Friday, December 31, 2010

Chilean Empanadas

Roll piece of dough into a circle or rectangle, add a heaping spoon of a savory or sweet mixture, fold the dough over, seal the edges and bake in an oven or fry in oil.  What is the result?

In Chile (and most of South American) it is an empanada.


Chilean baked empanadas

Why so many names and varieties?  Practically everywhere that there was wheat--from northern Europe and north Africa to India and China and the whole world by 1700 or so--it was ground and mixed with water to make dough.  And some of that dough was filled with a mixture of meat, fish, cheese, vegetables or fruit and fried or baked. The result was tasty, portable and handy to eat out of hand.

Where and when were these filled pastries first made?  No one knows but, central Asia sometime before the 9th century AD seems like a good bet. 
Arab cookery books of the 10th and 13th Centuries refer to the pastries as sanbusak (the pronunciation still current in Egypt, Syria, & Lebanon), sanbusaq or sanbusaj, all reflecting the early medieval form of the Persian word: sanbosag. Claudia Roden (1968) quotes a poem by Ishaq ibn Ibrahim-al-Mausili (9th Century) praising the sanbusaj. [1]

And from there they surely came to Spain with the conquering Arabs, sometime after 711 AD.  Remarkably, they left us a recipe.  It is from an anonymous Andalusian cookbook, The Book of Cooking in Maghreb and Andalus in the era of Almohads, of the13th century. 
A Pie [Mukhabbazah] of Lamb
Make meatballs of lamb with all the spices and flavorings, beat them with egg white, and put into the pot a spoonful of oil, cilantro juice, a spoonful of onion juice and half a spoonful of murri [use soy sauce], and pepper, cinnamon, Chinese cinnamon [cassia], a handful of pine nuts, coriander, a little caraway and a spoonful of water.  Cook until the meatballs stiffen, and cook the sauce and boil two eggs in it, then cover [the contents of the pot with eggs and breadcrumbs] and take it out to the hearthstone [a lower heat] until [the egg layer] wrinkles.  Knead a dough with white flour, water and oil.  Prepare a crust dough of this [line a pan], and put in the meatballs and the boiled eggs, after splitting, and put all the filling inside this.  Then cover it with a sheet of dough made in the same manner.  Fasten it closed and send it to the oven until it is done. Then present it, God willing. [2]

By the 12th century, the pastries were in Christian Spain and were sufficient renowned that they were shown in statues in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Galicia.

“Nobles enjoying themselves in a banquet with savory empanadas,”

 “penitent sinners in hell… eternally condemned to the tormenting penalty of not being able to eat an empanada because of a leather halter fastened around their necks so they cannot swallow.” [3]

The Spanish added pork, as in this Pigeon Empanada from the 17th century Art of Cooking, Pastry, Cakes and Preserves by Francisco Martínez Montiño (1611), head of the kitchens of Spanish King Philip II (1527-1598):

Take four tender young pigeons from the nest and after cleaning them take some ham cut into very thin (slices?) and soak them until the salt has been removed and then squeeze out the water and season the pigeons with spices and salt and (take?) a leaf of English sweet dough for empanadas and place the pigeons on it and put the ham slices all around and close the empanada and serve hot.[4]

Today the empanada gallega (from Galicia) is the classic Spanish empanada and its 16th century ancestors (without tomatoes. peppers or paprika) inspired for the empanadas of Chile and other Latin American countries.  In its basic form it is a large pie (small ones are empanadillas) with a crust of flour, yeast and oil or lard; a sofrito or seasoning mixture of sautéed onion, green pepper, tomato, garlic and paprika (pimenton dulce); and a filling of pork, fish, shellfish or vegetables cooked with the sofrito. A circle or rectangle of dough is rolled out, the filling is spread on it leaving an ample border, and a top crust is applied and sealed by pressing. A hole is made in the center to let the steam escape.  Leftover dough is applied to make a design, it is painted with beaten egg, and the empanada is baked for 30 to 45 minutes in a moderate oven.

THE source for recipes is La Empanada Gallega: Everything about empanadas and Galician gastronomy”  Google provides a reasonable translation here, and there’s an authentic Galician recipe in English here.

