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

This article, Should I Buy a Skillet or a Saute Pan (Or Both)?, was last updated June 2018.

You've paid your culinary dues. You're tired of nonstick wearing out and burning food in poorly heating pans. You're ready to up your kitchen game, and you're in the market for a top quality pan that's a joy to use and that will stand up to hard kitchen use day in and day out for years on end--even decades.

Do you get a skillet or a saute 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.

Skillet Vs. Saute Pan: What's the Difference?

The main difference between these two pans is the shape (no surprise there). Both pans can be used for sauteeing, pan frying, high-heat searing, and other stovetop tasks. You can find both pans in all types of cookware material, including tri-ply, nonstick, glass/ceramic, aluminum, and cast iron. Yet similar as they are, the shapes are different enough that they are distinct pans, each with its pros and cons.

SkilletWCallouts2_400px

Skillet

SautePanWCallouts2_400px



Saute Pan

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

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

Short-handled skillet

If you do a lot of browning-then-roasting-in-the-oven, short-handled skillets can be very useful. But they're not as common as the type with one 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 of 12-inch or less diameters.) 

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 large as 9 inches in diameter or as small as 6 inches in diameter.

analon skillet

Small cooking surface (sloped sides)

DemeyereIndustry5Skillet

Large cooking surface (straight sides)

This can be good or bad, depending on what you're trying to accomplish. If you're pan frying (meaning whole pieces of fish, chicken, burgers, etc.), a large cooking surface is essential. But if you're stir frying (meaning rapidly sauteeing small chunks of meat and vegetables), then long, sloped sides are useful (think "wok" here). 

If you do both types of cooking, you may want a couple of different skillets, or a skillet and a saute pan.

Most people own a few 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, from copper to nonstick to woks to crepe and omelet pans. (We discuss a few non-skillet, non-saute pan options below in a little more detail.)

Saute Pans

Saute pans have vertical sides and are sold with a lid, as shown in the photo above. Saute 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 (like 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 saute pan are vertical, they're going to have more cooking surface than their skillet equivalents: 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 skillets 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 the sloped sides make it less than ideal, as liquids are more prone to slopping out of the pan--and if that liquid is hot oil, yikes. Unless the sloped sides of the 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.

Saute pans can also have one long handle or two short handles. Because saute pans are usually heavier and bulkier than their skillet counterparts, they're more likely to have a helper handle opposite the long handle. If a saute pan has two short handles, it often has a domed lid and is called a sauteuse. It can be used as a saute pan but can also be used as a small roaster. Its larger surface area makes it better-suited to roasting tasks than the short-handled skillet.

ACCopperCoreSauteuseWDomedLid2_500px

Sauteuse pan.

back to top

When to Use a Skillet

If you do a lot of shallow dry heat cooking--that is, using small amounts of oil to saute, stir fry, or pan fry--a skillet 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.)

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

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 that allows you to maneuver small pieces of food from the hot center to the cooler sides. 

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 also works for pan frying, stir frying, sauteeing, and high-heat searing.

back to top

When to Use a Saute 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/or shallow deep frying (e.g., poaching and frying chicken respectively), a saute pan is the best choice.

A saute 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 saute 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 skillet, 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 saute pan is also great for wet heat cooking and comes with a lid--features a skillet doesn't have.

Summary: A saute 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 and poaching without fear of liquid spilling over the sides of the pan.

back to top

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

At first glance, it may seem like the saute 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 saute pan when necessary. 

Why? Mostly because of maneuverability. 

The sloped sides of the skillet make it easier to manipulate than comparably sized saute pans, which have more surface area, adding both weight and bulk. 

If you could only have one pan, you should probably go for the saute pan for its versatility (and its lid). But if you're like most cooks, you'll probably prefer a 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, a 10- or 12-inch tri-ply stainless skillet or saute pan for daily use, and perhaps a 10- or 12-inch Copper Core saute pan for its superior evenness and responsiveness. 

