Should I Buy a Skillet or a Saute Pan (Or Both)?

Okay, it's time.

You're ready to up your kitchen game.

And you're in the market for a top quality pan that will stand up to hard kitchen use day in and day out for years on end--ideally, even decades.

Do you get a skillet or a sauté pan? 

Or do you need both to have a "complete" set of cookware?

The answer, as with most things, is "it depends." Read on to find out which pan best suits your cooking style.

What Is a Skillet? What Is a Sauté Pan? (The Differences)

Skillet Vs. Saute Pan


Skillet/Frying Pan



Saute Pan

First of all, skillet and frying pan are interchangeable terms. But a sauté pan is something different.

The main difference between a skillet/frying pan and a saute pan is the shape (no surprise there). You can use both pans for sauteeing, pan frying, high-heat searing, and other stovetop tasks. (Click here for a discussion about sauteeing and pan frying.) You can find both pans in all types of cookware material, including tri-ply, nonstick, glass/ceramic, aluminum, and cast iron.

Yet similar as sauté pans and skillets/frying pans are, the shapes are different enough that they are distinct pans, each with its pros and cons.

Skillet

A skillet, also known as a frying pan, has sloped sides, making it wider at the top than at the bottom. The amount of slope varies, from fairly straight (like the one in the photo above) to extremely angled, like this wok-ish Anolon Nouvelle nonstick skillet:

analon skillet

The sloped sides mean that there is less flat cooking surface than in frying pan than in a similar-sized sauté pan.

Skillets are typically sold without lids, although lids for them are often sold separately, and occasionally come with the pan. (You can also buy generic lids to fit pans of specific sizes, or universal lids.) 

Most skillets have one long handle and perhaps a helper handle on the opposite side if larger than 10 inches:

However, some skillet-type pans have two short handles; short-handled skillets are often deeper than long-handled skillets (making them usable as small roasting pans): 

Short-handled skillet

Technically, a shallow pan with two short handles is called a rondeau, brasier, or sauteuse pan, but it's essentially a short-handled frying pan that you can easily put in the oven. (Some people may disagree; there are a lot of different names and definitions for this pan, but we use the terms, for the most part, interchangeably.) 

The point is that if you do a lot of browning-then-roasting-in-the-oven, short-handled skillets can be useful. But they're not as common as the more traditional skillet/frying pan with a long handle.

Skillets are sold by the size of the rim diameter in either inches or centimeters:

The most popular size for all-around cooking tasks is 10-inch or 12-inch, but they come as small as 6-inch and as large as 17-inch. (Note: Most burners work best with pans that have a bottom diameter of 10 inches or less.) 

Depending on how sloped the sides of a skillet are, the cooking surface diameter can be close to the rim diameter in size or considerably smaller. For example, a 10-inch skillet can have a cooking surface as small as 6 inches or as large as 9 inches in diameter:

analon skillet

Small cooking surface (very sloped sides)

DemeyereIndustry5Skillet

Large cooking surface (slightly sloped sides)

This is neither good nor bad, as it depends on what you're trying to accomplish. If you're pan frying (meaning whole pieces of fish, chicken, burgers, etc.), a large cooking surface makes this an easier task. But if you're stir frying (meaning rapidly sauteeing small chunks of meat and vegetables), then long, sloped sides are useful for controlling heat (think "wok" here). 

If you do both types of cooking, you may want a few different skillets in various shapes and sizes. No pan is good at everything.

In fact, most serious cooks own a number of skillets in various sizes and styles: for example, a 6- or 8-inch skillet for small jobs, a nonstick for eggs and fish, and a 10- or 12-inch clad stainless for general cooking. As your interests and skills grow, you can add more specialized pans and styles to your collection, or upgrade to better quality. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of different pans in the skillet/frying pan category, from copper to nonstick to woks to crepe and omelet pans. (We discuss some options below in a little more detail.)

What's the best size for an all purpose skillet pan?