 Empanada Gallega    photo: Maria Gonzáles 2007

In her novel Ines of My Soul Isabel Allende tells us that  empanadas arrived in Chile in 1541 with conquistador Pedro de Valdivia and his companion Inés Suárez,  and she may be right.  By the 1620s they appear to have been completely incorporated into Chile’s Creole cuisine by both Spanish and Indians:  Francisco Núñez de Pineda y Bascuñán ("the happy captive") says that he was given empanadas by his Mapuche captors in the 1620s.[5]

The classic Chilean empanada, with a pino (“filing”, from the Mapuche pinu, for pieces of cooked meat) of meat, onion, raisins, hard boiled egg and chili seems to have taken form during the colonial period and became an “indispensable national dish,"[6] but not one that got mentioned in writing very often.  Even Chile’s foreign visitors, usually a good source for information about food, seem not to have noticed them.  Only Maria Henrietta de la Cherois, in Over the Andes from the Argentine to Chile and Peru seems to have found them worthy of mention.  She describes them as “squares of thick paste filled with meat, gravy, and a suspicion of onion--Excellent!”[7]

The earliest Chilean empanada recipes I have found come from The New Kitchen Manual of 1882:[8] The recommended dough recipe reflects 19th century Chile’s abundance of, and taste for, beef fat.  As Chile’s best know culinary historian Eugenio Pereira Salas explains “what butter was for the French, and olive oil was for the Italians and Spanish, beef fat was for the Chileans.”[9] 
Take four pounds of flour, two pounds of beef lard and a pound of beef fat [grasa de vaca], melt the lard and fat and beat until fluffy before mixing with the flour.  Add six egg yokes and enough very hot water, knead for a long time and roll out many times.
Aside from the dough, the standard baked empanadas were similar to today’s, if a little plainer:
Fry minced meat, free from nerves, with a little chopped onion, fried in color [grease mixed with chili] and when the meat is done add a tablespoon of flour, mix well, and add a little water so that there will be enough juice, and leave to cool.  Make a dough with a little flour, burned fat, two eggs and brine; make the empanadas with a little of the pino inside, and bake in a good hot oven.
 But there were also empanadas “a la chilena” which were quite fancy: 
Mix a little salt, a little cinnamon, six egg yokes and an egg white in a pound of flour, half a  pound of sugar, a quarter of grease and a half cup of sweet wine.  Form a dough from all this and if it is still dry add a little milk and knead it a little.  Cut the raw meat into small pieces and fry with a little color. When the meat is cooked add onions, also fried in color, take it off the fire and add a tablespoon of raw flour; mix and season with salt, whole peppercorns, and a little sugar.  Make the empanadas and decorate the pino with raisins, olives, slices of egg, pieces of firm cooked chicken and onion, also cooked in chicken broth.  Put in the oven and when it is time to send them to the table, pour on a thick syrup mixed with ground almonds and sweetened sour cherries.

Today’s Chilean empanadas

Empanadas a an Independence Day celebration

Baked empanadas filled with beef pino are the most Chilean of foods; there is an empanadaria in every neighborhood, every food store from up-scale supermarkets to barrio groceries sells them, and they are part of every festival and public celebration.  And on Chilean Independence Day, September 18, when everyone eats empanadas, even the 33 trapped Chilean miners had specially made empanadas designed to survive the arduous trip down 700 meters through a narrow bore hole.

The recipe below is a very standard one, from a classic Chilean cookbook, La Gran Cocina Chilena [10]

Baked Chilean Empanadas
 500 gm. flour (7 cups) 
1 ½ cups warm milk
125 gm. lard melted (5/8 cups)
1 teaspoon baking powder
 Make a mound of flour, salt and baking powder.  Make a well in the center of the flour and add the warm melted lard, then the milk a little at a time mixing to form a soft dough.  Knead the dough until smooth, cut into 8 pieces and roll each into a circle. 
Pino  (Filling)
 2 onions, chopped fine
½ lb / 250 gm ground beef
2 hard boiled eggs
16 olives
24 raisins
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt, pepper, parsley, oil 
Sauté the onions ground beef, garlic, chopped parsley and salt and pepper until well cooked.   Allow to cool.   Place a mound of pino on each circle of dough, add a piece of egg, 2 olives, and 3 raisins.  Fold the dough over and seal with a little egg white.  Bake until well browned.
Naturally there are other recipes, some a bit more elegant.  The one below is from La Sazón y el Gusto: Un menu en tres cidudaes de Chile  (Seasoning and Taste: Menus from three Chilean cities) as part of a menu representing Santiago.

