Equipment: What’s the Difference Between a Skillet and a Sauté Pan?

Half the challenge of creating the perfecting dish can be achieved by using the correct pan for the correct task.  Knowing what to use will help make your cooking a lot easier.

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The difference between a sauté pan and a skillet is a subtle but important one, and it all comes down to shape. A sauté pan, from the French verb meaning “to jump” (sauter) has a wide flat bottom, and relatively tall, vertical sides. A skillet, on the other hand, has sides that flare outward at an angle. But the real question is, when should you use each one, and do you really need both?

The difference in shape affects five main factors: surface area, volume, weight, tossing ability, and evaporation.


Pans are measured according to the diameter of the lip, not the diameter of the cooking surface. Most home burners can only comfortably fit a pan of around 12-inches in diameter. Because of its straight sides, a 12-inch sauté pan will also have a large, 12-inch wide cooking surface (about 113 square inches). A skillet, on the other hand, loses at least an inch on each side, making the effective cooking area only 10-inches wide (about 79 square inches). That means that given a skillet and sauté pan of equal diameter, the skillet will have 30% less cooking area than the sauté pan.That’s not an insignificant amount.

I can quite comfortably fit 12 pieces of chicken in a 12-inch sauté pan—a task that takes two batches with a skillet.

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Again, the straight sides of a sauté pan allow you to fit a higher volume of liquid into the same amount of oven space. Straight sides also make it less likely to splash out as you move the pan around or transfer it in and out of the oven. It also allows the lid to fit more tightly, minimizing evaporation. This extra volume is a great boon when performing tasks like shallow-frying a pan full of meatballs in a 1/2 inch of oil or braising a dozen chicken thighs in white wine.


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