We recommend a 12-inch skillet for your regular, daily use pan. Remember, you can cook less food in a bigger skillet, but you can't cook more food in a smaller one. So unless you are only cooking for yourself, go with the 12 inch.

Sauté Pans

Sauté pans (pronounced "sautee" or "sautay") have vertical sides and are always sold with a lid, as shown in the photo above. Sauté pans are sold by volume/capacity, usually in quarts in the US. They can be deep, shallow, or somewhere in between. A 3-quart, shallow-sided saute pan (as seen in the photo above) is roughly equivalent in size to a 10-inch skillet, while a 5-quart, shallow-sided saute pan is roughly equivalent in size to a 12-inch skillet. 

However, it's a little bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison. Because the sides of a sauté pan are vertical, it's going to have more cooking surface than its skillet equivalent: this can be a lot more or just a little more, again depending on how angled the sides of a skillet are.

The reason saute pans come with a lid and frying pans do not is because saute pans, while excellent for sauteeing and pan frying just like skillets, are also designed for wet heat cooking methods: simmering sauces, poaching, shallow deep frying (such as for fried chicken), etc.

Yes: you can use a skillet for these tasks in a pinch, but a skillet's sloped sides make this less than ideal, as liquids are more prone to evaporating and just slopping out of the pan--and if that liquid is hot oil, yikes. Unless the sides of a skillet are very deep, as is the case with the Lodge cast iron skillet--which is excellent for frying chicken--using a lot of liquids can be downright dangerous.

Sauté pans, like skillets, can also have one long handle or two short handles. If a saute pan has two short handles, it often has a domed lid and is called a rondeau, brazier, or sauteuse pan (yep, just like short-handled skillets). It can be used as a saute pan but can also be used as a small roaster. Its larger cooking surface makes it better-suited to roasting tasks than the short-handled skillet:

ACCopperCoreSauteuseWDomedLid2_500px

Sauteuse pan.

Because sauté pans are usually heavier and bulkier than their skillet counterparts, they're more likely to have a helper handle opposite the long handle:

Skillet Vs Saute Pan

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When to Use a Skillet/Frying Pan

If you do a lot of shallow dry heat cooking--that is, using small amounts of oil to sauté, stir fry, or pan fry--a skillet/frying pan is an excellent choice. 

If you like to do the chef toss, a skillet is the only way to go. Here's Jamie Oliver teaching the chef toss:

(see this video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZiv2xX8hiQ.)

If you don't do the chef toss, opting instead for a utensil to move food around in the pan, a skillet is great for that, too. The shallow sides facilitate flipping food over more easily with a turner (as you would do for pan frying fish, chicken, or burgers, for example).

The sloped, shallow sides also facilitate rapid evaporation. This is great for high-heat searing and producing a nice crust, which is dependent on the water being driven out of the food quickly. 

Somewhat ironically, a skillet is the better choice for sauteeing because you can use the sloped sides as part of the cooking surface. This allows you to maneuver small pieces of food from the hot center to the cooler sides, giving you more control over the heat and cooking process than in a straight-sided sauté pan.

Use a skillet:

  • For high-heat searing
  • For general purpose sauteeing, pan frying, and stir frying
  • When you're using a "dry heat" method (small amount of liquid/oil) or very little liquid (like a pan sauce)
  • When you want to do the "chef toss" to move food around the pan
  • When you don't need a lid.

Summary: A skillet is the best choice for doing the chef toss and when you don't need a lid. It's also the best option for pan frying, stir frying, sauteeing, and high-heat searing.

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When to Use a Sauté Pan

If you do a fair amount of dry heat cooking--sauteeing, pan frying--but also want a pan that can double for wet heat cooking and shallow deep frying (e.g., poaching and frying chicken respectively), a sauté pan is the best choice.

A sauté pan is a good choice for pan frying whole pieces of meat like chicken, fish, or burgers because of the large cooking surface. However, the straight sides can make it trickier to slide a turner into the pan to flip the food over.