While the classic pino of beef and onions is the most popular, many other filings abound, mostly in specialty empanada bakeries:  cheese, mushroom and cheese, olive and cheese, ham and cheese, corn and cheese, bell pepper and cheese, Roquefort, chicken and paprika, chicken and mushroom,  spinach, artichoke, Napolitana (ricotta, parmesan cheese, tomato, sausage), Salmon, shrimp, shellfish, etc.

Fried Empanadas

Fried empanadas, usually about half the size of baked, are very popular as a first course, especially in seafood restaurants where they are filled with a variety of shell fish, or with cheese; and of course with home cooks filled with cheese, pino, shellfish, or occasionally with fruit.

The dough, like that of baked empanadas, can be very rich with lard, up to a cup or more for 2 cups of flour, or relatively austere with only a tablespoon for the same amount of flour—in either case frying makes them para chupar los dedos,-- finger lickin’ good.

Here’s a recipe for Fried Cheese Empanadas with dough on the lighter side:
3 cups sifted flour
1 ½ tablespoons melted lard (60 grams)
1 cup of hot milk or water
1 teaspoon of baking powder
1 teaspoon of salt
Sliced cheese (1/3 inch / 1 cm thick)
 Mound the flour and baking powder and make a well in the center.  Add the melted lard and add the hot milk or water, stirring with a spoon.  When cool enough to handle, knead until smooth, soft, and elastic and wrap in a kitchen towel so that it remains warm.
 Roll or cut out circles (to any size you wish, usually between 4 and 8 inches/10-20 cm top with a slice of cheese (queso chanco if available), fold over and seal.  Fry in hot oil until golden.

And for shellfish empanadas, the ones in the photo above, there is an excellent illustrated recipe at Comida Chilena.  Here’s a translation: 
Fried Shellfish Empanadas 
1 kg mussels in their shells (or ½ lb / 250 gm frozen or canned shellfish, mussels, clams, machas, etc.)
1 lb / 500 gm. minced onions
Dough for 12, 4-5 inch / 10-12 cm empanadas
Steam the mussels in a little water and white wine until they open, about 2 minutes.  When cool, remove from shells and simmer with the onions and a little of the reserved steaming liquid until the onions are soft.  Fill each circle of dough with filling, leaving an ample border.  Paint the border with water or egg white, and seal.  Fry in abundant hot oil until golden.  Remove from oil and drain on paper towels.  The should be nice and juicy inside.

[1] The Samosa Connection.  On line at  The book referred to is A book of Middle Eastern food.
[2] Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook: The Book of Cooking in Maghreb and Andalus in the era of Almohads, by an unknown author. Charles Perry,Translator. On line at
[3] Historia de la empanada. La Empanada Gallega. Text and photos on line at  All translations mine unless otherwise noted.
[5]  Núñez de Pineda y Bascuñán, Francisco. 1999.  El cautiverio feliz
Alicante : Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes. Edición digital basada en la edición de Santiago de Chile, Zig-Zag, 1948. On line at
[6] Pereira Salas, Eugenio.  1977. Apuntes para la historia de la cocina chilena.  Santiago : Universitaria. p. 60.  On line at
[7] De la Cherois-Crommelin, Maria Henrietta. 1896. Over the Andes: From the Argentine to Chile and Peru.  p. 230  on line at
[8]Anonymous. 1882.  Nuevo manual de cocina: conteniendo 377 recetas de guisos escojidos de las cocinas francesas, española, chilena, inglesa e italiana: arregladas para el uso de las familias del país. Valparaíso : Libr. del Mercurio de Orestes L. Tornero. Pp. 94-5  On line at
[9] Pereira Salas, Eugenio. Op.Cit. p 20
[10] Alfaro, Mónica T. 2000. La Gran Cocina Chilena, 8th Edition.  Santiago:  Ediciones Occidente S.A. p. 416

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Eating Chilean Christmas

Christmas in Chile--Pascua de Navidad, or simply Pascua[1]—falls in early summer, four days after the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.  Today it is celebrated with the familiar German-British-American-Global Christmas complex of decorations, gifts, trees, carols, Santa Claus (here El Viejito Pascuero, Little Old Man Christmas), decorated cookies and even roast turkey.

