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I'm thinking of replacing my motley collection of cheap non-stick and bargain basement steel pots and pans.

I'm considering either replacing with cast iron (Le Creuset is probably the best known of these) or perhaps pushing the boat out and investing in copper cookware.

For someone who enjoys getting adventurous every now and again in the kitchen at home, is it worth spending extra on copper?

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12 Answers 12

Copper can be useful for certain tasks due to the its metallic properties (heats quickly, distributes heat evenly, etc.), however I would not call copper pans good "all-purpose" pans.

As for cast iron, you mentioned Le Creuset, and again I would tell you that they are more of a specialty manufacturer. They make some very nice coated cast iron-ware and fantastic large pots, but they're not really the go-to for a simple cast iron pan.

For basic cast iron, go buy a Lodge skillet. They're around $20 depending on size, and will literally last a lifetime. The company has been making these pans for 115 years; they know what they're doing. I use mine 3-4 times per week, and cook almost all my meat in it. It tastes better after every use.

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+1. During my childhood I knew of people who managed to burn their copper bottom pans to the point of melting the base. –  justkt Aug 25 '10 at 18:09
    
I would argue against a new Lodge skillet or any of the cast iron from China. What they don't do nowadays and did do on many of the old enough thrift store pieces was machine the surface smooth. Without this, you can't properly fry an egg, although deep frying will still work. –  OpenID-test2 Jun 1 '11 at 22:28
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I'd argue FOR a new Lodge. Especially for a cast iron newbie. They are cheap, and if you screw it up, easy to replace. The good thrift store pieces (Griswold, etc) are expensive and need to be stripped and re-seasoned before using. The only thing you can't do in a Lodge is eggs, but everything else is a go. Learn how to use, clean and maintain cast iron on a cheap Lodge, and then when you are comfortable, move up to a vintage Griswold or the like. –  SDGator Oct 27 '11 at 5:51
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I can definitely vouch for cast iron. I've had a large pot and a large skillet for the better part of 10 years, use them all the time, and they are still in near-perfect condition. Copper does last, but cast iron actually gets better with age; after a few years of steady use, cast iron pots and pans will be so well-seasoned that nothing can stick to them.

Cast iron is:

  • Dirt cheap;
  • Long-lasting;
  • Easy to clean (just rinse)
  • Oven-safe (you can use it as a dutch oven, or for slow cooking).

As long as you don't mind the weight, and you don't let them rust (dry and lightly oil them after rinsing) you can't go wrong. I know some cooks that swear by their copper cookware, I know it has a lot of great properties, but considering the cost, I really think that cast iron is the best investment if you're looking to "upgrade" your cookware.

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I love my well-seasoned cast iron, but do you ever use yours to make an omelet? I still have a small teflon pan to whip up the morning 2-egg breakfast staple. –  OpenID-test2 Jun 1 '11 at 22:30
    
@OpenID: Nope, but that's mainly because of the weight. I use the same thing you do - an old 8" Teflon skillet. –  Aaronut Jun 1 '11 at 22:58
    
Same here...I have an 8" ceramic coated skillet for eggs. Unless you have strong wrists, flipping the eggs is a no-go with cast iron. –  SDGator Oct 27 '11 at 5:53
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Probably subjective, but ...

Good clad stainless steel will give you much better cooking performance per dollar than copper.

Le Creuset is great for a couple of stew pots, but you don't want to be slinging those monsters around every time you want to boil an egg.

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35 year old copper bottom Revere ware works great for egg boiling. Cu on the new stuff may be thinner, but I doubt that makes much difference. –  Wayfaring Stranger Jun 2 at 13:24
    
I was thinking about super-high-end-solid-copper, not good old ... –  bmargulies Jun 3 at 0:24
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Cast iron is ideal for slow cooking, or dishes where there's real danger of burning and sticking. I'd go with stainless steel for almost anything else. Copper ... I can't really see the use of it if you're not a professional cook.

What you should definitely have in your kitchen, besides stainless steel/copper and cast iron: an earthenware or heat-resistant pot or casserole for really slow older (middle age or antiquity) recipes, and a heavy sheet metal iron pan with no coating. Such a pan is for frying what cast iron is for braising, cooking and whatnot.

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I wouldn't spend money on copper. It doesn't add much in conductivity. For me, it's a mix of steel (for hob-only like sauces, vegetables, sauteeing) and cast iron for casseroles (brilliant for taking straight from hob to oven and lasts for years).