A sauté pan is not the best choice for stir frying, where you use high heat and continually move small pieces of food up the sides of a pan to control temperature. Stir frying is best done in a frying pan, chef's pan, or wok.

Use a saute pan:

  • For high-heat searing
  • For general purpose sauteeing, pan frying, and stir frying
  • For both dry and wet heat cooking (e.g., small amount of liquid/oil or large amount of liquid/oil)
  • If you prefer using a utensil to move and flip food (as opposed to the chef toss)
  • When you need a lid (for simmering, poaching, etc.).

You can see that there's a lot of overlap between the two pans. Both are designed for sauteeing, pan-frying, and high-heat searing, both can go in the oven if necessary, and both are designed to withstand the hardest use that cookware can get. The sauté pan is also great for wet heat cooking and comes with a lid--features a skillet doesn't have.

Summary: A sauté pan is great for dry-heat methods like sauteeing, searing, and pan-frying, but not so great for stir-frying because of the straight sides. You can also use it for wet-heat cooking like simmering, poaching, and deep frying without fear of liquid spilling over the sides of the pan.

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So Which Pan Should I Buy (If I Can Only Have One)?

At first glance, it may seem like the sauté pan is more versatile, as you can do both dry heat and wet heat cooking methods--and it comes with a lid. 

While this is true, most cooks nevertheless prefer using a skillet when possible and a sauté pan when necessary.

Why? Mostly because of maneuverability

The sloped sides of the skillet make it less bulky and easier to move around than comparably sized sauté pans.  

If you could only have one pan, you should probably go for the sauté pan for its versatility (and its lid). But if you're like most cooks, you'll probably prefer your skillet for everyday sauteeing and pan frying.  

Luckily, for most of us it's not an either/or. You can have one of each or even a few of each. You can have a 10-inch nonstick skillet for eggs, a large cast iron skillet for frying chicken and searing steaks, a 10- or 12-inch tri-ply stainless skillet for daily use, and perhaps a 10- or 12-inch Copper Core sauté pan for its superior evenness and responsiveness for special tasks. 

If you're adding to your collection and are trying to decide what to get, think about what you're missing: do you need a large pan to cook for guests? A tiny 8-inch skillet for small jobs because you're tired of washing bigger pans? A crépe pan? A wok for Asian dishes? A higher quality all-purpose, daily use skillet? A nonstick pan for eggs? A cast iron pan for searing steaks?

Also, shop what's on sale. Maybe you're not sure exactly what you want, you just know that you need a bigger pan or a smaller pan. If you find a good price on a pan that will fit your needs, don't worry about whether it's a skillet or a sauté pan (or even something else). Buying the best deal that will work for you is a smart way to shop.

To keep up with the best online sales and deals, like and follow The Rational Kitchen on Facebook

If you're relegated to one pan, the sauté pan is the more versatile of the two. However, most cooks prefer using a skillet for its lighter weight and maneuverability. Accomplished cooks usually own a few skillets (in different sizes and styles) and at least one medium or large sauté pan. 

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Other Options

There are as many types of pans available as you could possibly need to round out your collection. In fact, you don't even need to stick to skillet or sauté pan. You can find other, skillet-like pans that might serve you just as well, if not better. Here are a few options.

Chef's Pan

ACCopperCoreChefPanWLid2_500px

A chef's pan is so called because it is the favorite choice for many chefs for its versatility. It's large--usually 4 quarts or more--and has long sloped sides and a lid, so it's great for sauteeing, stir frying, sauce making, and simmering. 

Wok

Wok2_500px

A wok is a large, slope-sided pan with a very small flat bottom or even a completely rounded bottom (no flat cooking surface at all). It is specialized for stir-frying, which uses high heat to quickly brown and cook small pieces of meat and vegetables. The steep sides are used to move food away from the heat source while other food cooks. Woks are the original one-pan meal pan.

If you do a lot of stir frying, or want to start, a wok or chef's pan is an excellent tool, although you can achieve similar results using a large skillet. 

