A stainless steel skillet and sauté pan sit side by side.

Skillet vs Saute Pan: What’s the Difference?

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Whenever I have the “skillet vs. sauté pan” conversation, I get a sense of Deja Vu. It instantly takes me back to the first time I heard the story of how Iceland and Greenland got their names.

If you aren’t familiar, I’ll fill you in. Iceland and Greenland are both cold, but of the two, Greenland is actually much colder. Pretty ironic, since it has “green” in its name. At least, it would be, if it weren’t intentionally named to mislead settlers into leaving Iceland and setting a course for largely uninhabitable Greenland.

Skillets and sauté pans are the Iceland and Greenland of the kitchen. They’re in the same region, but distinct enough that you shouldn’t use the terms interchangeably.

And just like Greenland is less green than Iceland, “sauté pan” is also a misleading name (albeit not on purpose….I’m pretty sure).

Read on, and I’ll shed some light on why….plus everything else you should know about skillets vs. sauté pans.

What is a Sauté Pan?

A sauté pan is a flat, shallow pan with a main handle, and sometimes a helper handle. It’s best identified by its straight sides, which give the pan a shape similar to a round cake pan.

Sauté pans come in all forms and sizes. Cookware companies make them with stainless steel, cast iron, aluminum, you name it. I’ve even seen an all-glass sauté pan (from a vintage Corningware set).

They work well for recipes that involve a combination of steaming/boiling and sautéing, so a lot of them come with fitted lids. I personally reach for my large sauté pan the most often when making anything on the stove.

Detail of a stainless steel sauté pan helper handle.

What is a Skillet Pan?

Like sauté pans, skillets are also shallow pans with flat cooking surfaces. They come in tons of different sizes and materials.

However, they usually don’t have helper handles like sauté pans.

And the differences don’t end there. Skillets have curved or sloped sidewalls. Picture a very, very shallow bowl.

They can also come with lids, although not quite as often as sauté pans.

Detail of a stainless steel skillet showing the curved edge.

Is a Sauté Pan the Same as a Skillet?

Sauté pans and skillets are really similar upon first glance, which is why a lot of people use the two terms like synonyms.

But you’d be surprised by what a difference the angle of a pan’s sides can make!

And aside from the angle of their sides, there are also a few other important variations you should be aware of. I’ve boiled them down into two categories: size, and pros and cons.

Skillet vs Sauté Pan Size

When you buy a 12-inch pan, the measurement refers to the distance from one side of the lip to the other.

But don’t think that a 12-inch skillet and 12-inch sauté pan will give you the same amount of workable space! Whether you’re browsing Amazon or grabbing a pan off your kitchen shelf, keep these size considerations in mind.

  • Surface area: With sauté pans, the measurements you see are what you get.

Since the sauté pan has straight sides, you don’t lose any flat surface area between the lip of the pan and the bottom.

Skillets are a bit trickier. They have sloped or curved sides, which means less flat surface area to work with than a saute pan of the same size. Typically, the sloped sides of a skillet take up about an inch of the diameter of the pan.

If you have a large amount of meat to cook and don’t want to work batches, a sauté pan gives you a little bit more room.

  • Volume: Once again, having straight sides gives sauté pans a leg up in this department.

The sloped sides of a skillet cut into the amount of food it can hold. If you’re cooking something with a lot of sauce or liquid, using a sauté pan can cut down on the splatters you’ll need to scrub off your stove and backsplash afterwards.

In my experience, most sauté pans on the market have taller sides than skillets, making them even more appealing for saucier cooking escapades. I don’t think this is a requirement for all sauté pans, but it’s worth a mention.

  • Weight: If sauté pans have more surface area and volume than skillets, then it just makes sense that they’d be heavier, too- and they are.

So much so that they’re not really a “one hand” kind of pan. Fortunately, most cookware companies give you a lifeline with helper handles, but you usually have to keep an oven mitt handy to use those.

If you like your pans lightweight, or to keep a hand free, a skillet is your best bet.