But it was not always so…..

Christmas Eve on La Cañada [Santiago, circa 1870]

It is eight o’clock in the evening.  La Cañada [today’s Alameda] has the happy appearance of an immense fair. For a distance of at least three miles, from the upper Convent of Carmen on the east to the train station on the west seethes a compact audience of all social classes and ranks. In all the cross streets of this great avenue extends a belt of stalls, booths, food stands, and shelters that would make the curious think the whole population had fled their houses because of some earthquake or similar calamity and had chosen that location for their stores.  In each booth a flag flutters in the wind; the national tricolor is always obligatory to protect the harp and the guitar whose harmonies resonate from all quarters.  Foods of all types, liquors, fruits, little empanadas, sweets, flowers, bunches of sweet basil, little ceramics made by the nuns, horchata with maliciia [a sweet drink with brandy], games, and all kinds of appetizing inventions for the Chileans’ gluttonous bulletproof stomachs, make up the commercial vocabulary of Christmas Eve.[2]

Valparaiso had a similar celebration, but US Navy Leutenant J.M. Gilliss, there in 1850 as part of a US Naval Astronomical Expedition, was evidently a bit disappointed:

  What he found was similar to the fair in Santiago, some of it a bit unrefined for his Anglo Saxon sensibilities:

Special Christmas food and drinks?  None are mentioned.  Chilean historian Daniel Palma’s article on Santiago food and drink at the end of the 19th century, says:  “The [Christmas] kitchen addresses itself to the typical dishes such as empanadas, arrolladas and casuelas [turnovers, pork rolls, and boiled dinners], all accompanied by chicha [young wine or cider] especially prepared for the occasion.”  Among the wealthy, Noche Buena picnic dinners at the fair were “succulent and primitive banquets, alternating between cold cuts of turkey and roast lambs, with sparkling chicha, cups of sweet hot punch, legendary milk punch, and water punch with ices.”[3]

20th Century

If Lieutenant Gilliss was disappointed by 19th century Chilean Christmas, he would have been happier a few years later, as the familiar Global Christmas complex was beginning to arrive.  German immigration in the second half of the 19th century brought Christmas trees, Christmas cakes and decorations, if only to the immigrant communities and Santa seems to have arrived early in the new century.

Cris Salazar’s blog on Santiago’s history, Urbatorium, chronicles Santa’s history and arrival in Chile.   Referring to the picture at left, in which Santa is carrying what appears to be a Christmas tree, Chris writes:

A "Viejo Pascuero" in the publicity of the Bazar Alemán Krass [downtown Santiago’s premier toy store], published in the capital press in 1910.  It is one of the oldest St. Nicolases in Chilean documents and shows that this persona was already in Chile, probably due to German influence.”

The Christmas tree, “el pino” also appears in the early 20th century.  This illustration is from a 1931 Chilean cookbook, Hermanita Hormiga [4] (Little Sister Ant).

But “El pino” didn’t arrive at my wife’s home until 1962, remembered because it was also the year of the family’s first TV, bought especially for the 1962 World Cup, hosted by Chile.  Today it is a tradition, and comes out every year in early December.  It is plastic of course; natural Christmas trees aren’t part of Santiago’s 85° F. holiday season.

German immigration also seems to have brought pan de Pascua, holiday fruit cake, evidently descended from the German Christstollen.  It is lighter than the traditional English or American fruit cake and is THE essential food for holiday celebrations.  It is of course, available in supermarkets and bakeries, and those seem to be the source for most families. 