I don't bother with Le Crueset, though. I've used other cast iron pans that cost a lot less and do the same job.

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Hob is anglospeak for stovetop. Just making a note here because I had to look it up. –  Preston Fitzgerald Jun 2 at 3:40
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One crucial thing to consider is the type of stove you will be using, gas, induction or "plain old" cast iron.

Since I have never myself worked much on gas-stoves I cannot say for sure. But I am told that for gas, coppper is the thing. But only for gas. For induction copper is no-no. For a plain old stove you will need a really flat bottom surface, and copper it perhaps too soft to achieve that after a year or two of use.

Induction places a demand on iron-cores of the cookingwares.

But for a plain old stove I would say that the "cheap non-stick" (or on a gas-stove) is quite alright. As long as the non-stick surface is not too worn.

Personally I have a set of non-stick cooking wares for regular frying (onions, bacon etc). Cast iron skillet for frying a slice of beed. Stainess steel for cooking (pasta, soup and "not easy burn" souses.

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Copper heats up and cools down quickly. Le Creuset heats slowly but retains the heat. You can go from stove to oven in both. Copper is wonderful, but expensive and difficult to maintain. Depending on your use, tin can hold up well. If you are using it every day it will eventually require re-tinning which is also expensive. If you go copper, the commercial grade is by far the better choice but the handles are cast iron and need care or they rust. Personally, I am not bothered by the rusty handles - it adds to the look.
Unlike copper, Le Creuset is easy to maintain, comes in a multitude of colors and sizes. The newer pieces have handles that hold up to high heat. I use my oval dutch oven to bake bread and it works great.

Which will inspire you to cook? Like art, what speaks to your passion is the one you will chose. I love, love both but for entirely different reasons. Determine what you love to cook...and go from there.

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An old question, but I have a few things to add and clarify.

The question is a bit like preparing to "upgrade" to a new car, and asking people: "Should I buy the Mustang or the giant Ford pickup truck?" There's really not a good answer to that question, since the items in question are at different ends of the car spectrum and they have vastly different strengths and weaknesses. The short version of my answer is thus: "Just buy the right tool for the job."

I've already basically compared cast iron and copper in response to another question (see here), and I've documented my own detailed comparisons of cast iron and copper heat conduction performance elsewhere. For myself, I'd consider copper much more versatile as "all-purpose" cookware. And if you don't mind the multicolored "patina" of well-used copper and get stainless linings (as opposed to more traditional tin that will wear over time), the maintenance is less than cast iron.

Contrary to information in some of the other answers, I've rarely heard of thick copper warping or bending significantly, and even if it does, it can be generally beaten back into shape. Cast iron, on the other hand, is basically impossible to reshape if it warps, and I have had that happen myself; I don't think it's common, though.

Related to that issue, I would say that copper is only worthwhile if you're really going for the "good stuff," i.e., professional grade copper that is at least 2.5 to 3mm thick (which doesn't generally warp without significant abuse). The thinner copper pots, which are often marketed as cheaper alternatives at fancy cooking stores, are fine, but generally not worth the extra expense. Top restaurants use those thin copper pots to serve food in, not generally for serious cooking. If you are tempted by that 1.5mm copper (sometimes even thinner), you're mostly paying a premium for the looks. You could get basically the same performance out of a heavy-bottomed thick aluminum pan (or a stainless steel pan with a thick aluminum layer), usually for a lot cheaper. Aluminum has a lower conductivity than copper, but similar diffusivity, which means if you add extra thickness, it can perform about as well as equivalent (thinner) copper. Also, most pans with a copper clad base or a copper "layer" are marketing ploys -- the copper layer is often too thin to make any significant difference. Always ask about these, and if the copper layer isn't at least 2mm thick or so, it's probably not worth the premium price.

So now we get to the real issue everyone argues about: price. Copper seems like a luxury, and admittedly, the performance gains over modern aluminum (often coated with stainless) aren't huge. My one final comment on that issue is: don't discount potential energy savings. Copper's superior conductivity means that it will absorb heat coming from your burner more effectively, so you generally cook over lower heat to get the same results. This also means that there is less wasted heat released into your home. (This is particularly noticeable in the summer when your stove "fights" your air conditioning.)

