She explains why you should care as much about what you're cooking on as you do about what you're eating.

By Katherine Martinelli
October 03, 2019
Christian Watson/1924.us

Sara Dahmen is working to revive the nearly lost art of handmade copper cookware. The Wisconsin-based coppersmith is one of only a few remaining coppersmiths working in the United States and is believed to be the sole woman in her industry. The skill wasn't passed down from a long line of family smiths, nor did she complete a formal apprenticeship to learn the trade. Rather, the former wedding-planner-turned-writer became inspired after penning a historical fiction novel and learned the craft with the help of a few mentors and collaborators—and a lot of trial and error.

While researching the first book in her Flats Junction series, Dahmen realized how central the kitchen was in 17th and 18th century America and how cookware is no longer made with the same attention and skill. She decided to begin making her own—but you can't exactly get an online coppersmith degree, so she started cold calling anyone she could think of who might be able to help: foundries, spinning companies, small businesses that were doing something similar but not in direct competition. She sought knowledge, tips, guidance—any breadcrumb of assistance.

Slowly, she amassed a base of knowledge and a hodgepodge group of willing co-conspirators. The final piece in the puzzle came when she discovered Bob Bartelme, a master tinsmith, right up the road from her Wisconsin home. Dahmen began an informal apprenticeship and for the past three years has worked with him twice a week, learning how cookware was made before the use of modern tools. Although she still works with Bartelme, Dahmen has opened up a workshop, House Copper & Cookware, in her garage.

Related: What It's Like Fishing for Lobster as a Woman

The Process

The inspiration for her copper wares continues to be history and research. When creating a skillet, she consulted books on traditional cookware from the 17th and 18th centuries, which show how an apprentice would have constructed them. She sourced antique skillets so that she could physically hold them and get a tactile sense of their weight, size, and shape. "I really wanted to have shapes that have been lost to posterity," she says of her designs.

Once she has an idea, she draws a sketch on paper and sends it to a neighbor who is an industrial designer who translates the image into CAD, a computer program for designers. She then sends it off to fabricators in Ohio who spin the body out of copper (she doesn't have the capacity to build that part herself: "I would short the circuits of everything in my house and blow them out," she says). When she gets the body back, then Dahmen can get to work on everything else, from creating and drilling in the handles to lining the pots with tin ("nature's Teflon," as she calls it, and which also allows you to cook acidic foods like tomatoes).

Christian Watson/1924.us

Why What You Cook in Is Important

And this isn't some vanity project—Dahmen sincerely hopes to shift the way we think about cookware while also reviving historic craftsmanship. With the national conversation around food focused on issues like local, seasonal, sustainability, and wholesome growing practices, Dahmen is trying to bridge the gap between caring about what we eat and caring about what we cook it on. "We talk about our food, we say is that local and sustainable? Is it green? Is it organic? Where was it made? What did the chicken eat before I'm going to eat it? We have all these questions and then we come home and we cook on what?" asks Dahmen. But she says we should also be asking: "Who made it? What is it made out of? How does it work and why? Do you know what you're cooking on?" Pointing to the possible health hazards of nonstick coatings, Dahmen queries why are we not asking the same questions about cookware as we are about our food.

Some scoff at her prices (a 12-inch copper skillet, for example, runs $525), but Dahmen says that the high cost of copper and the labor are what impact her final costs. Plus, she believes the price tag to be worth it for something that is handmade, will last multiple lifetimes, and heats up with incredible efficiency. "People nowadays don't want to pay for a piece of cookware that will never die," says Dahmen, citing the fact that copper has been found in archaeological digs thousands of years later. "But people are used to buying inexpensive cookware and they don't think about the fact that it's cheap. It's just going to fail in a couple of years, and they're going to put it in a landfill and then they're going to buy another one."

Caring for Copper

It's a misconception that copper is hard to maintain, Dahmen says. Just like you shouldn't use metal utensils on nonstick pans, don't use them on copper. And just as you wouldn't put your cast iron skillet in the dishwasher, copper requires hand washing, too. You don't want to heat it over 400 degrees, either, or it can get "soft, bubbly, and wonky." For high heat tasks like searing a steak, Dahmen recommends cast iron (she sells cast iron pans and pottery in her online shop as well). For pretty much everything else, copper is great (Martha agrees, she has a big collection of copper cookware).

Want to keep your copper shining like the day you got it? No need for fancy elixirs. Dahmen simply rubs ketchup—yes, ketchup—all over the outside to make her copper shine like new. If it's a blackened antique then she says you'll need to use more elbow grease.

Craig John Photography

Dahmen spends around half her time making historically-inspired copper cookware. She continues to write historical fiction and is raising three kids while also taking care of a farm with chickens, a giant garden, and, soon, bees and rabbits. Her first nonfiction book, Copper, Iron, and Clay: A Love Affair with Cookware, will be published in Spring 2020. In it, she delves into the science, history, use, and care of the three basic groups of cookware: copper, cast iron, and stoneware.

And, unlike the old guard of smiths who kept trade secrets close to the chest, Dahmen wants to shout them from the rooftop so the craft doesn't die with her. She shares tips and techniques on her blog and YouTube, and is optimistic about the impact her generation can have—especially women—on reviving some of these nearly lost arts. With an increased interest in things like the maker movement, blacksmithing, homesteading, and hobby farming, it seems like the time if ripe for a revival in interest in craft metalwork. "I hope there are more people who pick up these trades," says Dahmen. For now, she'll keep doing her part, one copper pan at a time.

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Comments (1)

Anonymous
October 7, 2019
I'm sure the CAD made work is lovely....but, as the over 9000 coppersmiths in the US will tell you, smithing means forging and hammeeing, making from start to finish. This person, (who i am sure is talented and lovely) is not a smith, and your article is spreading Fake News ;).... Moreover, although entertaining to the average unaware person, it does a major diservice to artisans. Yours, Tara Shelton, silver & gold smith; sculptor, painter.