To assist Santiagueños in making this purchase, El Mercurio, Chile’s major newspaper, held a pan de Pascua tasting in 2008.  What was the standard?

What is a good Pan de Pascua? Easy.  It has a dark dough, dense and humid; adorned with nuts (walnuts and almonds, hopefully toasted), dry fruit (raisins, hopefully soaked), and candied fruit (hopefully natural) of good quality and quantity; seasoned with sweet spices (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, anise, ginger, vanilla, honey) and liquor (rum or cognac).[5]


The winner?  Supermarket Lider’s Ideal brand, at about $5 US for 2 lb. loaf.

But if you’d like to make you own, here is a recipe in English.  And to meet El Mercurio’s ideal, soak the raisins in rum first and add ginger.

To accompany your pan de Pascua, the essential beverage is Cola de Mono, literally “monkey’s tail,” a descendant of the 19th century milk punch.  Various stories explain the drink’s origins and name, but the most cogent is that:
In a party held by an elderly society lady attended by ex-President Pedro Mott, it began to rain torrentially. Then when Don Pedro decided to retire he asked for the return of his Colt pistol, which he had given one of his friends to hold.  As none of them wanted the president to be exposed to such a ferocious downpour, they hid his pistol. The party continued at a fast pace, until the wines and liquors were gone, but someone discovered an enormous pitcher of coffee with milk and improvised.  As he tried to give this flavorful find a bit of a mischievous touch, he added aguardiente [brandy] and sugar, improvising a drink that was appreciated by all.  Such a great discovery had to be baptized, and what better than to call it the “Colt of Montt,” from which the now known “Cola de Mono” was easily derived. [6] 
Cola de mono is now available pre-made, but who knows how it tastes?  This is my wife’s recipe:

1.  Bring three liters of milk (skim or whole as you wish) to a boil, being careful that it does not burn on the bottom, and cool in the refrigerator.

2.  Then mix 1 cup water with 1½ cups sugar, cloves, cinnamon sticks, zest from two lemons, and a teaspoon of vanilla extract.  Bring to a boil and then simmer briefly so that all the sugar is dissolved and the spices have infused the liquid.  Then cool and strain.

3.  Mix the cold milk and cold sugar mixture, add Nescafé instant coffee (Chile’s coffee of choice) to taste and 1½  lt. of aguardiente. Serve well chilled. The final product should look like this:

Alejandra’s Cola de Mono

What else happens on Chilean Christmas?  In our house, my wife’s daughters, sons-in-law and granddaughters arrive at around dark, 8:30 or 9:00 PM.  Pan de Pascua, Christmas cookies, chips, olives, nuts and assorted nibbles are out for pre-dinner snacks and Cola de mono and pisco sours are offered to the grownups. Dinner is at 10:00 or 11:00, served buffet style with a cold main dish (salmon, turkey breast, ham, etc.) and salads. Champaign (demi-sec) is opened at midnight and served over pineapple sherbet, and Christmas abrazos (hugs) and kisses abound.  And then we surround the tree and delve into the multitude of presents.  More relatives arrive after midnight, bringing gifts and staying for cola de mono and pan de Pascua, but things quiet down by two or three AM and it’s off to bed.  Christmas day is simply “the day after,” with no special events other than recovery.

Here’s another Chilean family’s tradition, from the web site Navidad Latina

Christmas Chilean Style
 by Maria Jesús Riveros Miño.
I am a heart felt Chilean and can say that for Chileans the most significant and awaited holiday is Christmas, along with the New Year.  In the central region Christmas begins in early December when the Christmas advertisements come out for the fabulous toys that technology surprises us with daily; at this moment we see true consumerism, just like the rest of the world, but it all ends on the 24th at 6:00.  Many people go to the “Mass of the Rooster” (celebrating the birth of Christ).  Many people do religious things, while others just spend the time peacefully with their families.  At about 10:00 PM they sit down at the table and enjoy the delicious Christmas supper that is usually turkey or chicken stuffed with corn.  The campaign glasses ring and we listen to the Christmas Eve toasts.  As midnight approaches we take the children for a walk while “The VIEJITO PASCUERO arrives” as we call Santa Claus or Father Christmas. Earlier the children would have been asleep and would have opened their presents on the 25th, but the way children are now, they have no problem staying up until midnight.  When they come back to their house after their walk, they find all the presents and it is time to open them, but first they are dedicated to the baby Jesus.  Some sing Christmas carols, others go out in the street to play with their bicycles, skates or other toys, others go to discothèques or just go to sleep to await the new day.  Don’t forget that for us Christmas is in summer and everyone goes outside happily to play with their presents until the time got to bed to sleep as late as they want.
If turkey is on the menu, as it seems to be in many Chilean households, it will probably be stuffed with a meat-fruit mixture, or with corn stuffing.  Oddly, I could not find a Chilean recipe for corn stuffing (perhaps a kind reader will supply one) but here is a recipe for:

