What’s the Difference Between a Skillet and a Frying Pan: Mystery Solved

Reading recipes isn’t so difficult once you know how to measure in the kitchen. Still, once in a while, you are going to come across an unfamiliar term, or one you’re simply not sure about. Some of those are just throwbacks to when the recipes were invented. Typically you can find the modern equivalent in a few seconds on google. However, there are sneakier terms that people often think they know, like frying pan or skillet—having the right cooking dish matters. I’ll help you sort out your pans so you can make that meal right every time.

What’s the difference between a skillet and a frying pan? The difference between a frying pan and a skillet is nonexistent. They are the same thing. However, a saute or a frying pan has a lid and is used for cooking or sauteing food, while the skillet browns or fries. Although you can use either in a pinch, good cooks know that the right tool makes a big difference.

Skillet Differences

Your typical saute pan comes with a lid where a frying pan, known as a skillet, does not. Due to the lack of cooking knowledge in the general public, and generic cookware companies, you may find that both or neither has a lid in your cook set. Fortunately, there are other differences.

Your skillet should be about two inches deep. The sides are slanted or curved. Additionally, a skillet is often made with thicker material, especially on the bottom. Think of a cast iron pan when you think of this style.

The reason for these features is very sensible. Your skillet makes sauces and browns things quickly. Plus, it’s great for shallow frying. Hence the name. For example, you can and should use this lidded pan to put a half-inch or inch of oil and make dishes like homemade french fries and tortilla chips without a fryer.

Best Skillet

The two most essential skillets for any kitchen, in my opinion, are cast iron and nonstick. With two large, high-quality pans, you can make almost any dish. More is better for making elaborate meals, but you’ll get by just fine with these two fantastic frying pans.

When I went looking for an excellent cast iron pan, I checked a thousand different cookware brands. However, the AmazonBasics Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet was my favorite. It has the perfect balance of simplicity and durability, which is what a cook needs. Check the reviews right here. 

To balance out your cookwares, a cast-iron skillet is vital, but you also need a lighter option. The former can go into your oven if you need to brown something and then bake it. However, a nonstick frying pan is the other half of that cooking equation.

A superb nonstick pan works differently from a rougher, seasoned cast iron pan. I prefer to avoid Teflon. Hence I recommend the Ozeri ZP6-30 12″ Stone Earth Frying Pan from Amazon. This solid stone derived pan is a staple for making meals. You’ll be pleased with the quality. To learn more about Ozeri, click here. 

Does Size Matter

When cooking, size always matters. Cooking reasonably quickly is a skillet’s job. Skillets come in a variety of diameters for making different foods. Keep in mind that you should never overfill your cookware, so opt for larger than you think you need when you’re in doubt.

A small pan would be for making a couple of fried eggs, for example. Don’t let the term ‘fry’ confuse you. The pan differences are not necessarily related to the name. Larger skillets make tasty sauces and great stir fry pans. You don’t need a wok to make a passable Asian inspired meal.

Saute Frying Pan Differences

Now that you know the difference between a skillet and a frying pan is more than a name, things get tricky. Your frying pan does many jobs. Expect a saute pan to have flat sides and a flat bottom, typically with a lid to avoid splashing and heat food up differently.

Frying pans are designed to brown food, or fry it. If you like sauteed onions, burger patties, or breakfast potatoes, this is the dish you’re looking for. Most of the time, frying pans are nonstick, and they tend to be thinner, more heat conductive material than saute pans.

Part of the confusion comes in because a skillet is also called a frying or fry pan. The name isn’t as important as the function. Your saute pan cooks things for more extended and handles more food at once. So, a frying pan or skillet is usually meant for high heat and shorter times, where your saute pan would be a lower temperature slower cooker.

Picking the right saute pan in a sea of digital sellers can feel so overwhelming. However, it doesn’t need to be stressful. Choose a quality brand pan like the Calphalon Classic Nonstick Saute Pan I got from Amazon. The matching lid gives a perfect fit to keep all the juices simmering away with the food, giving you a better flavor than leaky mismatched lids. Get yours from Amazon by clicking here

Do Materials Matter

Doubtless, you’ve seen pans of all sizes made from several materials. Often they come in copper, aluminum, stainless steel, and even ceramic. It gets more confusing when you start looking at the handles.

