If you’re looking into adding a piece of cookware to your collection or even just debating which pan to use to cook something, the question of skillet/frying pan vs sauté pan is a common one. It’s understandable: these two pans are very similar in design, and many home cooks use them interchangeably.
Today we’re taking a look at the differences between these two kitchen workhorses and talking about what the key purposes are of each. We’ll discuss when to use each (and for what kind of cooking) so you can get a better idea of which one might be best for you.
Wait, is it a skillet or frying pan?
While the terms ‘skillet’ and ‘frying pan’ seem to be two terms for the same thing, definitions do vary and some cookware enthusiasts will tell you the two are different things.
However, it’s tough to find a solid, agreed-upon definition of the two. The clearest answer I’ve seen repeated is a comparison of a frying pan and a French skillet. The latter has more surface space and higher sides than a frying pan. The French skillet is essentially in between a frying pan and a sauté pan. Any of these will have sloped sides that make pouring out liquids and things easy.
To add just a bit of confusion, cast iron pans are usually called skillets, but they don’t typically have that sloped side shape. They more closely resemble a sauté pan in shape but don’t have lids.
Bottom line here? You can safely use these terms interchangeably, but a *French* skillet and a *cast iron* skillet will be a bit different.
So, then what’s a sauté pan?
It’s much less confusing to understand a sauté pan across the board. A sauté pan is similar in shape to a skillet, but it has tall, straight sides and a lid. It will hold more liquid than a skillet, so it works great for creating delicious sauces or braising tender cuts of meat.
Overview of differences
Before we get more in-depth into the functional and design differences, let’s take a quick look at the key differences between these two cookware types.
- The sloped sides of a skillet make flipping, turning, and pouring more effective.
- The high sides of a sauté pan allow for more liquid to be contained.
- Sauté pans come with a lid/cover, a must-have for braising.
- Sauté pans may not sear as well as skillets because of the straight sides.
- You’ll get more surface area with a sauté pan compared to the same size fry pan.
What to cook with each
While most cooks ultimately find their own preferences for pan usage, there are still some things that are generally suited better to one over the other.
Sauté pans are great for sautéing meat and veggies, for developing pan sauces after searing cuts of meat, and for braising or frying.
Sautéing technically requires cooks to “jump” the food — that is, hold the handle and toss the food in the pan. However, it can be difficult to do in many high-quality sauté pans. Those pans tend to be on the heavy side (especially if you’re using a large size), so frying pans are actually a bit better for sautéing in that sense.
Frying pans are incredibly versatile, and can be used for just about anything a sauté pan can — with the exception of holding more liquids. If you can find a lid that fits your frying pan, you can braise as well, but many frying pans don’t have dedicated lids that will fit securely.
In some ways, comparing sauté pans and frying pans is like splitting hairs. Many home cooks get by just fine with one or the other. And, plenty of cooks tend to favor one over the other based on their usual cooking styles and which feels best. Cookware sets often come with a both, so that’s one way to get the best of both worlds.
If you’re trying to determine which one to buy (if you’re just looking for one), it’s worth it to head to a store and get a feel for both options before committing. If not, hopefully this guide has given you an idea of which one might work best!
Personally I prefer my stainless frying pan, but I’ve been using my sauté pan more often recently and have found it to be super useful for a variety of new-to-me recipes, like those chicken thighs I linked above. I’m glad to have both now, but I definitely can see how having just one would work out just fine. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!