Side by side of a stainless steel sauté pan and skillet showing the differences in the pan shapes.

Skillet vs. Sauté Pan Pros and Cons

Maybe you cook for one or two, and size isn’t your end-all-be-all when you’re choosing a pan.

Fair enough! But you should still take the pros and cons of skillets and sauté pans into consideration. Picking what’s best for you will set you up for future success, no matter where you are in your culinary journey.

  • Versatility: Think about how often you sauté things. If you’re anything like me, practically every recipe, from breakfast through dinner, requires some type of sauté.

Since we’re basing versatility off of how frequently we sauté versus other things, you might be thinking a sauté pan is more versatile. Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but it’s not.

Think back to the “Iceland/Greenland” tidbit from the intro, particularly the stuff about the misleading name.  We’ve arrived at the big reveal: a skillet is actually better for sautéing than a sauté pan.

Given that bombshell, I’d have to say a skillet is more versatile.

  • Tossing Ability: Now, let’s touch on WHY a skillet is better for sautéing than a saute pan: its tossing ability.

It’s much easier to go all Emeril Lagasse and toss or flip food in a skillet. With the straight-walled sauté pan, food tends to just bounce off the sides.

Of course, if you haven’t quite ventured into flipping territory yet, this is probably of little concern to you now. But I always recommend buying cookware for the skills you want to have, not just the skills you currently have. You never know how much you’ll grow with a little practice!

  • Evaporation: To effectively sauté something, you can’t have too much excess moisture in the pan. Otherwise, your food will never get those nice, crispy edges.

And that’s the second strike against sauté pans for actual sautéing. Skillets promote evaporation quickly. It’s easier to get that perfectly-browned cook in a skillet.

There is a caveat to this, though. In order to outperform a sauté pan, the cooking surface of a skillet needs to be the same size. A skillet with a smaller cooking surface means your food is closer together, which is more of a detriment to evaporation. The food will expel moisture in the process of cooking, steaming everything around it before it browns.

Side by side detail of a stainless steel sauté pan and skillet showing the differences in the pan shapes.

When to Use a Skillet

A skillet is like the swiss army knife of cookware.

Go ahead, name a stovetop task. Unless you said “make soup for the month” or “boil spaghetti”, chances are, you can do it in a skillet (with great results to boot).

But much like a Swiss army knife is primarily a knife, a skillet has its specialties. They’re especially well-suited to stir-frying, cooking ground and chopped meats, or making things you have to flip over, like eggs and pancakes.

Basically, if you need to move it while you cook it, a skillet is the way to go.

A stainless steel skillet sits on a neutral granite countertop.

When to Use a Sauté Pan

Where skillets are “go-go-go”, sauté pans are “steady and slow”.

Sauté pans really shine with tasks that involve a hands-off, wait and see approach. We’re talking braising, shallow-frying, pan sauces, or cooking larger cuts of meat.

In all honesty, they’re pretty versatile, too. Just like skillets, there are very few tasks you wouldn’t be able to use a sauté pan for.

If you have a choice between the two, though, choose the right one for the task at hand. Better to be safe than starving.

A stainless steel sauté pan sits on a neutral granite countertop.

Can You Use a Sauté Pan As a Skillet?

If your recipe says to use a skillet, and you just realized you only have a sauté pan, don’t pack it in just yet. Even though both styles of pan have their special gifts, I’m about to clue you into something cookware companies don’t want you to know.

It actually doesn’t make much difference which one you use. So yes, you can use a sauté pan as a skillet.

I’ll add here that the distinction between the two is most helpful if you already own both, and just need to choose which to pan to use.

It’s also good to consider your cooking habits when you’re choosing which one to buy. But I still wouldn’t fret too much over it. Just because you only buy a skillet pan doesn’t mean braising and shallow frying is out of the question.

Skillet vs Frying Pan vs Sauté Pan

People use “skillet” and “frying pan” the same way a lot of people use “skillet” and “sauté pan”: as synonyms.

