For all of the random measuring cups and stacks of simple, well-used metal bowls we cooked with at Tante Marie’s, there were a few items in those kitchens that were spectacular show-stoppers. My favorites included the copper gratins that we used, of course, for our lesson in gratins (those rich rounds of starchy vegetables layered with creamy sauces and cheese, topped with homemade bread crumbs…) and for many other dishes.
One of the upsides of culinary school is that you discover worlds of kitchen-gear that you simply must have. One of the downsides of culinary school in San Francisco is that you’ve invested all of your money just to be there and you simply can’t have the must-haves.
So you can imagine my disbelief, and excitement, when I discovered an entire set of copper in the Bluff house at an estate sale of the last owner. I contained my elation to wide-eyed examination of each piece, not wanting to tip off the other shoppers in the house to what I’d found. The pieces appeared to have never been used before, and their stainless steel lining was without a single scratch. The pans were made by Revere, the brand of copper-bottomed pots we have on Main Street that are pretty banged up by now but still in rotation in a pinch. Granted, these pans don’t have all of the heft of the finest copper cookware, but that didn’t stop my mother and me from buying the set. I’ve since discovered that the copper set is vintage limited-edition, and has a special something-something about it because of that.
The elegant shape alone of the oval gratin makes anything you’ve cooked present like a masterpiece. The shape is conducive to evenly baked gratins with golden brown top layers. Brass handles are infinitely sturdy and provide balance with the weight of the copper. The dish can be used on the stovetop or in the oven, and taken directly to the table (with hot pads or double-thick kitchen towels).
Copper does require some TLC, but much of what’s worth loving in life does require tender care. Keep the copper glowing by rubbing it down with a salted wedge of lemon, then rinse. A little patina on your copper is nice too, so perfection here isn’t mandatory. Copper bakeware must be lined so that the food is not cooking directly against the reactive copper; stainless steel is the lining of choice and it does get worn away over time. Re-“tinning” your copper is pricey, but it doesn’t need to happen but once or twice depending on how used your pan is, and it’s an investment worth making in the beloved copper that will be with you always.
It made me sort of sad that the copper we discovered on the Bluff was in such pristine condition when we found it, because such perfection meant that the pans belonged to a household that didn’t cook. We’re going to rescue the copper, and the house, from such a history.