Rachel Laudan

Is it Safe to Cook in Mexican Cookware?

I’ve had a slew of questions about Mexican cooking recently. Here’s a go at answering some of them that might be of general interest.

This is from Richard Spott.

“Thanks for writing about carnitas. I live in Bozeman Montana and we have a vendor at our Saturday market that is importing copper pots from Mexico. I asked her if they could be used to cook carnitas in and she said that she was not allowed by importing laws or some liabilty issue to say that they are safe to use for cooking. Would you know if all copper pots are created equal or are some not acceptable/safe for cooking.”

I use copper pots I have bought in Mexico for cooking quite frequently. Only one is tinned on the inside. The rest are just copper. So far as I know, if they are made of copper, all the pots are created equally safe (though their culinary qualities may vary with thickness, design, etc). They are best not used with acids. In Mexico, they are of course the standard for making carnitas if that’s what you have in mind. Obviously I can’t take responsibility for for your food safety. If it were me, I would follow the advice about copper utensils found by googling and then go ahead.

On that subject here are some sensible words about Mexican ceramics from Alicia Gironella and Jorge De’Angeli in their splendid El Gran Libro de la Cocina Mexicana: La Práctica (Larousse 1993). I’m paraphrasing.

After stating that the chief lead danger is to the potters themselves, they conclude that for those who use ceramics with lead in the glaze for cooking and on the table, the danger is minimal and non-existent if you follow certain rules.

  • don’t use containers that are cracked
  • don’t store food in artisanal glazed ceramics most of which have been fired at less than 1000 degrees C
  • don’t buy for cooking pieces that have a rough surface and are not shiny, signs of firing at a low temperature
  • don’t used glazed clay for foods that are acids, such as salad dressings, fruit juices (especially citrus), salads, sauces that contain vinegar, etc.

Cooking beans and most moles (those without acids) in clay pots is not dangerous. They conclude “The tradition is very wise: in the markets, the salads are served in wooden bowls, and the aguas frescas in glass containers.”

That’s more or less the procedure I follow. But every one must decide for themselves.

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6 thoughts on “Is it Safe to Cook in Mexican Cookware?

  1. Kay Curtis

    On copper — many years ago I took a class in omelette making at “The Egg and The Eye” an upscale are gallery/restaurant on Wiltshire Blvd. across the street from the LA Co Museum of Art. We were told that a round bottom copper bowl is the ONLY acceptable vessel to whisk the eggs for best texture and volume and the copper pan used to cook the omelette should never be used for saute or anything else. As aside, we were also told to never use black pepper (white only) because the black was the wrong taste combination AND it would give a product that looked like it had a bunch of ants running around in it.

    On lead — I think that Rachel’s guide lines are fully adequate for normal use but, if one is still squeamish, there are test kits available from several sources and one can google the Consumer Reports information on them.

  2. shelly

    hi, i ran across your page and was thrilled. i have been looking desperately for some copper pots from mexico. they need to have handles and big enough to put your feet in. i use them for foot baths at my pedicure studio and these particular kind are very rare. is there a way to caontact this peson who comes across the vendor with the copper pots? if my email shows up, i would love a number or way to reach this person. thank you!

    1. Rachel Laudan


      Thanks for your query. The copper pots I see are normally sold in markets or by the side of the road. If I come across a number I will certainly send it to you.

  3. Diane

    I was given some clay cooking pots from Mexico and was told they were safe to cook in. I cannot see markings on the pots that they are safe for cooking or are lead free. I have no reason to doubt the person who gave them to me as her family is from Mexico and cook in these type pots. How can I be sure they are safe to cook in? I read you could actually place the pots in the oven at 100 degrees overnight (adding vinegar 1/4c to each cup of water) to remove the lead. Is this ture? Please help. Thanks.

  4. Adam Balic

    You can test for lead content using a kit that can be bought either online or from a hardware store (depending on where you live).

    Lead in the glaze isn’t a issue, if made well it is fused into the glass. It is any unincorporated lead in the glaze that is a problem. The kits will tell you if lead is free enough to leach into liquids.

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