Differentiating between a frying pan and a skillet can be quite confusing.
Some people use the terms interchangeably while others believe the two are actually different. Whether you’re a veteran or new to cooking, you probably encounter both types of cookware in your kitchen.
Knowing which one is best for braising, frying, or sautéing is important to prepare good-tasting food. There’s a reason why a juicy sauce-dripping steak is best cooked in a cast-iron skillet.
However, when cooking, many people confuse skillets, frying pans, and sauté pans. But, are all these the same or are there visible differences?
Let’s find out!
Skillet Vs. Frying Pan – Are They Different?
Many people contend that skillets and frying pans are different. But, in reality, they have many similarities that pretty much make them the same.
The only real difference between the two is that skillets are slightly deeper than frying pans. Since skillets are mostly used for braising thick sauces and curries, they come with a lid. They are available in different materials, but the most common is cast-iron.
A frying pan, on the other hand, is flat bottomed and is particularly used for frying, browning, and searing food. It doesn’t have a lid, so it’s preferred for high-heat grilling along with deep and shallow frying. Frying pans are mostly available in stainless steel, aluminum, or a combination of these metals.
It’s tough to find a solid definition of a skillet and a frying pan. The only real comparison that can be made is between a French skillet and a frying pan. The former is more spacious and has higher sides.
In a nutshell, there aren’t any significant differences between the two. Both a skillet and a frying pan can be used interchangeably for grilling, braising, frying, stewing, and roasting. At the end of the day, you can pretty much cook the same with both. So if you’re wondering “can I use a frying pan instead of a skillet?” then the answer is yes.
You should correctly refer to each cookware by its rightful term. For example, you are more likely to call a non-stick cookware a frying pan, instead of a skillet. Similarly, “a cast-iron frying pan” is an unusual term because it’s commonly referred to as a cast-iron skillet. Other than this, there are no such differences between a skillet and a frying pan.
Now that we have sorted this out, let’s move on to why and where the confusion really lies.
So, Where Does the Confusion Arise?
We know that skillets and frying pans are the same.
To the untrained eye, every pan will look the same. Only a professional chef will know exactly which pan or skillet to pick up for the next meal.
However, even when skillets and frying pans are the same, there is still much uncertainty that needs to be resolved.
The third type of cookware – a sauté pan— is where the confusion stems from.
What is a Sauté Pan?
A sauté pan is visibly different from a shallow frying pan.
Although similar to a skillet, it can be easily identified across the cookware spectrum. A sauté pan comes with a lid, has straight sides, and is taller than a skillet.
How Is It Different from a Skillet?
‘Sauté’ generally comes from the French word “to jump”, which is why a sauté pan has a flat bottom with vertical sides. A skillet is also the same size, however, its sides are flared at on outward angle.
A sauté pan can hold more liquid as compared to a skillet, which also makes it ideal for sauces over tender cuts of meat.
Defining the Characteristics of a Skillet
The main defining trait of a skillet is that it has slanted sides. While the surface area may be a little smaller than a sauté pan, a skillet is far more versatile and can be used for multiple purposes.
Apart from being conveniently available, you can cook just about any food in them.
Whether you are cooking meat, making an egg or stir-frying, skillets can offer a wonderful surface for delicious cooking. Skillets hold up amazing heat and are also ideal for grilling steaks and sauces. If you want to cook frittatas, you should choose a skillet to easily slip the patty off the pan.
Skillets are available in many different materials, and here’s a breakdown of the most commonly used ones.
The most popular type of skillet is cast-iron, which is incredibly robust and long-lasting cookware. With the right care and maintenance, cast-iron easily qualifies for a one-time investment.
Although you will have to season them frequently to avoid food from sticking, they’re super easy to use and clean. Cast-iron skillets have longer handles and may require the most maintenance, though.
Aluminum with a Ceramic or Non-Stick Coating
Next up is an aluminum frying pan that is best suited for low-heat, quick foods like bacon and eggs. They don’t sit too well with extreme heat as the coating can develop hot spots.
Non-stick cookware can last you a lifetime, provided that you take care of it. A quick tip here is to never throw them in a dishwasher as the harsh environment can deteriorate its coating.
All in all, aluminum frying pans are easy-to-find and budget-friendly.
Lastly, we have stainless steel frying pans that are an absolute favorite amongst chefs. If you take your cooking seriously, you ought to invest in a stainless steel pan.
It is durable, can tolerate extreme temperatures, and is quick and easy to clean. There are different grades of stainless steel, so make sure you invest in only the highest quality.
Now that we know the basic traits of a sauté pan and a skillet, let’s move on to the more important differences between them that can influence your cooking.
Weight of the Cookware
Sauté pans have a wider base and diameter, which makes them heavier than normal skillets. This is why they are also equipped with a “helper handle” along with the main handle that helps in moving and lifting the pan across the stove.
Skillets are lighter and have just one long handle. They are safe and easy to move on the stove. Weight isn’t really a problem as long as the pans simply sit on the stove.
However, when you need to stir or shake the sauces, a skillet will always be more helpful.
If you want your meat and veggies to cook evenly, a skillet will be a better option. However, if you want tender meat dishes that retain all their sauces and flavors, then a deep sauté pan is a perfect choice.
The capacity of the Cookware
The vertical sides of a sauté pan allow you to fill up more liquids. Hence, when you’re cooking curries, soups, stews, and thick sauces, a sauté pan is best-suited. With straight, tall sides, you are less likely to spill or splash the juices, which may be a problem with skillets.
Its flat bottom and thin angled-out walls can cause spills when cooking a sauce over a skillet. The extra volume of a sauté pan also comes in handy when you’re shallow-frying.
Although a skillet is just as good, the added capacity will ensure that your meat cooks evenly despite using just a few tablespoons of oil.
However, skillets have their own advantages. Cooking pancakes, eggs, dry stir-fry, and frittatas is best done over a frying pan. It tends to hold up less oil and the even distribution of heat will produce amazing food.
Surface Area of the Cookware
The diameter of the lip of the pan essentially determines its surface area. A sauté pan that has a 12-inch diameter will naturally also have a wider cooking surface.
Skillets are an inch smaller in width than sauté pans. This just means that skillets have a 20-30% less cooking area.
Hence, if you’re planning to braise chicken thighs in some wine, a sauté pan might be the best option. Skillets are fine when you’re cooking fewer things at one time. Instead of cooking your meat in batches, simply use a sauté pan to get it done in one go.
The irony of the matter is that a skillet is far better for sautéing and tossing food around than a sauté pan itself. The sloping, wider walls of a skillet allow the food to swerve around without falling out.
A sauté pan doesn’t allow that as its walls are vertical and straight.
Whether you want to flaunt a “chef-style” move or simply mix your food around, skillets have a greater tossing ability.
A sauté pan is more suited for foods that require occasional and gentle stirring like a Béchamel sauce or a chicken and noodles soup. When you are stirring, make sure to use a wooden spatula so that you don’t scratch the surface of the pan.
Rate of Evaporation
The secret to great cooking is controlling the moisture in your food. The structure of a pan can directly influence how much moisture your food retains. A skillet provides a wider and flatter cooking surface that helps to cook down sauces.
A sauté pan may have a large surface area, but if you want to evaporate the moisture, it is not a good choice. However, for saucy dishes where you want the food to be juicy and tender, a sauté pan is what you need.
Knowing the difference between your cookware can help you chef-grade food in no time. Now that you’ve learned these insightful differences between a frying pan, a skillet, and a sauté pan, share these with your friends and family!
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