My dad has long been obsessed with copper cookware.
He displays his copper pots in the kitchen like they’re in a museum and hardly touches them for fear of tarnishing. On special occasions, he proudly presents heaps of jeweled rice or a mound of grilled lamb chops on them as a display piece. He makes frequent trips to Williams Sonoma to admire their hammered copper braisers with ornate gold knobs.
I understand the appeal. I’ve decorated every Sims house I’ve ever built with hanging copper pots because something about them makes any kitchen look inviting.
And it’s not just us. Copper cookware, often associated with fine cuisine, has become aspirationally domestic. Everyone wants to display them like props ripped from the set of a Nancy Meyers movie (check out Father of the Bride or It’s Complicated for some serious kitchen inspiration).
But because a single piece can cost more than half a grand, I had to know if the appeal goes beyond appearance. Is copper cookware really so great? And if it is, does it really justify the high price tag?
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For the answers to these questions and more, I interviewed our resident copper cookware expert, Lisa McManus, executive editor of ATK Reviews and co-host of Gear Heads on YouTube. Lisa spent weeks researching and cooking for her review of copper skillets. (The four that came out on top ranged from $250 to $500 and were from Mauviel, Hestan, Falk Culinair, and All-Clad.)
Right away she told me that copper cookware is so expensive because, well, copper itself is quite expensive. And she insists it’s about more than just looks.
“If people are just using copper as decor, then they’re really missing out on all the joy of cooking with it.”
So we were off to a good start.
The Best Copper SkilletsCheck out Lisa's full review of these beautiful, heat-responsive, pricey pans.
Why Is Copper Cookware So Desirable?
Aside from the attractive, glowing hue that looks both professional and antique, Lisa said that copper really is incredible for one key reason: speed.
“Copper is super-responsive to heat, so when you turn up or down your stove’s temperature it reacts almost immediately.” As mentioned in Lisa’s extensive copper skillet review, this gives the cook incredible control.
It can heat up your food fast and also throw that heat away when the temperature is lowered. Other materials, such as stainless steel or aluminum, take a long time to get hot and then hold onto that heat, potentially overcooking or burning your food. Aluminum is much speedier and more responsive than stainless steel, but it’s not nearly as fast as copper.
However, copper cookware is almost never just copper. This is because you cannot cook safely in unlined copper pots. Nowadays, most copper cookware is stainless-steel lined, which is much more durable than traditional tin-lined copper.
Although steel slows the transfer of copper’s heat, manufacturers work to make this steel lining as thin as possible, and it actually helps the copper uniformly spread that heat around for more even cooking.
What Is a More Affordable Alternative to Copper?
I asked if Lisa personally owns any copper pieces and she admitted, “I don’t own one. I’m a cheapskate.”
But there are options for those of us who want the performance of a copper skillet but don’t want to shell out for one.
Though it’s not cheap per se, Lisa says that if you are willing to sacrifice that notable color, then clad cookware that includes a layer of copper might be right for you.
You won’t really see the copper in a multiclad pan (albeit a small cutaway strip around the bottom) because it is sandwiched between layers of aluminum and stainless steel. So you still get the performance of copper, you just don’t get to look at it. On the plus side it’s about half the price, and you don’t have to polish it.
However, there’s a third option: our favorite clad pan, with no copper: the All-Clad D3 skillet, which is composed of three layers: aluminum, sandwiched between layers of stainless steel.
Lisa candidly said, “If I’m looking at dollars for performance, is the D3 as amazing (as copper)? No. But is it really, really good? Absolutely. I own it. It lasts forever. It works for everything. It’s not quite as responsive as copper pans, but I don’t think it’s a huge step down.”
So, instead of spending $500 on a copper skillet, you can get away with spending only about a quarter of that cost (and you get a lid).
Whatever you do, Lisa says do not buy any nonstick skillet that claims to be copper. While their low prices are attractive, as we have explored in past reviews, these skillets may have “copper” in the name or be copper colored, but they are a sham.
“You can make nonstick coating any color in the rainbow. We cut open those pans and tested them; they don’t have any real copper in them whatsoever. Those brands are banking on people thinking that copper equals fancy. But those are cheap, nonstick pans just colored orange.”
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What About Secondhand Copper?
I occasionally spot copper kitchenware at antique stores and charity shops. Is this the secret to owning copper affordably? According to Lisa, yes and no.
She explained that most used copper pans you see at secondhand shops are tin-lined and beaten up, like the one in the photo above. You can send them out to get re-tinned, but it might not be worth it.
When tin gets above 450 degrees, as skillets often do, the tin will start to melt off. That’s not ideal for avid cooks who want cookware they can use, not cookware that you have to worry about damaging with frequent use.
Though Lisa clarified, “For something like a saucepan or braiser, tin-lined copper would be fine; it’s skillets where tin isn’t ideal. In a more liquidy situation, the food will keep the surface of the pan cooler than 450 degrees.”
“If you really want copper for cooking [and don’t want to pay that high price tag], clad stainless steel with copper is a good compromise. If you just want the look of copper, buy it secondhand, polish it with Wright’s cream, which works perfectly, and hang it up,” Lisa counseled.
Her advice for people who want the real stuff? “If you’re getting married, put one on your registry and pray that someone gets it for you.”