Up early with the kids on the weekend I couldn’t help but come across the copper chef infomercials. You may have seen them boasting a square pan! Oven-safe! Heatproof! Non-stick! I mean, what’s not to love? I was intrigued. Cooler heads prevailed before I went online to purchase. I started researching copper as an element in cookware right away. Did I need a Copper Chef pot in my kitchen? Do you?
Let’s go to the chalkboard.
Copper cookware has been around for quite some time. Artifacts containing the element were found in the Middle East as early as 9000 BC. By the 1800s inventors determined that copper was a great insulator and approximately 30 years later, copper cookware was being crafted.
Copper is desirable for cooking because it is a soft metal and an excellent conductor of heat. Compared to stainless steel, the most popular cookware metal, stainless steel’s thermal conductive coefficient, or k, is 16 watts per meter (kelvin), or W/mK. Copper’s k = 401 W/mK.
Copper is 25 times more conductive than stainless steel! These pans will heat up and cool down quickly. Copper pots are able to withstand high temperatures and can easily go from the stovetop to the oven.
“Copper pots are the most satisfactory of all to cook in, as they hold and spread the heat well and their tin lining does not discolor food….. To get the full benefit of cooking in copper, the metal must be 1/8 inch thick, and the handle should be of heavy iron.” Julia Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, 1961
Is it Safe?
Julia Child sings its praises. But is it safe? The simple answer is yes. Mammals are able to process copper and expel most excess. Copper toxicity is not an issue. The cookware has a coating, usually tin or stainless steel, that separates your food from the copper.
So which lining is best? Stainless steel linings are heavier than tin and require less maintenance. That heft comes with a cost as stainless steel doesn’t conduct heat very efficiently. The heat easily goes through the copper and slows down as it gets to the stainless lining Over the years, the tin may erode (especially if you use metal utensils, a big no-no for copper pans). Tin-lined copper pans can easily be re-tinned and offer a great, natural, non-stick surface; a wonderful option for those wanting to avoid Teflon. Both are great options and manufacturers agree. Several offer bi-metal linings made of stainless steel and tin.
What to look for in copper cookware?
As mentioned above, Julia Child suggests ⅛” (3.25mm) thick copper as the way to go. When looking for copper cookware, you want to find a pot that is thick enough for even distribution of heat but not too thick that it will store any of the heat. Research has shown that 3.25mm seems to be the peak where the copper starts to lose the advantage of quick heating. Most manufacturers today make their cookware between 1.75mm and 3mm. Any higher than that and you are buying an expensive, heavy pot without the quick and even heating benefits of copper.
Handles and knobs of copper pots are mostly made of two different metals, brass or cast iron. This is not simply an aesthetic decision. Cast iron conducts heat slower and makes the pan much heavier. Brass handles heat up quickly and tends to tarnish. If you can handle the heft, cast iron is preferred.
Cost is the biggest hindrance to copper. A simple copper frying pan can cost upwards of $200. I was about to scour eBay where cheaper vintage ones can be found for much less. Then I remembered that the Copper Chef could be mine for only 3 easy payments of $19.99! I went back to the Copper Chef website armed with the knowledge I now had.
Here’s the deal. IT’S NOT COPPER! It’s made of aluminum with a ceramic coating. The Copper Chef Pot is only copper in color. It doesn’t offer the benefits of copper cookware. I was almost duped. Does the Copper Chef have benefits? Perhaps. But it doesn’t offer the many benefits of copper in cookware. Now I’m off to scour eBay for real copper pots.