What pan do you choose when you want to fry, braise, sauté or sear? Most likely, a skillet or sauté pan. The similar designs lead some to use these terms interchangeably. However, there is a difference between these two types of pans.
We’ll take a look at the differences and discuss which pan to use with a few basic cooking techniques.
Is the skillet the same as a frying pan?
One question that pops up in forums and platforms is whether there is a difference between a skillet and a frying pan. Typically, the terms “skillet” and “frying pan” are used interchangeably because both pans have sloped sides and the depths are about the same.
It is interesting, though, that the use and definition of each tends to vary according to the person and the vendor. For example, only the term “fry pan” is used on Vollrath’s company website, while Cuisinart.com uses both “skillet” and “fry pan” in their product descriptions.
However, an argument can be made that the skillet has a little bit more of surface area than the fry pan and the sides are not as sloped. A comparison of the French skillet and frying pan illustrates this point.
The French skillet has a slightly larger cooking area and the sides are not as flared as those of a fry pan. Another difference is frying pans have a tapered rim while some French skillets do not (i.e All-Clad and Cuisinart stainless steel French skillets).
It’s accurate to say that the shape of the French skillet is between a frying pan and a sauté pan.
What is the difference between a skillet and sauté pan?
The difference between a skillet and sauté pan is the shape of the pan. A skillet has short, slanted sides while a sauté pan has straight, L-shaped sides.
There are different shapes of sauté pans. The sides of some are tall with a narrow base, while others are low and have a wider base.
If both pans have the same top diameter, a sauté pan has more cooking surface area than a skillet because the sides are straight and do not flare outward at an angle.
Two Vollrath products illustrate this point. Their 12 inch Tribute® 3-Ply Fry Pan has a cooking area of 9 ¾ inches, while the 12 inch Tribute® Sauté Pan has a 12 inch cooking area (per Vollrath customer service).
Why is the shape of a pan important?
The shape of a pan affects the surface (cooking) area, volume, pan weight and the ease of tossing/flipping ingredients.
The straight sides of a sauté pan provide a greater usable surface area than a frying pan of equal top diameter. This allows the pan to hold more volume of liquid than a skillet with sloped sides.
When comparing the weight of both types of pans, it is important the top diameters be comparable. If this is the case, the sauté pan is usually heavier than the skillet.
The slanted sides of a skillet make it is easier to flip the contents than a sauté pan with its vertical sidewalls. Even though you can sauté in a straight-sided sauté pan, the sloped sides of a skillet make the task easier. However, it is easier to redistribute the ingredients in a sauté pan due to the right angles.
The data of two Vollrath pans in the table below demonstrates the differences in cooking area, depth, and weight of a frying pan and sauté pan. Vollrath uses the term “frying pan” instead of “skillet”.
Arcadia™ Fry Pan Natural Finish
Centurion® Saute Pan
6 3/4" *
Should I buy a skillet or sauté pan?
Whether you are just setting up a kitchen or adding to your culinary collection, there are certain pans you need in your kitchen. For some home cooks, one of the decisions is whether to buy a skillet, sauté pan or both.
Two factors to consider are the foods that you cook most often and personal preference in terms of pan weight and maneuverability.
There is very little that can be cooked in a skillet that can’t be prepared in a sauté pan. However, the skillet has the advantage due to its sloped sides when cooking foods that need to be flipped such as eggs, pancakes, and hamburgers.
Advantages of a skillet over a sauté pan
- Foods can be easily turned and flipped
- Skillets are lighter - makes lifting and shaking the pan easier
- Less fat needs to be used
- Skillets nest
Advantages of a sauté pan over a skillet
- Duplicates the purpose of other pans (saucepan, wok, Dutch oven)
- Larger cooking surface area (given same top diameter) – holds more food
- High, straight sidewalls –holds more volume
- Great for braising, poaching, slow simmering, and preparing sauces
- Sauté pans generally have lids
Many of the same cooking techniques can be performed in both a skillet and sauté pan. However, you might prefer one or the other for a particular method.
A skillet or a sauté pan can be used for high-temperature searing or browning meat. If both pans have the same top diameter, one advantage of using a sauté pan is that the straight sides allow for more usable cooking area.
On the other hand, some cooks believe a skillet (with the same cooking area as a sauté pan), is better for searing because moisture evaporates quicker in a pan with low sides. Regardless of the type of pan chosen, it is important not to overcrowd the pan.
The sauté pan is preferable when making a sauce, or cooking something with a sauce since the liquids are less likely to spill over the sides due to the tall, vertical sides and the sauté pan having a bit more depth.
