Copper is a metal that heats up quickly and distributes heat evenly, which makes it great for cooking on the stovetop or in a frying pan. However, copper reacts with acidic foods (like tomatoes) to create copper salts, which can be poisonous if consumed over time – this reaction happens when the food comes into contact with the bare metal of the pan.
In this article, we'll look at the safety considerations of cooking with copper pots and pans.
We'll then walk through some options if you're looking for an alternative to copper pots and pans – let's get started.
The truth about copper/acidic foods
The reaction between acidic foods forms when the juice or tomato comes into contact with the bare metal of the pan – this happens if you use non-stick pans since most coatings don't work on very high heat. This is a chemical reaction that requires an acid (like in the juices/tomatoes) and an oxidizer (like copper). Copper isn't harmful by itself – it's when it reacts with acids that you run into trouble.
Such a reaction is referred to as “Metal Hypersensitivity,” since people have become sick from using ceramic dishes/non-stick pans with copper cookware.
The reaction forms when the juice or tomato comes into contact with the bare metal of the pan – this happens if you use non-stick pans since most coatings don't work on very high heat.
Copper pots are safe for boiling water
Just because copper reacts with certain acids doesn't mean they can't be used for other things – copper isn't poisonous by itself. Since there aren't many acid-containing foods that get cooked above 350F, there isn't any risk using your copper pots on the stovetop or making it an oven safe skillet. If you want to boil water or make pasta in a copper pot (which uses high heat), then you're totally fine. You just have to avoid acidic foods like tomatoes, citrus fruits, or vinegar.
Use a different pot/pan for cooking acidic foods (like cooking with cast iron or stainless steel)
Alternatively, you could purchase an extra set of pans for oven cooking since they're relatively inexpensive – this way you can cook using copper and store food without having it react. Most cast irons don't perform well at high temperatures, but some newer versions do. If you're looking for high-performance pans, then stainless steel is a great option.
Avoid copper cookware completely
If none of the above options are attractive to you, then you'll want to avoid using copper pots and pans altogether. You can still use baking dishes/pie plates made from metal (like a cast iron or stainless steel) when cooking acidic foods (or storing them after). If this is an issue for you, then it might be worth purchasing a set of glass containers.
Alternatives to copper pots/pans
So, if you don't want your food tasting like metal (i.e. copper) or getting sick, what can you do? There are a couple of options:
- You could choose another material (like stainless steel).
- Use plastic or glass serving bowls w/ plastic spoons instead of using bare copper materials for any acidic foods that you plan to serve raw.
- You could switch from cooking on high heat/direct heat to low-medium heat. Low-medium heats won't get the pan as hot as high heat, which may reduce the risk of contact with acidic foods.
- You could switch to a safe copper cookware that has a non-stick coating.
What about acidic tomatoes in copper pots? Don't they achieve maximum flavor when cooked in copper rather than stainless steel or cast iron? That's debatable – it seems like people using copper either love it, hate it, or are neutral. Some people claim that the acidity of the tomato is reduced and this results in less flavor. It seems like some people prefer not to have any metal flavors while others enjoy the way that the tomato interacts with the metal pan. It's a preference thing – try experimenting to see if you like the way copper interacts with your food.
For example, we’ve seen experiments being done to see how similar tomatoes taste when cooked in copper versus stainless steel or cast iron.
Here's what the results were:
Tomatoes cooked in a copper pot have a very slight metallic flavor, while tomatoes cooked in a stainless steel pot/cooking dish have no metallic flavor. Also, the red color of the tomato is more vibrant when stainless steel is used compared to when copper is used.
For some reason, tomatoes that were stored for several days after cooking tasted much more acidic. This makes sense since acidity levels will increase over time without oxygen (i.e. the longer you store them away).
Are copper pots safe for cooking on the stovetop?
Copper is safe to cook acidic foods in if you're using a pot or pan that has a non-stick coating. If you are not using a copper wok because you plan to make something like raw tomato salsa, then be sure to use glass or ceramic containers instead of copper – remember that acid + bare metal = dangerous chemicals. Also, avoid making food in tin/aluminum cans, since they are also known to react with acids over time.
How should I clean my copper pans after using them?
If you're going to use a copper wok or any other type of copper cookware, make sure it's seasoned first.
Believe it or not, this will help with the cleaning that happens afterwards. Seasoning is simply coating your pan with oil/fat so that food won't stick and then removing the excess oil afterward. Although seasoning makes cleaning easier (since you don't have to scrub as much), it will slightly alter the taste of your food – this isn't an issue if you plan on seasoning your pan regularly.
Also, when cleaning off cooked-on foods from stainless steel pots/pans, try using a nylon brush instead of metal bristle brushes. Metal bristles can scratch the surface and cause tiny scratches in the surface that may prevent proper seasoning in the future. Scratches on the surface don't necessarily mean that the pan is unusable – it just means that you'll have to clean and re-season your pan more frequently.
How should I store my copper pans?
If you decide to buy a set of copper cookware, be sure to keep them in a dry location with minimal exposure to moisture and oxygen (the same way you would store any other perishables). Also, try not to stack your copper cookware directly on top of another piece of metal or ceramic material – this will prevent possible scratches/damage from happening over time. When storing for long periods above 3 months, rub some fat or oil onto your pot/pan and let it cure for about 24 hours to prevent the formation of rust.
Finally, if you're still undecided about using copper cookware, don't just take our word for it – try out some experiments in the kitchen and see if you like the way that food tastes when cooked in copper.
Any alternatives to cooking with copper pots and pans?
Here are a few alternatives that you can use: stainless steel, enameled cast iron, and ceramic.
When cooking with stainless steel pots/pans, always use non-reactive utensils like wood or plastic so that metal won't come into contact with the food. Also, if you want to store your cookware in a pot rack for extended periods, be sure to keep them wrapped up so that no air can get to the bare metal (this will prevent rusting over time).
Final thoughts on copper pan oven safety
In conclusion, copper can be a safe material for pots/pans with non-stick coatings. If you're making something that's acidic, use glass or ceramic containers and plastic spoons. Make sure not to store the food in tin cans afterward – aluminum or tin may leach into your food. Also, don't make cuts on bare copper pots – metal particles may end up in your food.
Keep these tips in mind when you are using copper pans to ensure that your food tastes great without any side effects for yourself and your loved ones.