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What Is the Difference Between a Skillet and a Sauté Pan?

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What pan do you choose when you want to fry, braise, sauté or sear? Most likely, a skillet or sauté pan. Although similar designs lead some to use these terms interchangeably, there is a difference between them. A query asked in cooking forums is: What is the difference between a skillet and a sauté pan. When should you use each, and do you need both or just one?

What is the difference between a skillet and a sauté pan?

The main difference between a skillet and a 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. Some sides 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).

In product descriptions, the size of the skillet is described in inches since they are measured by the diameter (wall top to wall top). Sauté pan size is typically described in terms of volume (quarts or liters).

Sauté pans are more expensive than frying pans of the same size.


Cuisinart MCP22-30HCN MultiClad Pro Skillet with Helper and Cover, 12-Inch

Sauté Pan

Cuisinart FCT33-28H French Classic Tri-Ply Stainless 5-1/2-Quart Saute Pan with Helper Handle and Cover

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, the top diameters must be comparable. If this is the case, the sauté pan is usually heavier than the skillet.

The slanted sides of a skillet make it 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 the cooking area, depth, and weight of a frying pan and sauté pan. Vollrath uses the term “frying pan” instead of “skillet.”

Size Comparison of Vollrath Fry Pan and Skillet



Arcadia™ Fry Pan Natural Finish

Centurion® Saute Pan

Top diameter


7 3/4"

Bottom diameter

5 3/4"

6 3/4" *


1 3/4"

3 1/4"


1.38 lbs

3.44 lbs

  • *Data provided by Vollrath customer service
  • Should I buy a skillet or sauté pan?

    Whether you are just setting up a kitchen or adding to your culinary collection, you need certain pans 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 you cook most often and preference regarding pan weight and maneuverability.

    Most foods cooked in a skillet can be prepared in a sauté pan. However, the skillet has the advantage of 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
    saute pan with risotto

    Cooking Techniques

    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 a 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.

    What is fond?

    When meat is seared, or vegetables or meat is brown, tiny 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 to your food.  


    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.

    Related Content: Best Saucepans for Induction Stovetops


    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 stir the contents or shake the pan easily.

    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, 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 submerge the food being prepared completely.

    Pan Frying

    When pan frying, the choice is in part dependent upon what dish is being prepared. If the ingredients need to be moved around and 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.

    Why is it important not to overcrowd the pan with meat?

    Regardless of which pan you use, if you are pan-frying, searing, or sautéing, it is important not to 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.

    saute pan with eggplant and chicken

    What to look for when buying a skillet or sauté pan

    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 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 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 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.

    When deciding whether to buy a disc-bottomed or a cladded skillet, one factor to consider is 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 various 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.    

    Induction Ready

    If you are using an induction cooktop, make sure the pan is induction compatible. Materials that work on induction cooktops are carbon steel, magnetic stainless steel, and cast iron.   

    Is there a difference between a skillet and 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. 

    Interestingly, the use and definition of each tend 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 more surface area than the frying 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 frying 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 a French skillet?

    Although the French skillet is similar to a frying pan and a sauté pan, they differ in design. A French skillet is sometimes described as a combination of a sauté pan and a frying pan.

    One difference between the French skillet, a frying pan, and a sauté pan is the shape of the sides. The sides of a French skillet flare outward, so there is a slight slope at the bottom. The slope of a French skillet is steeper than that of a frying pan. A sauté pan has straight sides, affording it the most depth and cooking area.

    Frying pans and sauté pans are available in a larger range of sizes than French skillets. The dimensions of a French skillet usually range from 8-12 inches. Frying pans are available in sizes from 8-17 inches. sauté pans can be found in various sizes from 1 quart to 7 quarts.

    Sauté pans usually have a “helper handle” opposite the main handle. This helps with lifting and maneuvering the pan. The larger frying pans sometimes have this handle. Although most French skillets have one handle, finding one with a “helper handle" is possible.

    Sauté pans usually come with a lid, while one is not usually included with a French skillet or frying pans.

    French skillets are usually made of stainless steel with an aluminum or copper core. However, there are some made with a hard-anodized nonstick coating. Some French skillets with nonstick coatings are induction ready, while others are not.

    Final Thoughts

    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 dishes you prepare most often and preferences regarding weight and how the pan handles are often deciding factors in which pan to use.

    A skillet is more practical if you cook many 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.

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