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). This means that, given a skillet and a 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.
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 the liquid less likely to splash out as you move the pan around or transfer it into and out of the oven. It also allows the lid to fit more tightly, minimizing evaporation. This extra volume is a great boon when you're performing tasks like shallow-frying a pan full of meatballs in a half inch of oil, or braising a dozen chicken thighs in white wine.
Because of its wide base, a sauté pan is significantly heavier than the equivalent skillet, often necessitating the addition of a "helper handle" on the opposite side of the main handle to facilitate lifting and moving. While this weight is no problem when the pan is sitting still on the stovetop or in the oven, the lighter weight of a skillet makes it superior for shaking and stirring to promote even cooking of vegetables or pieces of chopped meat.
Ironically, a skillet is actually far superior at sautéing food than a sauté pan. To properly sauté, small to medium-sized pieces of food are cooked rapidly in hot fat, with constant agitation. The sloping sides of a skillet allow you to easily shake the pan, performing the jump-flip maneuver that cooks like to show off with. It's more than just ego-padding, though. It's the most efficient way to redistribute the food in the pan, ensuring even cooking for all pieces.
While it is possible to sauté in a straight-sided sauté pan, it's not easy, requiring constant stirring and turning with a wooden spoon or spatula.
The geometry of a pan can affect how easily moisture is driven off of food, and how rapidly a sauce will reduce. It's often claimed that the sloped sides of a skillet help moisture exuded by cooking meats evaporate more rapidly, allowing you to sear more efficiently. And this is true, but only given the same cooking area. In other words, a 12-inch skillet with a 10-inch cooking area will sear foods more efficiently than a 10-inch sauté pan. The corollary to this, of course, is that, given an equal amount of food that needs searing over super-high heat (some steaks, for example), the large surface area of a sauté pan does not offer any significant advantages over a skillet—you'll still have to cook in just as many batches.
Same goes for reducing sauces—sauces will reduce just as fast in a 12-inch sauté pan as in a 12-inch skillet.
So Which One Is It?
When it comes down to it, as far as high-temperature searing (as for steaks) goes, the pans are equally efficient. A skillet offers advantages for sautéing, and a sauté pan offers advantages for shallow-frying, moderate-temperature searing (as for chicken pieces), or braising. In an ideal world, you'd have both, but if I had to pick one, I'd go with the skillet, as sautéing is a step in nearly every recipe I make.
Whichever pan you choose, there are a few things to keep in mind while shopping.
- Look for triple-layer construction. Triple-layer products generally consist of a layer of aluminum clad between two layers of stainless steel. Aluminum transmits heat very rapidly, while stainless steel heats much more slowly and can maintain its temperature better when cold foods are added to it. Put these two characteristics together, and you've got a pan that heats evenly and maintains its heat for more even sautéing and searing.
- Avoid disk-bottomed pans. Disk-bottomed pans are stainless steel pans with an aluminum disk welded to the bottom. Conceptually, they work the same way as clad products, but the disks have a tendency to fall off. They also don't distribute heat to the sides of the pan.
- Look for riveted handles. Welded handles fall off with repeated use. Riveted handles should last a lifetime.
- If it's your first pan, don't buy nonstick. A nonstick pan is great for some uses—eggs, pancakes, super-delicate fish—but a stainless pan is far more versatile. You can heat it hotter, giving you a better sear. It's also superior for developing fond—the flavorful browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pan after searing that form the base of any number of pan sauces.
- And the number one rule: You get what you pay for. Those $24.99, 13-piece pan sets look like a great deal, until you try sweating onions in them and find half your onions burning while the other half are raw, or realize that the pans don't retain enough heat to sear more than half a steak at a time.
All-Clad remains the industry standard for high-quality cookware, though their products don't come cheap. If you're looking for something that costs significantly less, we have good news: A number of new producers are making excellent tri-ply skillets that perform nearly as well as the All-Clad, at roughly one-half to one-third of the price. (That said, it remains to be seen just how durable they are.) You can find our favorite inexpensive skillets right here. Regardless of what brand you choose, you'll never again have to wonder which pan to grab for your next cooking project.