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Copper Cookware Interior Linings

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There’s the ongoing debate (which I suspect will never die) about what interior is better for copper cookware: stainless vs tin vs nickel vs silver. American brand copper cookware is generally made either overseas (ironically) or by small boutique artisans these days, and anyone who cooks in copper has opinions about what they prefer their copper to be lined with. This is my take on it and why, but as always, it’s just my two cents!

First of all, I am completely in the camp that lining a non-ferrous metal (copper) with a ferrous metal (iron) goes against the point of using copper. Copper (and the tin bonded with it) has a thermal conductive speed of over 380W/m K, whereas stainless is around 25W/m K. Plus, if you want something made to last, and won’t slowly rust away, having metals that don’t contain iron is where to place your bets. Copper and bronze ewers used by the Egyptians thousands of years ago and stuck in Nile mud are still found in relatively the same shape and in good condition. Meanwhile, iron cooking pots in Viking digs that date back a mere 900 years are crumbled up and nearly gone to oxidation. Granted, stainless might not oxidize quite that fast (there’s no way to know yet, considering stainless steel has only been around for about 100 years) but you get the picture. I’m all about making something that should last for millennia. (why not?)

 

Anyway, regardless of my opinion, there are four generally used and/or viable metals for lining copper cookware.

The first is silver. This stuff is amazing. It’s the fastest (that means its thermal conductivity is superb, better than copper’s (406 W/m K), and is highly efficient in heating and safe for cooking food. It bonds molecularly with the copper, and lasts a long time if you use wooden or silicon utensils. There’s mainly one problem with silver, and that’s price. Since I know my cookware is already pretty pricey for some people, could you imagine if I coated it with silver? They’d be crazy awesome and super beautiful, but probably not practical. Bloomberg’s luxury list recently popped a silver saucepan, and it’s only you know…few thousand bucks.

The second interior option is nickel. In fact, many old and vintage pieces are wiped with or plated with nickel. Many times they can be refurbished with some good cleaning and a new coat of tin, and this is probably best due to the amount of nickel allergies out there. The nickel doesn’t leach into food the way, say, lead would, but it still would be touching the food and having a slight chemical reaction with it, so if you (or your dinner guests) had any type of nickel aversion, you probably don’t want to be cooking with it. And who wants to be on the line for that type of issue? No maker I know…

Then there’s stainless, which many people like because they say it’s easier to work with. I have yet to receive an answer on why exactly that is. If you’ve got a copper sauce pan that’s 2.5mm but lined with stainless, my guess is you’re still probably hand washing (correct me if I’m wrong and you have a magical dish soap for your washer that doesn’t result in pitting your copper?!) There is some ease in that stainless doesn’t scratch like tin, so you can scrape away at the stainless lining with wire and metal. Bear in mind that stainless is sticky (so clean up is harder) instead of non-stick like tin, and eventually it may pop apart due to the huge range in thermal coefficients between stainless and copper. Or your cookware isn’t pure copper, so it may stick to the stainless without much issue.

Clearly, I’m in love with tin lining. For me, molecularly, thermally, and purely – tin-lined copper takes the cake. Because of the electron exchange that happens when tin and copper are heated together (we’re talking over 500F), the molecular bond allows the thermal conductivity properties (ie: fast!) of the copper to transfer seamlessly through the crystal structure of the tin, allowing the copper to actually work the way it is supposed to when used as copper cookware. Plus, it’s non-stick and you need far lower temperatures to achieve the same thing, so it’s green/energy efficient plus always can be re-tinned over the decades, meaning it’s renewable and sustainable and won’t end up in a landfill. Tin has its downsides, of course. With daily use and proper care, it can slowly wear down. After about 12 -15 years your copper cookware may need re-tinning, which has to be done by hand.

 

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Cooking on Copper Cookware…Or What Else?

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Have you ever asked yourself: what are you cooking on?

I just want to know if you’ve ever asked the question.

Do you select your pans based on what you’re going to cook? Do you choose cast iron because you’re going to fry some cheese, or a huge stainless pot because you want to cook the onions slowly to make gooey French onion soup? If you make fancy sauce, do you try to find silver or tin lined copper cookware?

We are all completely obsessed with our food: what it ate before we eat it, what it drank, what hormones (if any) were pumped into it before it was butchered. We might pride ourselves on the fact that we understand how closely local the beef was raised, or how humanely the chickens were treated. It’s something we look for on labels in the same way we may check for the organic certification.

But there’s not enough conversation and chatter about what we’re cooking food in. We aren’t discussing, seriously and as a whole, the method to our madness in the kitchen.

Kitchen tools exist for reasons – and I’m not really talking the super specialty ones like lime squeezers and different shaped zesters that all do the same job. I’m talking about the science behind the cookware itself. Why do you think certain smiths made items out of tin, copper or pewter for certain uses? Why do you think chefs have special pots for careful sauces or ‘workhorses’ that can be anything from big woks to gigantic cast steel frying pans?