Woks are not good for pan frying (that is, sauteeing large pieces of fish, chicken, burgers, or other meat) because of their limited flat cooking surface and high-heat cooking design. They're also not good for tasks beyond stir-frying because of their shape and lack of lid (although some woks do come with lids).

This makes a wok a quite specialized pan, so you only need one if you like to make stir fries. The good news is that you can pick up a carbon steel wok (the most common material) for a very reasonable price. It's an inexpensive way to expand your cooking techniques.

Deep Sauté Pan

AllCladDeepSautePan2

The deep saute pan is perhaps the most versatile pan you can have in your kitchen. You can use it for everything, from deep frying to making soup. 

It looks like a sauce pan, and you can use it as one; a large one. But it is also wide enough to function as a frying pan or even as a small stock pot. 

It's great for making soups and stews because you can sauté the mirepoix and/or meat easily, then pour in the stock and other ingredients for stovetop simmering. 

The sides are a little too tall to easily flip pan-fried meat (chicken, pork chops, burgers, fish). But if everything else is dirty, it'll work in a pinch.

The All-Clad deep saute pan shown here is as versatile as the chef's pan discussed above. It may not be a pan you hear about often, but it's a favorite here at the Rational Kitchen. 

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Is Nonstick a Good Choice? 

Should I Buy a Skillet or a Sauté Pan (Or Both)?

The short answer? No: nonstick is not a good choice for an everyday skillet or sauté pan.

Nonstick coatings are fragile. They require that you use medium or low heat, and you have to baby them to help the nonstick coating last as long as possible (which is usually just 2-3 years, even with the best care imaginable).

And once the coating goes, PTFE (aka Teflon) pans aren't safe to use, while ceramic nonstick pans are just a pain to clean. 

So for daily use, you should have a tri-ply stainless pan (or two). They're durable, have excellent heating properties, and the good brands come with a lifetime warranty. For more on choosing pans, see The Best Cookware Set for Every Budget or our Guide to the Best Induction Cookware. (Note: you don't have to have an induction cooktop to read this article; it has a lot of great general purpose information.)

You should have one or two nonstick pans for eggs and fish, but use them just for delicate foods. The set of All-Clad cast aluminum nonstick pans pictured above offer excellent quality for a reasonable price.

(To read more about nonstick cookware, see our Cookware archives.)

And please, stick to nonstick for a skillet or sauté pan only. You don't need it in an entire set. Yes, it's cheaper than clad stainless cookware, but you'll have replaced it 5 times before your clad stainless set even starts showing any wear. So even though more expensive up front, the clad stainless is a much better buy. No contest.

Don't buy nonstick cookware for your everyday cookware. Just don't. Save it for eggs and other delicate foods, and get clad stainless cookware for daily use.

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Some Rational Kitchen Favorites

Top Quality Clad Stainless Skillet: Demeyere Atlantis Proline

Check it out on Amazon

DemeyereProlineSkilletCropped

If you're looking for top-of-the-line, look no further. The Demeyere Atlantis Proline Skillet is of exceptional quality and durability. It has welded handles, giving you a rivetless cooking surface, and has a special finish (called "Silvinox") which makes it easier to clean than other stainless cookware (although don't expect nonstick).

With its heavy construction, the Proline is practically indestructible. It is designed for use with induction, but unlike most induction cookware, which has a layer of magnetic steel on the pan's exterior, Demeyere protects the more corrosion-prone magnetic steel by sandwiching it between two layers of rust-free 18/10 steel. 

The Proline has a 3.7mm layer of aluminum, which is almost twice that of All-Clad's tri-ply, and even more than their MC2, which is all aluminum with a stainless cooking surface. This means the Proline has better heating properties and way better heat retention than All-Clad tri-ply (the standard by which all clad cookware is measured).

The pan also has a great shape: fairly steep sides that make for a large cooking surface, and a rolled rim for drip-free pouring. 

The Demeyere engineers thought of everything when they made this pan. It has only one drawback: it's heavy. So if weight is an issue, don't get this pan--or get the small one. 