There are reports of people who have measured this effect by switching to copper cookware, where cooking is their only use of gas in their home, and they've noticed significant decreases in gas use. I think for most people the difference is pretty small, since most people don't spend a lot of money just to power their stoves. But, based on my own usage and few experiments (like difference in times to boil water or do other heating tasks with the same heat and different pans), I'd put my energy savings on the order of at least $5/month or so. That doesn't sound like a lot, but that's $600/decade. Professional copper cookware is built to last, and people pass it down through generations. Given rising energy costs all the time, it's possible you could make an entire set of professional copper cookware pay for itself in a few decades of use, just in energy savings alone. At a minimum, you will save something in energy costs because copper is simply more efficient -- which means copper pans aren't really as expensive in the long run, taking all factors into consideration.

Of course, there are other ways to save energy and potentially get quicker response, like buying an induction stove (which, by the way, won't work with copper, but will with cast iron). In that case, you're probably likely to pay a premium of several hundred to a couple thousand dollars for the relatively new technology, and ranges generally will fail in 10 years or so (15 if you're lucky). So it probably ends up being a similar cost to buying a set of copper pans.

Overall, though, I think the best advice is to buy a sample and try. Buy one copper pan/pot, and use it for as many tasks as you can think of. (It's pricey, but you really can't evaluate how it works without trying it. I cook quite a bit, and I was somewhat shocked the first time I used a real pro-grade copper pot.) Also, buy a pan of whatever kind of cast iron, and do similar things. Figure out what you like and what works best for you, and then buy more of whatever it is for the cooking you do.

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There's nothing wrong with Le Crueset -- I have two pieces, and we had quite a few growing up (note -- don't leave water to boil, and then forget about it ... it will melt the enamel after the water boils off, and it will fuse to the stove as it cools ... all because of a failed pot of ramen by a 10 year old) -- but it's specifically enamelized cast iron which is a quite different than regular cast iron, as it doesn't have to be seasoned but doesn't have quite the same properties (and it's much more expensive).

America's Test Kitchen regularly finds a "reasonably priced" runner-up to the Le Crueset or All Clad pan from the set they're testing.

I still have a lot of cooking set that I inherited from great-uncle 15 years ago, and the only reason I don't use all of the pieces these days is because I'm cooking for more than one person, so I had to get some larger pieces. (and I'm not living in an apartment, so have space to store them, other than keeping everything stacked just so and fit like a puzzle in my oven)

I have no idea how old these pieces are, but they were well-used when I got them, and I have no if Farberware has changed their practices, but they're good pans -- not exceptional, but you can get a whole set of decent stuff for the price of 1/2 of a single All Clad piece. I also have a few pieces from Tools of the Trade, that I picked up when I needed some larger pans when I wasn't living on my own anymore -- again, it's reasonably price, but has held up great for the 12+ years I've had it.

If you're going to splurge on anything -- I'd go with a reasonably priced brand (and stay away from non-stick), and then treat yourself to a really nice knife or two.

... oh, and copper tarnishes, and I really hate cleaning, so I'm never going to pay more for something that's then going to mean more headaches for me, no matter how much better it cooks.

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Cheap cast iron pans are not made as well now as they used to be. I blame the huge market, faster manufacturing methods and decreasing quality of iron available. If you can find a good old pan you might be happy with it. I had vowed to not buy the expensive Le Creuset, but after several disappointments with cheap cast iron of the brands listed above and others, too, I bought a Le Creuset. I do recommend Le Creuset, though they are very heavy, they work extremely well. Some of their best pans are apparently being discontinued, so buy now for these excellent pans and dutch ovens: http://www.cutleryandmore.com/search I also recommend trying a small copper pot to see how you might like to use it, before making your mind up about copper on a larger scale. Enjoy your cooking, and do not let cookware grandness be your guide, let your own needs, interests, and findings about food be your guide.

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Cast iron is, as far as I can tell, the best thing you can use in frying pans, but I'm not so sure about pots. It's cheap, it's resilent (more so than copper), it has a high thermal capacity (important for steaks, the pan doesn't cool down as quickly as copper for instance) and are rather easy to clean. If treated well (always keep a thin oil film on it), they can last a lifetime and longer.

My dad still has cast iron pans that my grandfather used to use.

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Copper cookware is much better for conductivity and food presentation. Please remember that if you want to really do some gourmet preparation you will need the right tools. Me experience says to buy copper which, also, last for generations. Try Mauviel or Amoretti Brothers www.amorettibrothers.com, the first maybe more clean and for professional chefs, the second more decorative and gourmet.

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