So what if the lid is a little dented. I call that character.

By Stacey Ballis
October 24, 2018
Photo by Stacey Ballis

There's something about old kitchen gear. That deep glow in antique silver that somehow outshines the flash of new utensils. Handpainted imperfect flowers on a china plate instead of factory printed, the soft hand of an ancient linen dishcloth, worn to velvet smoothness with decades of wet dishes. I’m always poking around boxes of kitchen gadgets and serveware at garage sales and flea markets, searching for treasure among the trash, not some rare item that is worth a ton of money. I’m not trying to be a lucky interviewee on Antiques Roadshow. I’m looking for well-made, sturdy items that have not yet outlived their useful lives.

One of the items I am always looking for is old copper. Copper pots and pans, notorious for their excellent heat conductivity, are the holy grail for a lot of passionate cooks. Julia Child infamously stocked her kitchens in Cambridge and Provence with the wares of Dehillerin in Paris. They are gorgeous, practically works of art, the gleaming copper mellowing over time and with use to an autumnal riot of gold and brown, seemingly lit from within.

There are some problems with copper cookware, though. One, quality pieces can be egregiously expensive. A set of seven basic pots and pans from Mauviel can run you nearly two grand. And the cheap ones don’t contain enough copper to make them function in the ways that are the very reason you buy copper to begin with.

Photo by JohnGollop via Getty Images

Which is why I am always looking for old copper pots and pans when I’m vintage or antique shopping. That tarnished old thing in the corner? It will polish up just fine with some salt and half a lemon or some Bar Keepers Friend and a soft cloth. So what if the lid is a little dented, as long as it still fits. I call that character. Sometimes I’ll find pieces so well-loved that the tin linings have been breached and you can see the copper showing through. I use that detail to haggle the price way down, knowing that for about $5 an inch, I can have the pan re-tinned and that is still way cheaper than buying new.

Old copper cookware often has sturdier handles and hardier lids than contemporary stuff. So as long as you check to make sure nothing is loose, these flea market finds can be a real treasure. And if you build up your collection of basics with these pieces, then when you find yourself in Paris and are channeling your inner Julia, you’ll have saved enough coin to head over to Dehillerin and ask my buddy Franck to help you find a specialty piece like a ceramic lined double boiler for chocolate, or a conical potato steamer, or a long oval pan for fish.

Pro tips for buying other people’s old copper cookware:

Ensure that all rivets holding on handles are secure and not wobbly.

Tarnish is fine, even a little bit of green patina is fixable, but the pan should still feel smooth and not pitted.

If the copper looks new, it might have been lacquered to be for show only, in order to prevent tarnishing. If you suspect that the piece is lacquered, test a part of the bottom with a bit of nail polish remover to see if there is a thin layer on there. It needs to be removed before you cook in it.

If you have a pot or pan where you can see the copper coming through the bottom, don’t cook in it before you have it retinned. In order to figure out how much that will be, take a measurement down the inside of the pan, across the widest part of the bottom, and then again up the other side. It will cost you approximately $5 per inch. So, for example, if you have a small saucepan that is 4 inches tall and 6 inches across, that is 14 inches or $70 to retin. A new pan this size from Mauviel is $170, so you can see where the value is!

Copper pots and pans should feel heavy for their size. If they feel light, they are likely cheaper pans with less copper and worth walking away from.

Happy hunting!