What's the Difference Between a Skillet and a Frying Pan?

You may have heard "skillet" and "frying pan" used interchangeably—but are they really describing the same thing?

By George Steckel
Sep 21, 2020
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When considering the difference between a skillet and frying pan, you'll notice a lot of similarities. Both have slightly sloped sides. Both can grill up a steak or scramble an egg on the stovetop equally well. Both come in a range of materials like carbon steel, stainless clad metals, and cast iron. Both pieces of cookware are also available with non-stick cooking surfaces. Neither frying pans nor skillets tend to come with lids. So, what's the difference?

Are Frying Pans and Skillets the Same?

There's no difference between Frying Pans and skillets.

Believe it or not, the only difference between a skillet and a Frying Pan is in the name. "Pan" is a general term used to refer to a variety of different cooking vessels. A frying pan (made distinct by the adjective "frying") is a shallow cooking vessel with sloped sides that can be used for frying food. 

A skillet features the same design and function because they are the same type of pan. Although the word "skillet" is most commonly used in reference to cast iron skillets, the same piece of cookware could also be called a cast iron frying pan. In other words, the two terms are interchangeable and refer to the same type of pan.

Frying pans or skillets have flat bottoms, flared sides, a shallow depth, and no lids. These features make them the perfect choice for shallow frying, flipping food, stirring, high-heat searing, or grilling meat at high temperatures.

So, Why Is There So Much Confusion in the Kitchen?

If frying pans and skillets are the same things, then what's with all the confusion between the terminology?

Most cookware-aficionados believe the confusion comes from the non-specific use of the generic words "pots and pans." In addition to frying pans, there are saucepans, sheet pans, cake pans, bundt pans, roasting pans, and more. In a professional chef's kitchen, the word "pan" on its own usually refers to a Saute Pan – not a frying pan.

This is where most of the confusion between frying pans, skillets, and different terminology for pots and pans stems from.

What's a Saute Pan and How Does it Differ?

Like skillets or frying pans, our 3.5 qt Saute Pan can be used to cook on the stovetop. Unlike a frying pan, a Sauté Pan is usually much deeper. The Saute Pan's straight, vertical sides are designed to hold a greater volume and prevent spills while limiting the cook's access with a spatula. 

They have a single, long handle, like fry pans, but also usually feature a smaller side handle to help the cook lift the added weight of more food. Saute Pans also usually come with a lid designed to hold in moisture. This makes them much more useful for slow cooking with sauces.

When Should You Use a Saute Pan and When Should You Use a Skillet?

Sure, you could flip a batch of pancakes in a Saute Pan and you could simmer a shallow sauce in a frying pan, but why would you when there's a pan that's meant for the job? Both pieces of cookware are quite versatile and capable of handling several cooking methods. Their key differences, however, will help you choose which one is right for your recipe.

The best way to tell whether a skillet or a Saute Pan is right for your recipe is to determine how much access you need to your food with a spatula while it cooks, the temperature, and the speed you plan to cook at, and how much liquid your recipe contains. Slow-cooking recipes that contain lots of liquid broths or sauces will benefit from the depth and large, flat cooking surface of a Saute Pan.

Recipes that you plan to grill up fast under high heat, meats that need to be seared, or foods that require constant flipping and stirring with a spatula are most conveniently prepared in a frying pan. The nicely sloped sides of a frying pan also make it possible to toss up a small portion of stir-fry. However, to achieve a perfect finish on this type of shallowly fried dish, a bowl-shaped Wok works best. 

At the end of the day and the beginning of your dinner recipe, your kitchen is your kitchen. You can cook whatever you want, however you want. Using the right pan for your recipe, however, will make smooth work of your delicious at-home dinner plans.