Don’t worry, though. I’m not about to throw a third variety of pan into the mix. All of the differences between skillets and sauté pans we talked about also apply to frying pans and sauté pans because – drumroll – skillet and frying pan mean the exact same thing!

If you need to take a second to savor the fact that this actually is as simple as it appears, go ahead. Because, same.

Sauté Pan vs. Wok

The differences between a saute pan and a wok are like the differences between a sauté pan and a skillet… on steroids.

First off, there’s the shape. Woks are tall and cone shaped, with deep sloping sides and a narrow base.

To the untrained eye, a skillet and a sauté pan look pretty similar. But even for the most novice-level home cook, it’d be hard to mix up a sauté pan and a wok.

Then there’s their intended purpose. Similar to skillets, woks are perfect for stir frying. They heat up quickly, and evaporate moisture well. Unlike a skillet, though, they have high sidewalls to keep splatter to a minimum.

However, if a recipe suggests using a wok and you only have a sauté pan, you can still use a sauté pan. You’ll just have to monitor your creation closely. It won’t hurt to stir from a distance, either. Getting splashed with hot oil droplets is no fun.

A carbon steel wok and skillet sit side by side.

What is the Difference Between a Sauteuse Pan and a Sauté Pan?

The sauteuse pan is another interesting stop on the cookware continuum. It’s not quite a pot, not quite a pan, almost a dutch oven… but not exactly.

They’re taller than sauté pans, and their sidewalls are sloped. Instead of the long handle common among most pans, sauteuse pans have two handles on either side.

Since they don’t have a long handle, sauteuse pans are best for stationary cooking methods. If you do a lot of braising or deep frying, invest in a sauteuse pan. If you make a lot of stews or recipes that involve same-pan stovetop to oven maneuvers, they’re also worth looking into.

My Favorite Skillet and Sauté Pan

So, now that you’ve got the full 411, you’re thinking about upgrading your cookware or completing your kitchen toolkit. Now comes the really important decision: which skillet or sauté pan should you buy?

I’ve got you on that, too! Here are my picks:

My favorite skillet: Heritage Steel Stainless Steel Fry Pan

This bad boy is lightweight, durable, and oven-safe to 800 degrees – and it comes with a Lifetime Warranty.

It heats up with unrivaled consistency, and is truly non-toxic. Flipping veggies in it is always the highlight of cooking dinner for me. I feel very professional and legit using this skillet.

Now that I have one of these in my kitchen, I finally understand what Marie Kondo meant by “Does it spark joy?”.  Yes Marie…yes it does. 

My favorite sauté pan: Le Creuset Signature Cassadou

Okay, okay, so this is kind of a pricey pick. And, I know – it’s more of a cross between a saute pan and a dutch oven.

But hear me out! If you’re shopping for a sauté pan, chances are you already have a skillet. So why not splurge and get a piece that can do double duty?

Aside from the fact that it’ll make you feel like Julia Child reincarnated, this iconic sauté pan is cast iron without the hassle. No seasoning or maintenance required here!

Its sturdy, light-colored ceramic coating makes it easy to monitor your dish’s progress and clean up afterward.

And French culinary trailblazer Le Creuset makes the lightest (and chicest) cast iron cookware on the market. So for a cast iron pan, it’s shockingly lightweight.

My Final Thoughts on Skillets vs. Sauté Pans

If you’re here panicking about making a mistake, don’t. I can confidently say you won’t make any dire errors by mixing up skillets and saute pans.

Nor will your whole evening of prepping vegetables and marinating meat go to waste because you only have one and not the other. However, I also can’t deny that there are advantages and drawbacks to each. Which one is best for you and your dish comes down to your personal preferences and the techniques you plan to use.

About Author

TiaGoodnight

Hey! I'm Tia, and I started this site to bring you the best information on all things kitchen so you can enjoy and elevate your everyday life.

I love trying new techniques and tools, living for the thrill of pulling off a new skill. On weekends you'll find me at the local farmer's markets or hosting friends and family for an evening of yard or card games and delicious food.

If you're looking for honest, real-world advice on all things kitchen and cooking, you're in the right place!

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