100 gm. ham
125 gm. pork loin
3 apples
125 gm. prunes
125 gm. chestnuts, cooked and peeled
100 gm. sultana raisins
125 grams lard
1 glass white wine
Thyme, bay leaf, oregano, parsley
A pinch of cinnamon
Salt and pepper

Soak the raisins and prunes.  Peel the apples and cut into slices, mince the pork lion and the ham.  Melt the lard in a skillet and sauté the pork loin and ham, add the raisins and prunes, apples, chestnuts, cinnamon, herbs, salt and pepper and stir to mix.  Add the wine and boil until it has evaporated.  Allow to cool and stuff turkey with mixture. 

And 21st Century Chilean Christmas?

 “El Marketing” suggests that it will be more global, less Chilean, and expensive, if this ad for “The Perfect Present” from El Mecurio’s Saturday magazine (11 Dec., 2010, p. 30) is any indication: 

“What to buy for a foodie? And a runner? A techie?”



 The suggestions, top to bottom, left to right are: Secret of the Union Hams,” $9.30 US/100 grams; Pan de Pascua, $10.55; an automatic coffee maker, described as “Super cool,” $430; Ceramic knives, called “the ultimate in style," $80 each; a mortar and pestle, $24; and Cook with Jaime cookbook (in English), $108.


Feliz Navidad Chilena

Plaza de Armas, Santiago, 2005   Photo:  Steve Davis

[1] “Pascua” is usually translated as “Easter” and in most of the Spanish speaking world that is what it refers to, but in Chile it refers to both events associated with both the birth and death of Jesus.  In Chile Easter is Pascua de Resurrección”
[2] Tornero, Recaredo S. 1872. Chile Ilustrado. Valparaiso: Librerias I Ajencias del Mercurio.  On line at All translations mine unless otherwise noted.
[3] Palma Alvarado, Daniel. 2004 De apetitos y de cañas. El consumo de alimentos y bebidas en Santiago a fines del siglo XIX. P. 394.  Historia No 37, Vol. II, julio-diciembre 2004: 391-417 On line at
[4] Burnet, Marta.  1931.  La Hermanita Hormiga: Tratado de arte culinario. Santiago: Editorial Nascimento. P 324. On line at
[5] Lineros, Locío.  2008. Cata de Pan de Pascua 2008. El Mercurio. (Revista) Wikén.  Dec 12, 2008. on line at{17bfc934-c11c-4f2b-abf1-f6bd62b26cb2}
[6] Cocinando en Navidad.  On line at

Monday, November 29, 2010

Chilean Copper Cookware

For my birthday I received this handsome copper paila from my step daughters and their husbands (Thank you again, M, M, J & N.).  Aside from its beauty, I knew that copper was one of the best cookware materials because of its rapid and even heating.  But I also knew there were some problems in cooking in copper… but exactly what they were, I didn’t know.

As I began to search the internet, I quickly discovered that most copper cookware is coated with another metal because copper oxidizes when in contact with acids, creating the greenish patina seen on old copper, bronze and brass.  This patina, called verdigris, is toxic and can cause gastrointestinal problems if ingested. 

Traditionally copper was lined with a thin coating of tin, but tin scratches and will wear away in time.  Tin also melts at only 425° F, a temperature easily reached in cooking.  Nickel is also used as a lining, but the most common lining today is stainless steel.

