Care For Your Copper Cookware
by CECILE LAMALLE and PRUDENCE McCULLOUGH
James Beard's opinion of copper synthesizes the situation well. "If the pot is heavy and if it is properly weighted,
then it is a delight to use. But it is hell to clean" How do you clean copper? In the days when August Escoffier
employed a young boy whose only job was to press the trout for trout mousse through a sieve, he also employed
another boy whose only job was to scour copper pots all day with vinegar and coarse salt. The various copper
cleaners on the market today are probably faster working than that old standby, but even a recently polished pot can
discolor within hours on a particularly humid day. Further, if copper cookware is not kept clean and gleaming, the
conductive properties you pay so dearly for are rendered inactive. The dark, discolored splotches absorb more heat
than the gleaming surface areas, which causes hot spots and uneven cooking.
Copper lined with tin or silver must be treated very carefully indeed. The lining will melt if it is heated over a high
flame, or placed over any flame at all when empty. It should never be stirred with a metal or abrasive utensil
(wood and rubber scrapers are the best thing to use) as the delicate lining might scratch (but small scratches in the
tin lining will not allow significant amounts of copper to leach into foods). And when cleaning the inside of a
copper pot, never use any abrasive scouring powder or pad; only use a soft cloth and soap and water. If anything has
stuck, soak the pan overnight. Use a circular rotating motion when cleaning the inside of a copper pot, and keep on
rubbing gently until the pot is clean. Do not be alarmed if you spot irregularities in the surface of the tin lining for it
was poured on by hand and these irregularities are part of the charm of a hand-done piece.
If your copper cookware comes coated with tarnish-proof lacquer, you must remove the lacquer before heating
(heating lacquered cookware will eventually destroy the finish and can result in permanent spotting of the copper.)
The lacquer can be dissolved by acetone or lacquer thinner, both of which are available at hardware stores.
Much of the wear on tin linings is due to improper care. Tin is a very soft metal that should never be scoured or
treated with harsh abrasives. Use mild detergent, water, and a sponge to clean it. Soak cooked-on food overnight, or
try a solution of baking soda and water, heated gently in the pan. Avoid using sharp utensils in the tin-lined pans,
and never heat an empty pan. Tin darkens naturally upon exposure to heat and certain foods, but the coloring is
completely harmless and should not be removed. When the copper does begin to show through, it's time to retin.
Why are most copper cooking utensils lined with tin?
It's widely believed that copper interacts with food to produce a toxic effect, and must be lined with another
material to make it safe for use. Acidic foods can interact with the copper itself and leach minute amounts of it
from the vessel. Although copper is a trace element that's necessary to life and excess copper is voided by the body,
significant amounts may produce an upset stomach. Therefore, If the tin linings of your copper pots are worn, you
can use them -- provided they're free of any copper oxides and you're not cooking highly acidic foods in them,
but it is not recommended.
The exterior of the copper pot is a less vital concern, but few who make the investment of copper are content to let
their pots tarnish. Most professional cooks maintain the amber glow with liberal amounts of vinegar and coarse
salt, which clean the copper gently. If the copper is heavily oxidized or you desire a brighter sheen, use a
And in an emergency, you can use an imperfectly lined copper pot for selectively cooking. Dr. I. Herbert
Scheinberg, one of the country's leading experts on copper toxicity, agrees. He contends that unless the copper has
oxidized extensively enough to produce the green-blue copper salts commonly known as "verdigris," and/or
highly acidic foods are to be cooked in the pot, use of the vessel is not dangerous. If acidic foods come in contact
with the copper, they'll dissolve and absorb the copper salts, which are toxic. If the salts are present, the pot should