what is the difference between copper and stainless steel pans?
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When it comes to cooking on heavy metals, what is the difference between copper and stainless steel pans, and how does choosing one over the other affect a meal?

Whether you’re a seasoned home chef or just starting out, knowing the right cooking vessel for the job is half the battle when it comes to creating a flavorful meal. And then there’s material to consider. The cookware industry throws a lot of words out there—carbon steel, stainless steel, anodized steel, and copper, to name a few.

Since stainless steel and copper are so common, let’s look at the pros and cons of each.

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Copper Cookware

Mauviel copper cookware set

Sur la Table

A significant investment, copper cookware is made either for the serious home cook or someone who is serious about home décor and styling the kitchen.

Copper pots and pans are one of those cookware types that is to be reveled in—it’s definitely not just about function. Copper has history: It was one of the first metals to be handled and as the need for cookware evolved, copper was used to heed the call, but it’s stood the test of time—it was a staple of Colonial America and today is one of the most lauded types of cookware in modern French cuisine.

When cooking with metals, heat conductivity is the main draw. With copper, the cookware heats quickly and evenly and you avoid hotspots that generally cause food to stick. However, heat retention is the real issue. Copper loses heat just as quickly as it gains it, making it better suited to cooking more delicate proteins, as well as savory sauces. It is also perfect for melting chocolate and caramel.

copper cookware pros and cons

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Another plus? Most copper cookware can be used on gas, electric, or halogen stovetops, and in the oven.

However, cooking in copper isn’t appropriate for every meal. Acidic foods can react to the metal and leach copper into the food. To combat that issue, some brands line their copper cookware, most often with stainless steel. But a stainless steel lining, while it helps with heat retention and preventing corrosion, will cancel out the non-stick properties of copper—so these vessels will need to be prepped with some sort of oil, fat, or cooking spray to avoid sticking.

copper pot

Chowhound

Thickness and manufacturing style also need to be taken into consideration when looking to purchase a copper pot or pan. Cookware companies like Mauviel and deBuyer develop copper pans at a range of 1.5mm to 2.5mm, which is optimal for both heat retention and cooling, as well as durability.

When shopping for copper cookware, avoid anything with a rolled edge—at least if you want to use the piece for more than just displaying on the stove. If the copper is nimble and thin enough to be rolled, it will not be as durable as other thicknesses.

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Copper cookware does generally require a bit more care than other types of cookware too. Hand washing is usually required, and empty pans need to be watched carefully on a cooking surface—getting the pans too hot may warp them behind repair.

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Stainless Steel 

Sur La Table

Stainless steel cookware is the workhorse of the kitchen (residential or commercial). The metal cookware has a plethora of benefits when it comes to cooking, including even heating and good heat retention as well as temperature control. Stainless steel, too, can be used on all heating surfaces and can go seamlessly from the stovetop to the oven. It can also be used for basically every cooking technique needed to create a meal—from sautéing and searing to simmering and braising. These pots and pans are also non-reactive, meaning you can cook just about anything in stainless steel without worry, no matter how much wine, vinegar, lemon juice, or tomatoes are in the dish.

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One of the downsides of cooking with stainless steel is the possibility of food sticking. The metal is slightly porous and foods will stick to your pan if they get pinched by contracting pores. To combat this, ensure the cookware is correctly pre-heated and thoroughly coat the pan with fat or cooking oil before beginning to cook on the surface. Larger pieces of food may change the temperature of the pan when you add them, so if something does stick, let it go a little longer before seeing if it will release naturally from the pan (and try a thin, flexible spatula to help). Just like cast iron, stainless steel pans can also be seasoned to reduce sticking.

Related Reading: How to Season Cast Iron

Stainless steel cookware can be made in a variety of configurations. Currently, tri-ply and 5-ply are the most prevalent in the market, while some, like Heritage Steel, are touting a 7-ply construction. Tri-ply cookware and 5-ply cookware most often use two pieces of aluminum in conjunction with stainless steel, although copper is also an option (see All-Clad’s copper core cookware). This aids heat conductivity and retention.

While stainless steel pots and pans may not look quite as chic as copper hanging above your stove, they’re durable, cheaper, and good for any job that needs doing in the kitchen.

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Header image by Chowhound, using photos by Lauren Zaser and Tooga / Photodisc / Getty Images

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