Sauces can be reduced in both a skillet and sauté pan. The pan with the largest surface area will yield the fastest results. Additionally, the higher sides of a sauté pan prevent spillovers if you are stirring during a reduction. The same is true if cooking with liquids.
A sauté pan is better suited for braising than a skillet or frying pan. The vertical sides, wide diameter and depth provide enough space to braise properly.
A skillet and a sauté pan can both be used to sauté foods. Some cooks prefer to use a skillet because the slanted sides allow them to easily stir the contents or shake the pan.
Others think the higher, vertical sides are a benefit when shaking the pan. If you plan to add sauce to the meat or other sautéed food, then a sauté pan is preferable.
A skillet or sauté pan can be used for poaching as long as the pan can hold enough liquid to completely submerge the food being prepared.
When pan frying, the choice is in part dependent upon what dish is being prepared. If the ingredients need to be moved around and/or turned over, then a large skillet with low sides is preferable. It is more convenient and there is less of a concern about hitting your hand on the rim of the pan.
However, if you are frying something that needs liquid added, the high sides of the sauté pan would be better than the low, flared sides of a skillet.
What to look for when buying a skillet or sauté pan
Regardless of whether you decide to buy a skillet or a saute pan, pan material and construction are two important factors.
Bare stainless steel is more versatile than a pan with a nonstick coating system. It can be used to prepare foods and sear at a higher temperature and is the best material for “fond” (small bits of caramelized food that stick to the bottom of the pan which can be used to make a pan sauce).
Pans with triple-layer construction are preferable to those with just one layer. Generally, tri-ply stainless steel has an aluminum core between two layers of stainless steel.
This combination works well because although stainless steel retains heat well, it is a poor heat conductor, while aluminum is a great conductor of heat. The result is a pan that holds heat from the cooking surface to the rim and provides even heat distribution.
Disc bottom (disc clad) and fully clad are terms used to describe stainless steel cookware construction. A pan with a disc bottom has an aluminum alloy or in some cases a copper disc, between two layers of stainless steel.
Heat is spread around the base of the pan but not up the sides and sometimes not even to the edge of the sidewalls.
A cladded pan is one in which the non-handle part of the of the pan is made from one sheet of multi-layered metal. The result is that the base of the pan and the sidewalls have the same materials and thickness.
One factor to consider when deciding whether to buy a disc bottomed or a cladded skillet is to think about what dishes you frequently cook. If you only use a skillet for eggs or pancakes, then a disc bottomed pan is just fine.
However, if you use a skillet for a variety of foods, then a cladded pan is preferable since the heat is distributed to the sides of the pan.
The folks at Centurylife.org point out that if you cook on gas, a cladded sauté pan is recommended (unless the disc base is oversized) so the “ring of fire” effect can be avoided.
If you are using an induction cooktop, make sure the pan is induction compatible. Materials that work on induction cooktops are steel, magnetic stainless steel, and cast iron.
While it is nice to have both a sauté pan and a skillet, having one or the other will work fine for most home cooks. The choice depends upon which dishes you prepare most often and personal preference in terms of weight and how the pan handles.
A skillet is more practical if you cook a lot of foods that need to be turned and flipped and don’t want a heavy pan that is hard to maneuver.
However, if you prepare large amounts of vegetables and meat, frequently make sauces or cook foods in sauces and liquids then a sauté pan is probably the better option.
If you do not have any other pans and use a wide variety of cooking techniques, a sauté pan is more useful since it holds larger volumes of foods and keeps liquids and heat better than a skillet.
Many of the same cooking techniques can be performed with either a skillet or sauté pan. They can both be used to sear, sauté, pan fry, and stir fry. However, a sauté pan is better suited for slow simmering, braising, poaching and making sauces. The key is to choose the one that works best for the meals you cook most frequently.
What is fond?
When meat is seared or vegetables or meat is brown, small bits of food caramelize and stick to the bottom of the pan. This is known as fond. These bits can be used to make a sauce to spread over your food.
It is a simple process to create the sauce. After the food has been removed from the pan and the fat drained, add a liquid such as stock, water or wine. Once the liquid begins to boil, scrape and stir the brown bits until the liquid has been reduced by about half. Add seasonings and the sauce over your food.
Why is it important to not overcrowd the pan with meat?
Regardless of which pan you use, if you are pan-frying, searing or sautéing, it is important to not overcrowd the pan. As soon as the meat touches the surface of a hot pan, moisture is released. If the pan is jammed with meat and the temperature is not high enough, steam will be produced. The meat then cooks in its own steam or juice, resulting in a less than flavorful food and one that is not browned or seared.