This article may contain links from our affiliate partners. Please read how we make money!
Frying pans and skillets are the workhorses of any kitchen. They can be used for frying, sautéing, braising, and even baking. Let’s look at the differences between a frying pan and a skillet and how to use them.
Frying Pan Vs. Skillet
In the United States, a skillet, a frying pan, and a fry pan are all the same item: a shallow cooking vessel with a flat base, short sides, and a long handle used for cooking children in fat. However, there are differences between skillets and frying pans, which will influence how you use them.
What Is A Frying Pan?
A frying pan is a round, shallow pan with flared sides and a short handle. The diameter can range from 6 to 16 inches, depending on how much you are cooking.
The clue to these pans’ primary function is in their name: frying. However, frying pans are not for deep-frying. Shallow frying or sautéing means quickly cooking something in a small amount of fat over high heat. That makes a frying pan one of the best cookware for high-heat cooking.
To cook quickly, frying pans are made to heat up effectively. They have large bases and are often made of heat-conducting stainless steel or aluminum, sometimes with an enamel or non-stick coating. Their short sides are usually around an inch high and prevent food from spilling out while cooking. Frying pans are too shallow for boiling or making soup.
British speakers of English use the term frying pan for the vessel typically used to fry up a “full English breakfast” consisting of bacon and eggs. It’s one of the best pans for cooking eggs easily.
What Is A Skillet?
Many Americans would call the frying pan described above a skillet. But there are two other kinds of skillets that are different from frying pans.
Cast-iron skillets are heavy, flat-based frying pans with slightly flared sides. They sometimes have an additional grab handle on the opposite side to help lift them with two hands. Although cast-iron skillets can be awkward to carry or maneuver, they retain heat beautifully and can be used both on the stovetop and in the oven.
I was fortunate to inherit my grandmother’s cast-iron skillet. This family heirloom has been seasoned by decades of loving care and family cooking. Because most modern pans are made of stainless steel, I had to find out how to season a cast-iron pan with oil, magically producing a non-stick surface.
Another type of skillet is called the French skillet or sauté pan. These pans are also round, with heavy bases, but are deeper than other types of skillets and frying pans. They can be used for quick frying, but their higher sides indicate they can contain more food or liquid than other pans, so they are ideal for slowly sautéing or simmering over low heat. They will, therefore, usually have a lid to prevent evaporation and drying out of food when simmered.
Comparing Frying Pans And Skillets
The only similarity among frying pans, skillets, and French skillet is their shape. They all have a round with flat base and flared sides. Meanwhile, the table below shows the main differences among the three types of pans.
|Type of Pan
|Stainless steel, aluminum, ceramic, carbon steel
|One short handle
|Shalllow flared sides
|Frying, searing, toasting, braising, browning
|Cast iron, enamel coating
|Short handle and short grab handle
|Shallow flared sides or flat
|Frying, searing, grilling, baking, browning
|Stainless steel, carbon steel, copper base
|One short handle and optional grab handle
|Deeper (2-5 inches) vertical sides
Which Pan To Use When?
All three pans are used primarily for frying or sautéing, meaning cooking food in fat. Although grabbing the nearest pan is easiest when you’re busy, choosing the correct pan can improve your cooking results and make clean-up easier.
Before you fry food, consider your health: medical research shows that people who eat fried food are 28% more likely to suffer heart disease. Choose vegetable oil rather than fats of animal origin to avoid harmful saturated fats which cause inflammation.
When To Use A Frying Pan
Reach for a frying pan or stainless-steel skillet when you want to:
- Fry or sear food in a bit of oil
- At a medium to high temperature.
The flared sides and shallow depth of a frying pan make it ideal for a quick sauté – despite not being called a sauté pan. You can easily move the food around, shake it, or flip it because it is lightweight. You can make a pan sauce, but frying pans aren’t ideal for gravies or a roux as they are too shallow, and liquid can splash out.
Good food options for frying are pancakes, eggs, bacon, steak, fish, onions, mushrooms, and stir-fry. You can toast nuts and seeds if you have a heavy-based frying pan.
Note that food can burn quickly if your pan is thin and intensely hot, so avoid slow-cooking casseroles in an aluminum frying pan.
There’s been a lot of debate around non-stick frying pans, with early studies suggesting that Teflon produces toxins. However, the newest generations of non-stick pans are entirely safe to use at temperatures under 570°F – the heat of an oven.
Different non-stick pan types are a lifesaver if you’re making a quick breakfast of scrambled eggs. I always use mine for omelets, pancakes, and crepes as the clean-up is a breeze, so long as I pop them into warm, soapy water immediately after use. My kids know not to touch mom’s “special pan” and certainly never to use a metal egg-lifter or scourer in its vicinity.
When To Use A Cast-Iron Skillet
Cast-iron skillets are incredibly versatile, as you can use them instead of frying pans for any of the functions listed above. Because they are made of such sturdy material, cast-iron pans can withstand temperatures up to 500°F. You can, therefore, use cast-iron skillets in the following ways:
- Over campfires and open flame gas stoves
A cast-iron skillet is one of the best pans to cook steak, as you can heat it on the stovetop and then finish it in the oven. You can get a beautiful sear on meat and fish and caramelize vegetables effectively. Also, use a cast-iron pan for spoonbread, griddle cakes, and crusty cornbread.
I love my cast-iron skillet for making cornbread; it retains heat beautifully and makes the edges extra crispy. It’s worth waiting 10 minutes for it to heat up on the stove.
Take care when cooking more delicate foods, like eggs or crepes, as cast-iron’s high temperatures can burn these. Instead, reach for a reliable non-stick pan for eggs.
In addition, you should not cook tomatoes, lemons, vinegar, or acidic foods in cast iron cookware. These foods can absorb an unpleasant flavor and corrode your pan’s non-stick, seasoned surface. For acidic foods, use a cast-iron skillet with an enamel coating, which makes the pans non-reactive.
When To Use A French Skillet
A French skillet or sauté pan offers a deeper, wider surface because the sides are vertical. Use this pan for:
- Braising food in liquid
- Shallow frying
- Making sauces
- Cooking over a medium heat.
You can use a French skillet in the same way as a frying pan, but they usually have heavier bases, so they are less maneuverable.
Which Is Better: Frying Pan Or Skillet?
Your decision to use a frying pan, cast-iron skillet, or sauté pan will depend on what you want to cook and how you want to prepare it. However, each pan is useful and versatile, so it will have a place in your kitchen.
Richmond Howard started Meal Prepify in 2019 and has helped over a million people learn how to meal prep, get better at meal planning, and create a kitchen they love to use. He’s an avid home chef and loves to bbq, grill out, and make awesome food for family and friends. He’s been featured on MSN, Renaissance Periodization, and Good Financial Cents.