Oh, and it's expensive. But in our opinion, worth every penny.

Features
  • 7-ply clad aluminum construction
  • 4.8mm thick, with 3.7mm of aluminum interior (almost twice that of All-Clad!)
  • "TriplInduc®" technology sandwiches magnetic steel between more durable 18/10 steel
  • Super heavy construction won't warp under any conditions
  • Welded handles for rivetless cooking surface
  • Rolled rim for drip-free pouring
  • Silvinox finish for long-term luster and easy cleaning
  • Induction compatible but excellent for use on all cooking surfaces
  • Made in Belgium.
Drawbacks
  • It's heavy, so get the 9.4-inch, not the 12.6-inch.
  • Expensive.

See the Demeyere Proline on Amazon now:

DemeyereProlineSkilletCropped_140px

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Excellent All-Around Clad Induction-Compatible Skillet: All-Clad D3

Check out the D3 (tri-ply) skillet on Amazon

ACD3Skillet2

All-Clad is considered the gold standard in clad cookware. It's high quality, has a nice, thick layer of heat-spreading aluminum, comes with a lifetime warranty, and is made in the USA. 

When people think of All-Clad, they generally think of D3, or tri-ply, the original clad stainless cookware with a layer of aluminum sandwiched between durable stainless steel. Tri-ply is great quality cookware, with a 1.7mm layer of aluminum and a total thickness of 2.6mm. That's less aluminum than the Proline (above), but it still provides top notch heating properties while being much lighter weight and easier to handle.

Features

  • 3-ply clad stainless with 1.7mm aluminum layer
  • Thick enough to have great heating properties, lightweight enough to be easy to handle
  • Rolled rim for drip-free pouring
  • Induction compatible
  • Dishwasher safe
  • Lifetime warranty
  • Made in USA.

Drawbacks

  • Expensive.

See the All-Clad D3 Tri-ply skillet on Amazon now:

ACD3Skillet3_140px
ACMC2Skillet

The lesser known star of the All-Clad lineup is the Master Chef 2 (MC2) skillet. This line has a thick aluminum exterior with a stainless cooking surface. It has the most aluminum of any All-Clad line (comparable to LTD2), and thus has the best heating properties; it is also the least expensive of all the All-Clad lines.

Some people dislike how the aluminum wears, as it's softer metal than stainless and scratches more easily; this does not affect the cookware's usability in the least but it does affect the appearance.

And being aluminum, the MC2 skillet is not induction compatible, and you can't put it in the dishwasher.  

Because of these drawbacks, MC2 is a less popular line of cookware than it deserves to be. So if you don't need induction compatibility, don't mind a patina that comes with regular use, and don't mind washing cookware by hand (which you should be doing with all your good quality cookware anyway), the MC2 is one of the best deals on the market for high-end cookware.

Features

  • 2-ply construction with stainless cooking surface bonded to aluminum base
  • With almost 3mm of aluminum, has the thickest aluminum layer of all All-Clad lines
  • Rolled rim for drip-free pouring
  • Lifetime warranty
  • Made in USA.

Drawbacks

  • Not induction compatible
  • Aluminum exterior scratches more easily than stainless (but this does not affect usability)
  • Not dishwasher safe.

SEE THE ALL-CLAD MC2 SKILLET ON AMAZON NOW:

ACMC2Skillet3_140px
analon skillet

The Analon Nouvelle Copper nonstick skillet is one of the best deals out there in nonstick skillets. It's made of hard anodized cast aluminum attached to a base with an aluminum-copper-aluminum construction encapsulated in induction compatible stainless steel. The base has an astonishing 4mm of aluminum and just over a half-centimeter (0.6mm) of copper in the center. Wow!

At an economical price point, the Analon Nouvelle offers astonishing performance. It's probably the best nonstick cookware on the market right now, at any price. It's nonstick, so it's not going to be an everyday pan (nor should it be), and it's not going to last a lifetime. But if you're in need of a nonstick pan for eggs or other sticky jobs, this is about the best choice you can make.