If you're adding to your collection and are trying to decide what to get, think about what's missing: do you need a large pan to cook for guests? A 6-inch skillet for frying up tiny batches because you're tired of washing bigger pans unnecessarily? A crepe pan? A wok? A better all-purpose daily use skillet? 

Also, within the bounds of what you need, 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 saute pan (or maybe 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 saute 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 saute pan. 

back to top

Other Options

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

Chef's Pan

ACCopperCoreChefPanWLid2_500px

A chef's pan is so called because it is the favorite choice for many chefs. It has long sloped sides and a lid, so it's great for sauteeing, stir frying, sauce making, and simmering. Its large size adds to its versatility.

The only task it isn't well suited for is pan frying, because of its smallish cooking surface. But for most other stovetop tasks, it's hard to beat a chef's pan. 

Wok

Wok2_500px

A wok is a large, steep-sided pan with a small flat bottom or even a completely rounded bottom (no flat cooking surface at all). It is designed 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. 

If you do a lot of stir frying, 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 cooking surface and high-heat cooking design. They're also not good for tasks beyond stir-frying because of their shape, lack of lid, and carbon steel construction (carbon steel has poor heating properties compared to clad stainless cookware). 

Deep Saute 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 it's small enough to saute the mirepoix and/or meat easily, yet large enough to 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 deep saute pan isn't a pan you hear about often, but it's a favorite here at the Rational Kitchen.

back to top

Is Nonstick a Good Choice? 

AllCladRimlessFrenchSkillet2

No: nonstick is not a good choice for an everyday skillet or saute 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 (usually just a year or two depending on use and care).

And once the coating goes, teflon pans aren't safe to use, and ceramic 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 usually 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, and use them just for delicate foods. The set of All-Clad cast aluminum nonstick pans pictured here offer excellent quality for a reasonable price.

(To read more about nonstick cookware, see our article The Best Titanium Cookware (The Nonstick Version).

And please, stick to nonstick for a skillet only. You don't need it in a saute pan, and you certainly don't need it in an entire set. Yes, it's much 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.

back to top

Some Rational Kitchen Favorites

Top Quality Clad 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

back to top

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 very 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. It's less than the Proline (above), but it still provides excellent heating properties while being much less bulky 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 unrecognized star of the All-Clad lineup is the Master Chef 2 (MC2) skillet. This line is all aluminum with a stainless cooking surface. As such, it has the most aluminum of any All-Clad line, 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 far 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 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

back to top

Great All-Purpose Nonstick Skillet: Analon Nouvelle Copper

Check out the Analon Nouvelle Copper nonstick skillet on Amazon

analon skillet

The Analon Nouvelle Copper nonstick skillet is one of the best deals out there in nonstick skillets. It's made of hard 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 this price point, the Analon Nouvelle offers amazing performance. It's probably the best nonstick cookware on the market right now. It's nonstick, so it's not going to be an everyday pan (or shouldn't be), and it's not going to last a lifetime. But if you're in need of a nonstick pan for eggs or whatever, this is a great choice.

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

back to top

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

See the All-Clad D3 saute pan on Amazon

ACD3SautePan2_500px
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's 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 saute 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. 

Rational Kitchen loves, loves, loves this pan. We can't say enough good things about it. It's one of our go-to pans for many kitchen 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

back to top

Final Thoughts/Recommendation

Both skillets and saute pans are used for nearly identical tasks: sauteeing, pan frying, stir frying, etc. With its straight sides and lid, a saute pan is more versatile because you can use it with higher volumes of liquids, for simmering, poaching, etc. Hoqwcwe 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 largely a matter of preference. Maybe you prefer the saute 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 saute pan instead of a second (or third) skillet.

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

back to top

If you liked this article, please share it!

Leave a Reply 0 comments

Like This? Never Miss a Post!

Get the best deals and kitchen info delivered right to your inbox! I will never share your email and no spam ever!
Thanks! :)