Everybody gets blown about from time to time by small but irritating ill winds. Some people go out and buy clothes when this happens, some people cheap wine, and some people new cars. And then there's the very particular group of people who go out and buy copper cookware.
Copper cookware is definitely the most practical of the above-mentioned four -- cheaper than cars and often cheaper than clothes. (Nothing is cheaper than cheap wine.) And it's so wonderful to cook with that it makes sense all the time, not just during moments when you owe yourself a treat.
People worry about buying copper, thinking it the province solely of the million-star French restaurant or the show-off "gourmet" cook. They worry about its price, about keeping it shiny, about the possibility of having to get it retinned, and more vaguely about a mysterious toxic chemical reaction between the copper and food.
There's no denying the expense part of it, at least if you only consider initial cost and not lifetime cost. The kind of copper cookware that is most worth buying, which is heavyweight and tin lined, is very expensive. A 24-centimeter "hotel weight" tin-lined copper saute' pan will cost $80 at La Cuisine in Alexandria, the local store with the largest consistent selection.
But unless it happens to fall into a blast furnace and melt, that's the last 24-centimeter saute' pan you'll ever need to buy.
Copper is the very best kind of cooking pot you can buy, whether it's performance or looks you're interested in. Fry onions in a copper pot and you'll immediately understand. Make custard in a copper pot and it will become even clearer. Saute' chicken in a pot that's bigger than your burner and the die will be cast.
Copper takes the heat from your burner and immediately sends it all through the pot, and fast. Everybody who's cooked knows the frustration of trying to saute' or fry in a bad pot. The part of the food that's directly over the burner burns, the rest stays raw. This does not happen with a copper pot.
The second half of copper's magnificent relationship with heat is its ability to cool quickly. When your fine little custard is about to turn to scrambled eggs, for instance, the chances of saving it are much better in a copper pot because the pot will begin cooling the minute it's taken off the heat.
Heavy-gauge copper -- called hotel-weight in the trade -- can be almost 1/8-inch thick, and if you are buying pots for saute'ing or making sauces, that's what you want. Slightly lighter gauge -- called presentation-weight -- is fine for pieces that you plan to use for less demanding cooking chores (blanching the green beans, say) or for serving.
Keeping copper clean is really a negligible problem. Verdigris, the green stuff that develops on copper when it's exposed to food or even to air, is toxic if you eat it. But that's why copper pots, with the exception of the special vessels for melting sugar and making zabaglione, are always lined. Verdigris on the outside of your copper pots can only hurt your pride. And, truth be told, getting sick from copper requires some doing -- drinking orange juice that's languished overnight in an unlined copper pitcher might do it.
Copper is susceptible to attacks from acids, however, and general grunge will cause it to pit eventually. Polishing a copper pot takes a minute or two, and never more than five. If you do it once a month and you have five pots, you're investing 25 minutes every month in a vastly superior cooking material. It must be said, too, that there are people who only polish their copper when their mothers are coming to visit.
Commercial copper polishers are available, or you can use a solution of salt and plain vinegar. Beverle Sweitzer, owner of Abercrombie and Company Silver Platers Ltd. in Silver Spring, says that you can also use a mild abrasive such as BonAmi on the outside of your copper pots.
The best copper pots are lined with tin. Some pots are now being lined with nickel, but the consensus among most cooks is that tin is preferable because it doesn't stand in the way of copper's superior heat-conduction abilities. And, tin is what Sweitzer calls a good clean metal. Nickel does have the advantage of being cheaper.
There are some silver-lined copper pots on the market, which cost about five times what the tin-lined versions do. If that doesn't scare you off, go for the silver lining. Silver is the best heat conductor of all, and you probably already have someone to do your polishing for you.
The tin lining will eventually wear off any copper pot if it's used, and much faster if metal utensils are used with it or if it's allowed to stand empty over heat. In the former case the tin will wear away gradually, in the latter it will sometimes bubble up and come loose from the copper. With reasonable care the tin lining should last several years at least, and probably longer.
When you begin to see copper showing through, your pot needs retinning. There are two reasons for having your pots retinned, the first one being that you don't want to cook in unlined copper. Then, according to Beverle Sweitzer, letting parts of the exposed copper be etched away will make future retinning less successful. Retinning at Sweitzer's firm costs between $12 and $15 for a 10-inch saute' pan and takes about two weeks.
The best copper pots still come from France, and from one tiny village in Normandy called Villedieu-les-Po eles (po ele is the French word for pan). Villedieu's raison d'e tre is copper, and its streets are literally lined with the stuff, which gleams from the windows of at least a dozen shops. The choices you'll have in Villedieu are vast -- from plain saucepans to turbot-shaped turbot poachers -- and at astonishingly low prices. If you are going to be anywhere near Villedieu and don't mind carrying copper pots around with you, don't pass it up.