This pan's only drawback is its shape (and this may not be a drawback to you): it's got long sides and a fairly small cooking surface relative to its size. Other than that, this is a great, great pan.

Features:

  • Hard anodized aluminum construction
  • Encapsulated base of aluminum, copper, and stainless
  • 4mm of aluminum and 0.6mm of copper in base
  • Cast stainless handles
  • Limited lifetime warranty
  • Excellent price point
  • Made in Thailand.

Drawbacks:

  • Long sides give the pan a smaller cooking surface than other designs
  • Nonstick surface isn't good for everyday use.

SEE THE ANALON NOUVELLE SKILLET ON AMAZON NOW:

AnolonSkillet_140px

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Great Shallow Sauté Pan: All-Clad D3 (Induction) or All-Clad MC2 (Non-induction)

See the All-Clad D3 sauté pan on Amazon

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ACMC2SautePan2_600px

The All-Clad D3/MC2 saute pan has everything you're looking for in a saute pan: it's heavy-duty but lightweight enough to handle easily, it's gorgeous, and it comes with a lifetime warranty. 

People are most familiar with All-Clad's tri-ply (D3) line, but if you don't need induction compatibility, buying the MC2 saute pan will provide even better performance for less money. 

Features--D3 (Tri-ply):

  • 3-ply clad stainless with 1.7mm aluminum layer
  • Thick enough to have great heating properties, lightweight enough to be easy to handle
  • Rolled rim for drip-free pouring
  • Induction compatible
  • Dishwasher safe
  • Lifetime warranty
  • Made in USA.

Features--MC2:

  • 2-ply construction with stainless cooking surface bonded to aluminum base
  • With almost 3mm of aluminum, has the thickest aluminum layer of all All-Clad lines
  • Rolled rim for drip-free pouring
  • Lifetime warranty
  • Made in USA.

Drawbacks--D3 (tri-ply):

  • Expensive.

Drawbacks--MC2:

  • Not induction compatible
  • Aluminum exterior scratches more easily than stainless (but this does not affect usability)
  • Not dishwasher safe.

SEE THE ALL-CLAD D3 SAUTE PAN ON AMAZON NOW:

ACD3SautePan3_140px

SEE THE ALL-CLAD MC2 SAUTE PAN ON AMAZON NOW:

ACMC2SautePan3_140px
AllCladDeepSautePan2

Already discussed above, this may not be a pan you'd think to get, but it is extremely versatile and can be an asset to any cook, any kitchen, anywhere. If you need a frying pan, a sauce pan, a saucier, a chef's pan, a (smallish) stock pot, a deep frying pan, or a Dutch oven, this pan can do it all. 

At 6 quarts, this deep sauté is small enough to use for frying and sauteeing, but large enough to function as a small stock pot or even a Dutch oven. The helper handle makes it easy to handle, although it's still small enough to not really need one unless full of liquid. 

We love, love, love this pan. We can't say enough good things about it. It's one of our go-to pans for so many uses. 

Of course, this is just a preference thing. If you want a large do-it-all pan but don't like the straight sides, then get a chef's pan. You can't really go wrong whichever one you choose.

SEE THE ALL-CLAD D3 DEEP SAUTE PAN ON AMAZON NOW:

AllCladDeepSautePan3_140px

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Final Thoughts/Recommendation

Both skillets and sauté pans are used for nearly identical tasks: sauteeing, pan frying, stir frying, etc. With its straight sides and lid, a sauté pan is more versatile because you can use it with higher volumes of liquids, for simmering, poaching, etc. However, the skillet offers a superior frying experience because it's easier to maneuver food around the pan, flip it with a turner, and do the "chef toss."

In the end, it's a matter of preference. Maybe you prefer the sauté pan for its versatility, or the skillet for its maneuverability. Maybe you want one of each--or maybe you want to branch out and get a chef's pan or a deep sauté pan instead of a second (or third) skillet.

There is no wrong answer. All are great pans, and all will serve you well.

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Skillet or Saute Pan?
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