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Cleaning Copper Pots

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I have about a dozen top quality copper pots that are stained from many years' use. I am armed with Bar Keepers Friend, scouring pads and elbow grease.

Any tips on efficient cleaning methods? soak first? use vinegar?

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  1. I use Brasso and a soft cloth. Wet the pots and let the water drain off. Put Brasso on a damp cloth and give them a good scrub running along the contours of the pot. The "foam" will darken like mad. Let it dry. Rub it off with a dry soft cloth. I sometimes wash them afterward with soap and water to get all the Brasso off.

    That outta do it! If not, repeat but you should get that nice copper glow that is neither the tarnished nor the lacquered look.

    I was lucky to get badly tarnished Maurivel and Ruffoni copper with the luscious oakleaf brass handles (that you, drat!, can NOT hang with the pots) from W-S at half price in the Fall. The Brasso and some elbow grease was enough to make them gorgeous additions to my kitchen and my cuisine.

    1. I've had good luck with salt and lemon. Cut a lemon in half. Dip it in salt and rub it on the tarnished area. Keep dipping in salt and rubbing to get the tarnish off.

      1. I use the Mauviel cream. It's spendy but I get it at a discount where I work. It works well and little elbow grease required. No scratching either. I'd imagine most copper creams would work similarly.

        1. Over the years, I have settled on Flitz Metal Polish as the best cleaner/polisher out there. It's non-abrasive. The chemicals do the work. USDA authorized, too. Don't use salt or scouring pads as they will scratch the surface.

          3 Replies
          1. re: GeezerGourmet

            Also, acids/salt/abrasives are slow or worthless on heat discoloration. Twinkle works really well on copper and OK on shiny stainless, I don't know about other metals if you're looking for a mult-metal cleaner..

            1. re: MikeG

              I think it depends on your objective. If you have highly polished copper pots and want them to keep their mirror shine then don't use salt and vinegar. If you have working pots that get used heavily, then a mirror shine will probably not be a priority. My collection is definitely the latter. I'm not a museum curator, I'm a cook... all I want is the tarnish and cooked-on food to be gone and the copper to be bright and clean. Salt and scouring pads create an even matt patina and take much less time, work and money than commercial copper preparations.

              1. re: swiss_chef

                If lemon (not cheap either unless you usually have leftovers) and salt are quicker or more effective, I think you must be using the wrong cleaning product! On the other hand, they're far from ecologically friendly so if you need to use it often, that's a factor...

          2. Sounds like you may have far more than simple tarnished copper.
            The "stains" could be years of cooked on spills and grease from cooking. That's potentially the bad news.
            The good news is that with old copper cookware, you don't have to worry about the tiny scratches. They're normal signs of use. Those thousands and thousands of them give old copper pots their patina and make them IMHO so much prettier than new copperware.
            You also won't have to worry about bringing the surface to a high luster like you'd find in a showroom (which won't be possible anyway) because the pots will darken as soon as you use them.
            At least they'll be easier to maintain once you get them back in shape. I only "polish" my copper a few times a year and let it stay sort of about a quarter-tarnished. But that's a personal preference.

            I've had good success with old copper pots using Twinkle copper polish - from the grocery or hardware store - in paste form or even the powdered cleanser-type Twinkle for tough, cooked-on gunk.
            I had one old pot from a rummage sale that was really nasty that drove me outside with some Easy-Off Oven Cleaner. It got the worst of the cooked-on build-up off the pot without harming the copper. Then I used a lot - repeat: a lot - of elbow grease and the Twinkle to bring it to a lovely shine.

            As a last resort, if the copper is in terrible shape or you just wear out on it, some of the copper re-tinning companies will also polish the copper. It may cost less than your time.

            1. I have about 60 vintage copper pots and I only use a homemade paste of salt, vinegar and flour and I use a stainless steel scrubbing pad to apply the mixture. This is what every professional kitchen in Europe uses. Some of my old pots were so black when I bought them you couldn't even tell they were copper.

              8 Replies
              1. re: swiss_chef

                No squeezed-out lemon half ever goes out of my kitchen without making a pass over some piece of copper in my kitchen.
                A little salt on it, a few swipes across the tarnish, and the copper is clean.
                Then down the garbage disposal to freshen it up.

                That lemon does three jobs and more than earns it's cost.

                Thanks for the salt/vinegar/flour recipe!

                1. re: MakingSense

                  Good advice, I wonder how the pH level of lemons compares to vinegar?

                  Just googled it:
                  Lemon 2.3
                  Vinegar 2.4-3.4
                  so I would say that lemons will work just as well as vinegar but not really worth the extra cost if you are only using them for the copper.

                  1. re: swiss_chef

                    You may well be right, but pH really doesn't have much to do with it - what you care about is called the acid dissociation constant (Ka), which determines acidic strength, and is not related to pH. Both lemon juice (citric acid) and vinegar (acetic acid) are considered weak acids (i.e., both have Ka < 1), even though they have quite low pH, as you point out. However, they could (emphasize "could") have orders of magnitude difference in their Ka. I tried to find a table of Ka for those weak acids, but was unable to come up with one (I'll keep looking).

                    1. re: FlyFish

                      I should have paid more attention in chemistry class. I thought pH was the measure. Thanks for putting me on the right path!

                      1. re: FlyFish

                        Ih, my goodness, FlyFish!!! Unless you are doing it for your own edification, it's hardly worth the effort for the occasional lemon rind.
                        At today's prices for lemons, I'm much more likely to follow Swiss Chef's suggestion of the paste of vinegar (white vinegar cost next to nothing,) cheap table salt, and plain old supermarket AP flour.
                        Not like I'm going to eat this stuff so store brands or Dollar Store purchases will save me a lot of money over expensive copper cleaners.
                        It it works, it's fine by me.
                        Thanks to both of you!