There used to be a very particular reason for every piece of ware in the kitchen. Copper cookware was used for delicate dishes. Cast iron was used for every day use, or tin corn boilers were preferred over cast iron if one was traveling by horse over the mountains (it was light weight).

Somewhere between WWI and today, our kitchen tools and cooking reasons became all about ease and not about truth. We shunned pure metal cookware in favor of fast care and smooth promises of glass, painted, and ceramic cookware. Teflon and aluminum cookware replaced tin-lined copper or cast iron skillets. We wanted inexpensive cooking tools. We stopped focusing on the reason some metals were used for certain pots. What conducts heat? What’s pure metal? What’s really going back to basics in your kitchen?

We’ve come full circle by caring deeply what we are cooking and how it’s raised or grown. We have created dialogue and words for local items and given prestige to crops that have not been sprayed by the chemicals that were prized only a few decades ago.

It is my hope that we all take the conversation one step further and a half-step lower and talk about the pots we’re using. Let’s know why they’re made with certain materials, and what they’re used for. Let’s discuss the merits of the cookware and the tools we use. Let’s be aware of what we’re cooking on on a visceral level that is multi-layered. It will only add depth to the food conversation already cooking on the trend radar today.

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Creating Copper Cookware

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Sara here. Today I’ve spent the majority of the morning working with copper and nothing else. Copper is on the brain.

Copper cookware is an art form that is, to me, timeless because it really does last a ridiculously long time. Copper cookware has been dug up in Egypt, relics of cultures lost thousands of years ago. But what remains? The copper pieces. Copper doesn’t rust, doesn’t crumble the way iron can, and the beauty of my day job is that the tin-lined copper pieces I’m holding over the buffing wheel could very easily be dug up in an archeological dig 5000 years from now.

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That’s insane to realize, but very very true.

It’s not why you buy copper cookware, obviously. You don’t go in a store and say “Clearly, this will last millennia, and therefore I should buy it!”

You purchase cookware based on its ability to perform on your stove, or based on the contents of your wallet. I get it, because I’ve done just the same.

Yes, I create copper cookware in my garage/copper/tin shop. So I’m biased. But let’s go where the discussion about copper cookware purchasing goes first. Your pocketbook.

Figure you purchase a handful of (likely non-stick, paint coated) pieces from the local Target or Walmart. Or maybe you even go to Macy’s, but you’re still not spending top dollar. (I know I didn’t for years!) Fast forward about five years later, and your non-stick coating doesn’t work the same, and might even be chipping off and it’s time to throw that piece of cookware into the trash. The landfill. Then you go out and buy some more. Let’s be generous and say each piece of cookware is $40/e to balance out the really inexpensive and relatively expensive. And let’s say you only buy 1 kind of pot ever. But you have to toss it for safety reasons or because it breaks about every 5 years. And let’s hope you live to be 90, and you started cooking at 30. That’s roughly 13 rounds of $40, so you’re spending $520 to have one pot in your house, which all ends up in the landfill. And that assumes you only get 1 piece – most of us who cook have at least 4 – 7 pieces ofcookware in our kitchens.

Copper cookware is going to last you the rest of your life, plus it’s safe (copper cookware is not made with any non-stick stuff that’s um…not exactly safe and pure) and healthy and green/energy efficient (it’s 25x faster using less heat than stainless), so your gas bill is lighter too.

One copper pot and lid will run you around $500, give or take. And it’ll last you…you know. Forever. No landfill. No unhealthy plastic in your food. Just pure metal cookware. Healthy, transparent, and safe. Just like what we say we want with our actual food. Is it so much to want the same from our cookware?

(You all know tin is non-stick, right? As in… ‘nature’s teflon’ – it’s honestly just like that. Except made in nature. You know. Healthy and safe. Pure.)

I create my copper cookware knowing that I’m supporting a lot of craftspeople in the country – my neighbors, and other family owned and operated small businesses – by working with local sources. I like shaking their hands and watching them spin the copper bodies on the machine (which, by the way, is one of the few things I can’t do in my garage). I appreciate seeing the huge furnace at the foundry (because the other thing I can’t do in my garage is melt and pour ductile iron) where the owner is the guy answering the phones and my emails. And it’s a blast taking the kids up to the rivet maker, where they hunt for old rivets in the cracks while I get a lesson on machinery built in the early 1900’s that still works today to make my copper rivets right up the road from my house.

Am I old fashioned to like such handshaking and supporting local? Yeah, I guess. Do I love manufacturing copper cookware? Heck yeah. Am I obsessed with learning the vintage tinsmithing trade from the master smith, Bob? Definitely. Do I believe in making something (in this case, copper cookware made entirely in America!) that will actually help everyone in the long run, creating a wave of people who cook in something that’s cheaper to heat, won’t end up in a landfill – as proven for the past several thousand years? Absolutely.

So now I’ll get off the soapbox. Go buy some copper. Real copper cookware.