 millimeters.
However, since many of us will likely do our buying online, at sites like eBay, here are some rules of thumb to keep in mind when searching for copper cookware.
Above: Elle Decor, October 2009
The country of origin: French (Bourgeat, Mauviel, Dehillerin) and Belgian (Falk) copper cookware are generally regarded as higher-quality than that of other countries. Lots of copper pans are manufactured in Korea and Portugal, and these items tend to be thinner and lighter than their French and Belgian counterparts. Ruffoni, an Italian brand, is also known for its quality, but not much copper cookware comes out of Italy in general.
Villedieu is a French town known for its copperware - the word "Villedieu" on a pot or pan is generally a good sign.
Many of the copper pots and pans you run across will have no brand names engraved on them, but will show the country of origin. Though the words "Made in France" don't necessarily mean you're getting a good pot, it's generally a good sign.
American companies also imported copper cookware, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and stamped the pieces with their own brand names. Therefore, although America isn't known for great copper cookware, a piece marked "NY" might be a really heavy piece of French cookware.
Above left: Château de Montgeoffroy, via Cote de Texas. Above right: E. Dehillerin, Paris, via fxcuisine.com
The shape of the rim: As I've mentioned, copper cookware should be very thick. Heavy-duty copper cookware will rarely have a rolled edge, as the sides are simply too thick to finish in such a way. Instead, the rim should have a cut edge, or a flared lip.
Above: A vintage French pot sold by Frenchcollection on eBay
The material of the handle: The type of metal used for the pan's handle is sometimes shorthand for the pan's weight and quality. Cast iron handles, which are generally very thick and heavy, and which spread out across a greater surface area of the pot, may indicate that a pot is heavy. Brass handles, which are generally thinner, may signal a lighter pot.
The French company Mauviel, for instance, sells several product lines. One is lighter-weight, for home cooks, and features brass handles; it is considered by many to be too thin to offer an advantage over other cookware. Mauviel's thick, heavy, professional line, on the other hand, has cast-iron handles.
Handles should always be riveted to the pot or pan, with the rivets showing inside the pan and outside, on the handles. Three rivets are better than two.
Above: Kitchen at the Château de Chenonceau, via chateaucountry.com
The material of the lining: This is more a matter of personal preference than an indicator of quality. Copper, a reactive metal, reacts to some ingredients, and can taint food. Thus, copper is always lined with a less reactive metal. Historically, copper pots and pans have been lined with tin, which transmits heat well. The downside of tin is that it gradually wears away, and tinned copper cookware must be "re-tinned" when copper starts to show through the lining.
Stainless steel, on the other hand, has been much less widely used, because it is not as efficient for heat conduction. However, stainless steel is much more durable than tin.
Most copper cookware you find on eBay and at estate sales is lined with tin. Tin lining requires that you use only plastic and wooden utensils, and that you never overheat the pot, as tin will begin to melt around 450-500 degrees F. Retinning is expensive. However, a well-cared for tin lining may last many years. Readers in the northeast are lucky, as many retinning companies are located in New York and New Jersey; the rest of us will have to ship our pans when the time comes to re-tin.
Some forums note that saucepans, which get lots of action from metal whisks, are nice to have lined in durable stainless steel, while you might prefer tin for your other pieces. It's all a matter of personal preference.
Above left: Tyler Florence's kitchen, via the San Franciso Chronicle. Above right: Martha Stewart's kitchen at Turkey Hill.
Care of your copper pots and pans:
This, too, is a matter of personal preference. To keep copper pots mirror-shiny requires a good deal of effort. I use Wright's Copper Cream to polish my pots and pans after every third or fourth use. Many cooks use Barkeeper's Friend, or simply a lemon half dipped in salt.
Many cooks prefer never to polish their pans, and instead let them take on a deep brown patina.
Whichever you do, fill your dirty copper pots with water to let them soak before washing, since scrubbing them will wear down a tin lining more quickly. Wash by hand, and then dry with a towel. Drying your pot will keep water spots from forming, which darken into tarnish.
With proper care, you'll use (and love) your copper cookware until you pass them onto your grandchildren, who will probably tell you that they prefer nonstick Teflon. Ungrateful whipper-snappers!
Above: My cookware collection