Cleaning Copper Pots
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.