Handle shapes and styles vary a lot. Some are made with a hole for hanging, while others have a larger opening to rest a spoon or spatula in when you’re not stirring. You’ll see wood, metal, and plastic handles everywhere.

What’s the big difference? Well, there are two main things to keep in mind when looking at the materials. First, quality matters a great deal. Always get the best pan your budget will allow. A dollar store aluminum pan will dent the first time you look at it funny. Meanwhile, an excellent cast iron pan can last generations, passing from one cook to the next for as long as that metal lasts.

The second thing that matters is preference. Depending on your cooking style and how you like your food, the different materials and handles will matter to you. Though any pan can do the job of any other in a pinch, the way they heat, how they distribute that heat, and whether they release food quickly all vary greatly.

Five Differences That Matter for Pans

There are some crucial differences between your pans, which fall into six categories. First, the size is different even when it’s measured the same. Second, and very related is the volume your pan can hold. Third, the ability to toss food, which is critical for many recipes, varies. Fourth the contact surface area matters. The fifth is the evaporation within the pan. Sixth and finally is the weight of your pan.

Pan Size

The size of a pan can throw you off if you don’t know one basic fact. The loan is measured at the lip, not at the base. Hence a frying pan or saute pan is almost the size the package says. Alternately, the curved or slanted edge of a skillet means the bottom isn’t as large.

Volume of Food

Though it might seem counterintuitive, a pan with straight sides will hold more food. The curved edges appear to give you more space in a skillet, but it’s a visual trick. Due to the smaller base, you cannot fit the same amount inside a skillet versus a frying or saute pan that is the same size.


If you weren’t confused enough by the names, one of the big secrets of the pan world is that a skillet is better at sauteing than a saute pan. The curved edges allow skilled chefs to toss the food smoothly and catch it again. This technique is ideal for sauteing small bits of food with a little oil.

Contact Surface

The contact surface of a saute pan is greater than that of a skillet. That means more heat on the bottom and more food in direct contact with heat. For this reason, a saute pan is better for dishes that use a lower temperature and a moderate amount of liquid.

The lid helps hold in the heat, not unlike a pressure cooker. Use a saute pan for making plump, juicy chicken. Meanwhile, the curved edges on that frying pan will help channel bites and bits down into the hotter, smaller contact surface. Constant motion helps brown food more evenly in this style.


A widemouthed pan naturally allows more liquid to evaporate. Moreover, having a lid causes water accumulation. This water doesn’t escape, but instead runs and drips back down into the pan.

For drier food, like crispy ingredients, choose the skillet. The water evaporates away, leaving a tasty crunch to your hot food. Likewise, if you plan to retain the fat, but don’t want it chunky and chewy, letting it crisp like bacon, or cook back into the meat like a good eighty-twenty ground beef, you want evaporation.

However, when you want a moist dish that’s easier to chew, a saute pan is ideal. Moist meats and soft vegetables should cook longer. Use the lid to plump and then remove it to cook off excess water or reduce a sauce down to a thicker consistency.


Simply put, a frying pan almost always weighs less than a skillet. Even when they’re made from the same material. Firstly the design is different, and a skillet uses less because of the narrower bottom. Secondly, a saute pan tends to have a thicker base because you’ll cook at a lower temperature and for a longer time.

Final Thoughts

For those who make basic meals, the distinction between skillet, frying pan, and even saute pan isn’t all that important. With a little patience, you can use any of the three to achieve say, caramelized onions, or scrambled eggs. However, there is a ‘right way’ to do the job.

If you plan to become a professional cook, or you want to up your home-cooking game, the difference matters. Not only will using the right pan help you make better food, but it is part of the art of cooking. Doing ‘okay’ and ‘making exquisite dishes’ are not the same.

I recommend having at least one of each type of pan; more is better. Once you learn how to use them, your food will change forever—Bon appetite.

Aron Blake

I am the lead copywriter on Homezesty and the Webmaster. I have a lot of experience in home renovations and the creation of style. I enjoy writing and sharing my tips on how to create the best living environment. My Linkedin Profile, My Twitter Account

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