                        1. re: MakingSense

                          Yes, of course do whatever works for you. I just wanted to point out the difference between pH and "strength" of an acid, which is a concept (understandably) that eludes virtually all non-chemists and even some professionals and took me a while to pound into my thick skull as an undergrad.

                          FWIW, I use Wright's cream on my copper. It's more expensive than lemons, particularly so if the lemons have already served some other primary duty, but it's such a tiny fraction of my cooking-related expenditures that it's inconsequential, and it really does do a better job.

                        2. re: FlyFish

                          sorry to be a nerd, but pKa and pH are definitely related.

                          pH = pKa + log([A-]/[HA])

                          pH = pKa+log([conjugate base]/[undissociated acid])

                          The actual meaning of pKa: the negative log of the dissociation constant, which is a measure of strength of an acid/base

                          when pKa = pH, there is equal concentration of acid and its conjugate base.

                          pKa helps to understand the nature of acid and base like pH:

                          pKa <2 --strong acid

                          pKa >2 but <7 -- weak acid

                          pKa >7 but < 10 -- weak base

                          pKa >10 --strong base

                      2. re: MakingSense

                        I had a bit of left over lime so I dipped it in salt and went over one of my pots. It worked fine on the lightly tarnished part but didn't do very well on the heat discoloration. I find the salt, vinegar, flour and SS scrubber is faster and more effective.

                    2. For my copper, make a paste from Bar Keeper's Friend and use a sponge to rub it in, adding water as I need. Very little elbow grease needed to get rid of heat and food stains and tarnish. BKF does nothing for hard water stains, the bane of living in San Diego. I had no luck with lemon/salt, and I think the metal polishes (I've used Mauviel and Calphalon's) are not worth the money or effort compared to BKF. I don't like working with metal cleaners like Brasso if I don't have to.

                      I use BKF to clean my grandmothers sterling silver tea set, too - I make a loose paste and let it sit on the ornate areas for a few minutes before wiping off and rinsing in hot water. Simple and works great.

                      1. A restaurant I used to work in had me clean their copper pots with ketchup. I'd just pour it on there and wipe it off (and then clean with soap and water of course).

                        1. All of my cookware is modern (stainless lined) copper, I gave up on keeping it shiny and new looking long ago.

                          As far as daily cleaning goes, I use Dawn dish soap. For those times when more than a basic cleaning is needed, it's Barkeepers Friend (inside and out) with a Scotch Brite pad.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Demented

                            The absolute best copper cleaner I've discovered is Kleen King. It cleans and polishes copoper and stainless steel with very little elbow grease. Best I'v ever used

                          2. I've used many different copper cleaners.

                            Vinegar/flour/salt, lemon/salt, and Twinkle basically are detarnishers and all work pretty similarly. They will not maintain the mirror finish, if that's important to you, but they will remove the tarnish after heating. If you squeeze a lemon for cooking and keep a dish of kosher salt by the sink, then you can use the lemon again for detarnishing the copper.

                            Nevr Dull is a wool wadding with a very mild abrasive polish that's good for removing baked on carbon and grease without scratching. It smells like it also contains a petroleum based solvent. It will leave a shiny, but slightly dull finish that can be brought up to a mirror finish with finer abrasives.

                            I'm dubious of metal cleaners that call themselves "non abrasive." You can remove tarnish without abrasives, but polishing metal is by nature an abrasive process. Just like sanding wood or sharpening a knife with a stone, you start with a coarser abrasive and work toward finer abrasives to get a shinier finish.

                            The abrasive in Nevr Dull seems similar to Brasso.

                            Red Bear contains oxalic acid, which is the active ingredient in Barkeeper's Friend, as a detarnisher, and I believe it contains red jeweler's rouge, which will bring up a mirror finish if you work at it. If you send copper to be retinned and it comes back with a shiny mirror finish on the outside, then it's been buffed out with a series of fine abrasives, the last being red rouge.

                            Mauviel Copperbrill is expensive, but it seems to work with less effort than some of the other options. It detarnishes quickly and probably contains a fine abrasive like white rouge (which is not as fine as red rouge) to maintain the shine.

                            1. I use Twinkle. $4 per small tin, find it at the hardware store, lasts me a couple months of using one or two copper pots each day.

                              If done as a regular part of washing-up, it is pretty effortless - wash the pot as normal, drip of most of the water, wipe on a thin layer of Twinkle, the copper will immediately turn bright, rinse off. It takes about 30 seconds with little to no rubbing. That is if you are Twinkling the pot after each use, so that it only has one use's worth of oxidation.

                              If the pot has become tarnished to an overall dull medium brown, it will take more Twinkle and more rubbing. If the pot is coated with years of black carbonized crud, Twinkle alone won't do it, you will need serious elbow grease - personally I would scrub hard with an abrasive cleaner and then use metal polish and a buffing wheel - then don't let it get that way again.

                              The advantage of Twinkle (and similar products, if any) over salt, lemon, and vinegar is that it is faster, cheaper (unless you have a lemon tree), and doesn't scratch the copper as scrubbing with salt will do. The advantage over Brasso and other metal polishes is that with polishes, you are mechanically removing the oxidation (a polish is a fine abrasive) which means effort.

                              I have about 12 copper stockpots, saucepans, and saute pans, that I use daily. I keep them bright, but I don't regularly polish them.

                              1. Abrasive scrubbers like SS or Scotchbrite or Brillo pads will get the gunk off copper, but the scratched surfaces they leave behind will be harder to keep clean (those tiny scratches really hold on to foreign matter). So, for me, a proprietary copper polish, soft cloths or sponges, soft (plastic or nylon) kitchen scrubbers, etc., are what I use.