Ive been considering picking up some copper cookware for some time now and have finally made the jump with several pieces. My sister recently returned from Paris bearing a prize gift from Dehillerin, an 11-inch stainless steel lined copper frying pan. Those who have read my previous posts on cookware know that Im a huge believer in the proper type for the job rather than matched sets from any particular manufacturer -- I believe theres nothing better than my old jet-black cast iron skillets for getting the best sear on steaks and chops, my LC dutch ovens for long slow cooking, and my spun steel wok for imparting the proper wok hee to stir fries. Otherwise, my basic general purpose saute pans and pots have been All-Clad and Ive been a huge fan of theirs for years. However, after running my new copperware through a couple weeks in my kitchen, Ive gotta say that this stuff is a Ferrari compared to the automatic Volvo that is All-Clad. Nothing wrong at all with the All-Clad, but high quality copperware is in an entirely different class altogether. One thing to keep in mind though, just as not everyone drives stick, copperware is comparatively high-maintenance in upkeep and use and isnt for everyone.
First, a quick primer on copper cookware -- copper is by far the best heat conductor of all commercially available cookware, twice as good as aluminum and ten times faster than stainless steel or glass. It distributes heat evenly (including up the sides of the pot/pan, often greatly reducing the amount of required cooking time). It is extremely responsive, meaning that not only does it heat quickly, but it begins to cool immediately when the heat source is turned down/off. Since unlined copper reacts with many foods to form an arsenic compound poison that can be unpleasant or dangerous, most copper cookware is lined with either tin or stainless steel. Tin doesnt reduce the heat conductivity of copper much, but is very soft and easily scratched, as well as having the unfortunate tendency of melting at around 400°F to 425°F. Worn-through pots can be retinned, but unless you live in Paris itll normally take at least three or four weeks. Stainless steel linings last the lifetime of the pan, which should be for many generations, but the precious heat conductivity of the copper is somewhat reduced.
Copperware comes in a variety of thicknesses. This discussion regards true copperware, not that sprayed on copper lining that just about every manufacturer (including All-Clad, to my great disappointment) tries to pawn off on the home decorator set as copperware. Copperware can be found from a number of countries, including France, Portugal, Canada and Korea. While French copper has by far the best reputation, the thickness of the copper is far more important that the country of origin. French copperware (Mauviel and Bourgeat are the most well-known distributors) comes in 2 basic thicknesses, table service (1.2mm to 1.6mm, with brass handles) and professional/hotel (2.5mm, with cast iron handles). Recent years have seen the development of an intermediate grade of 2.0mm aimed at home chefs who desire a lighter pan.
For frying pans and saute pans, my recommendation is to go with the stainless steel lining. 2.5mm pans are made from a bimetal made by Falk Culinair, 2.3mm of copper bonded to 0.2mm of stainless steel. Since youll likely be banging your frying pan around by using metals tongs to turn or perhaps whisks to deglaze, the added durability of the ss lining is vital. Also, the ss lining wont melt if you decide to toss the whole pan into a hot oven to finish off a steak. My new copper frying pan is by far the best piece of cooking equipment Ive ever worked with, perfectly designed for the task, extremely responsive and ideally shaped. But be forewarned -- a large copper frying pan with a cast iron handle is extremely heavy, approaching 10 pounds or so even when empty. Its handle is very well designed though, long enough and properly angled so that you can use your arm for leverage when lifting, but its easy to see that the weight can be a real problem for anyone with less wrist strength.
For saucepots, Id say go for whatever lining you can find at the best price, just as long as you avoid the really thin stuff meant just for decoration. Ive recently picked up 2 tin-lined saucepots: a 2.5mm thick 3-qt evasee and a lightweight 1.6mm brass-handled 2-quart saucepot. I absolutely love the evasee and highly recommend the shape -- these slope-sided saucepans have a large 9-inch surface diameter to hasten reduction, while tapering down to 6-in at the base so that the burner can be kept on low. The lighter weight of the thinner saucepot comes in handy when its full of water or sauce. Personally, I use small saucepots mostly to reheat or boil water, so I havent noticed any performance problems resulting from the thinner copper. That said, I greatly prefer the thicker 2.5mm copperware and wont be getting anymore of the lighter stuff. (Anyone who tends to use whisks a lot in their saucepots might want to consider ss linings instead of tin.)
Heres my big secret source for affordable copperware -- eBay. Yes, theres a lot of dreck in them there auctions, but Ive found that eBay can be a tremendous resource for relatively cheap quality copperware for discriminating buyers. For instance, I got my 2.5mm 3-quart Villedieu-made evasee, including a 9-in flat cover, for only $51. Shipping with insurance cost another $13. As always on eBay, caveat emptor -- its generally wise to avoid all the cheap stuff that no one else bids on -- as my mother says, theres always a reason stuff is so cheap. Look instead for the serious heavyweight pots and pans. Very few eBay sellers will be able to tell you what thickness their copperware is, so I just go by the handle material. Cast iron handles (which stay cooler much longer than brass) mark the 2.5mm hotel grade stuff. Look also at the provenance -- if you see a Villedieu stamp, the piece comes from the village of Villedieu-les-Poêles (literally, Gods Town of the Frying Pans), the traditional French capital of copper. If you find a Villedieu-marked copperware pan/pot with a cast iron handle, you know youre getting one of the best pieces of cookware ever made. Of course, you may have to outbid me first for it, but such is life.
Non-eBayers can order directly online, either from Dehillerin in Paris (www.e-dehillerin.fr) or straight from the village itself through www.artcopperware.com. Ive never ordered this way personally, so if anyone here has, please chime in with your experiences.