My paila seems to be unlined.  There is no obvious lining, the color is the same inside and out, and ArteCobre, the major seller of Chilean copper cookware (and presumably of mine), makes no mention of lining.  Not a good sign, as one of the first copper cookware sites I encountered had this warning:

 The information sheet which came with my paila said the following:

Cooking with pots or utensils of copper
 Copper has been commonly used in pots and kitchen utensils, it is very easy to work but it has its problems. What are the advantages and disadvantages of cooking in copper pots and utensils? (All translations mine unless otherwise noted.)

The advantages listed were:  copper’s even heating and rapid conductivity of heat, the reduced tendency of food to stick because of the uniform temperature of the cooking surface, copper’s antibacterial properties, that vegetables like asparagus and artichokes cooked in copper retain their bright green color, and that jams and jellies cooked in copper are delicious and maintain a brilliant color.  The final advantage is that

Poisoning from cooking in copper does not occur easily [La intoxicación cocinando con cobre es muy difícil] because the pot or utensil lets us know we should not use it through its green patina, and in addition, food cooked in it would have a strong flavor that would keep us from eating it.  By contrast, we are being poisoned slowly without realizing it from tasteless traces of lead or asbestos   in foods cooked in utensils of aluminum.  We only have to keep copper utensils clean and unstained [to avoid problems].[1]

When I searched the internet for the wording of ArteCoblre’s information sheet, I found it at En Buenas Manos, a site providing information on “Beauty, Ecology, Illness, Esoterica, Pets, Nutrition, Recipies, Reflections, Therapies, and Healthy Life.”  The author was Josep Vicent Arnau, Naturopath and Acupuncturist.

There is a certain attractive logic to the idea that cooking in unlined copper is safe if you keep the copper clean and don’t eat anything cooked in it that tastes bad.   And the articles I read on En Buenas Manos’ web site were sane, reasonable and not just marketing quackery, but Mr. Arnau’s credentials didn’t instill a great deal of confidence. (See Wikipedia’s article on Naturopathy and judge for yourself.) 

Surely there is more authoritative advice. 

And, of course, there is.  I. Herbert Scheinberg, M.D., (1920-2009) professor of medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, was one of the nation’s experts on copper toxicity and Wilson’s disease, a genetic disorder causing the toxic accumulation of dietary copper in the liver, brain and other organs. According to one of the best articles I found, “The Importance of Copper Cookware for Cooking” from the site Retinning and Copper Care:

[Dr. Scheinberg] contends that unless the copper has oxidized extensively enough to produce the green-blue copper salts commonly known as "verdigris," and/or highly acidic foods are to be cooked in the pot [with scratched or worn lining], use of the vessel is not dangerous. If acidic foods come in contact with the copper, they'll dissolve and absorb the copper salts, which are toxic. If the salts are present, the pot should be scoured. 
 [He says ] "Yes, people can get gastrointestinal upsets. But contrary to popular belief it's not fatal."

 The US Food and Drug Administration also has something to say about cooking in unlined copper pans:

John Thomas, of the division of regulatory guidance at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition says that the agency cautions against using unlined copper for general cooking because the metal is relatively easily dissolved by some foods with which it comes in contact and, in sufficient quantities, can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.[2]

So where are we?  At one extreme we have The Copper Shop’s “NEVER COOK WITH AN UNLINED COPPER POT,” and at the other, ArteCobre’s “Poisoning from cooking in copper does not occur easily. “  Somewhere in the middle the FDA “cautions against using unlined copper for general cooking” and Dr.  Scheinberg says, “unless the copper has oxidized extensively … and/or highly acidic foods are to be cooked, …use of the vessel is not dangerous.”

At this point it is obvious that my paila is not going to be my everyday pot.  Egg whites and whipped cream are said to have more volume when beaten in unlined copper bowls, but what can be safely cooked in unlined pans? 

Unlined copper vessels are produced especially for making sugar syrups and candies:

A sugar pot or sugar boiler is an unlined copper pan that is used, primarily by pastry chefs, to make sugar syrups. Because copper is so responsive to the heat, the pan gives the chef instant control as he or she boils the syrup to just the right temperature.
The acidity of the unlined copper causes some of the sugar to "invert," or split into glucose and fructose, which helps resist the sugar's tendency to recrystallize. The pans are also unlined because a traditional tin lining would come too close to melting temperatures in some cases….[3]
They are also used to make jams and jellies, as in the Mauviel jam pan below, where it seems that the high sugar content offers some protection against the acids contained in the fruit… how and why, I could not discover.

And they are used for making polenta:

What they are clearly not used for is cooking acidic foods; no tomato sauce, meats braised in wine, or sausages with sauerkraut.  But it seems to me that, if used with caution, and cooked in sparkling clean pans, foods that are low in acid should be safe.  (But note I am an anthropologist, not a chemist, toxicologist, MD or anything close to being pertinent to this issue… this is not a recommendation for others.)


So what are low acid or non acidic foods?  Here are some examples of foods that occur frequently in my cooking[4] (For reference pH 7.0 is neutral; above 7.0 is alkaline; and below 7.0 is acidic; orange juice is 3.3 – 4.2)
It looks like green olives and tomatoes will definitely be excluded from my piala. Wine too, with an average pH of 3.3 to 3.7.[5]  But most everything else looks OK, especially if the bulk of a dish is a food that is close to neutral, like rice.


What did I cook?  Paella. 

Here’s my paella recipe.  Average pH of ingredients: around 6.0 – 6.2.  Serves 4.

Olive oil as needed
1 medium onion, chopped
1 - 2 cloves garlic, minced
½ green bell pepper
½ red bell pepper
3 chicken thighs, boned (bones reserved)
2 smoked sausages, 4-5” long
2 lbs. mussels
1 lb.clams (mine were very small, more ornamental than substantive)
1 ½ cups short grain rice
Thyme, paprika (AKA ají de color), saffron (if you have it, I didn’t)
1 cup green beans or peas (frozen/pre-cooked)
½ cup black olives
Minced parsley

Clean mussels and clams, discarding any broken ones and those that don’t close.  Reserve a dozen or so mussels, and steam the rest for 3-5 minutes in a cup of water until they open. Remove the meat from the open mussels and save the broth.  Add 2 - 3 cups water and the chicken bones to the mussel broth (+ onion trimmings, parsley stems, etc.) and simmer until needed. 

Heat copper paila over a low flame until moderately hot (be careful, this won’t take long) add olive oil, chicken and sausages and sauté over low heat until brown.  Remove meats and sauté onion, adding garlic and bell peppers after a few minutes. Then add thyme, paprika and saffron. Return meats to paila and add the rice.  Sauté rice for 2-3 minutes, then add 3 cups mussel/chicken broth.  Raise heat until the broth boils, then lower to a simmer.  Cook without a lid for 15 to 20 minutes, tasting the rice for doneness from time to time (it should be al dente) and adding additional boiling broth if necessary.  When about ½ the broth has been absorbed, add the reserved mussel meat and green beans or peas and stir.  Then add the clams and mussels by pushing them into the rice. When rice is done, add olives and parsley, turn off the flame, cover paila with a lid, dish towels, etc. and allow to rest for 5 to 10 minutes.
Serve with lemon quarters, salad and wine.


It was great, with no off taste and (obviously) no greenish tint.  And we felt fine afterwards… and still do. 

I’m not going to use my paila every day, but I’ll make this paella again, and use it for polenta and risotto and jam.  Maybe I’ll even make fudge.

[1] Handout, ArteCobre.  The text appears at En Buenos Manos, on line at
[2] Blumenthal, Dale (1990). Is That Newfangled Cookware Safe? DHHS Publication No. (FDA) 91-2242. On line at
[3] How to Make a Sugar Syrup in a Sugar Pot (or Not). O Chef. On line at
[4] Master List of Typical pH and Acid Content of Fruits and Vegetables for Home Canning and Preserving.  On line at, and Measuring the pH Value of Meat. Eutech instruments.  On line at  Beef reaches its lowest pH 18 to 24 hours after slaughter, after which it rises again.
[5] Pandell, Alexander J. 1999. The Acidity Of Wine.  On line at