In the culinary world, there are many varieties of pan, all of which have different purposes. However, to the layperson, these can often be confused and conflated with one another. A classic example of this is the skillet. Often they are either mistakenly called frying pans or even confused for a sauté pan. Occasionally, even if the distinction is noted, some will simply dismiss a skillet as being little more than a pretentious frying pan. But is there actually a difference in how a skillet vs frying pan or sauté pan is used. If so, what is a skillet?

 

What Is The Definition Of A Skillet?

At its simplest, a skillet is a pan with a flat bottom and angled sides that can either be used with or without a lid. Often skillets are used for braising, searing or grilling meat as well as frying, the latter of which often leads to confusion between a frying pan and a skillet.

 

Frying Pans Vs Skillets 

Whilst both can be used for frying, the way they are used often differs. For example, a frying pan will often be used for shallow frying food that only needs to be flipped occasionally. As such the sides of a frying pan are typically not very tall. 

Skillets on the other hand have a taller and slanted side which allows for the ingredients in the pan to be shaken or stirred without spilling. Additionally, the slanted sides make it easier to add and remove ingredients from a more complex dish. Both features are incredibly useful whilst braising and stir-frying.

This distinction is even more noticeable with a French skillet as they will likely be more spacious and have much higher sides than your average frying pan. Additionally, the majority of skillets you’ll encounter will be cast iron skillets, whilst most frying pans are made of aluminium or stainless steel. Despite this though, it is possible to get a cast-iron frying pan, they are just less commonly seen.

 

What is a skillet?

 

Skillet Vs Sauté Pan

When some people hear the differences between a frying pan and a cast-iron skillet, they are immediately reminded of a sauté pan. However, cast iron skillets are as distinct from sauté pans as they are fry pans.

When viewed side by side there is an immediate visual difference between these two cooking vessels. Whilst both have vertical sides that are noticeably higher than those of frying pans, sauté pans have completely straight sides rather than diagonal ones. This makes a significant difference to their appearance as the sauté pan is taller as a result. Additionally, sauté pans will have larger flat bottoms than a cast iron skillet of equivalent size.

The reason for this difference in appearance is that sauté pans are as the name suggests are used for sautéing or potentially preparing a sauce. As such a sauté pan will often have a nonstick coating as very little oil should be for either cooking method.

 

What is Skillet Made Of?

Skillets like all kinds of pots and pans made from all sorts of different materials are available for purchase. The specific uses and conditions required for different types of skillet can be rather varied. As such, to create the most amazing food possible a professional chef or particularly passionate hobbyist may own multiple similar skillets made from different materials.

 

Cast Iron Skillets

Perhaps the most well known and commonly talked about skillet variant is the cast iron skillet. This is for good reason as cast iron pans such as this are some of the oldest and most reliable out there. 

As long as the owner of one of these pans takes care of it, a cast-iron skillet will pretty much last forever. Maintenance is quite simple as well since all that is required to keep a skillet made from cast-iron in tip-top shape is to regularly season the metal and ensure it is always hand washed.

Whilst the cast-iron bottom may take longer to heat up it is also able to retain heat very effectively whilst being able to handle more extreme temperatures than other materials. As a result, the versatility of a cast-iron skillet is far wider than you’d expect.

 

Copper Skillets

Like all copper cooking equipment, copper skillets are considered high-end cookware. This is because they not only provide a warm and enticing aesthetic to your cooking area but are also incredibly useful.

Aside from their looks, the reason that copper skillets stand out is that they respond incredibly quickly to changes in temperature. This helps the cook to more precisely gauge the heat within the pan which therefore achieve a higher standard with the final dish, especially when searing, frying or browning food.

Like pans made from cast iron, copper skillets are capable of withstanding high heat. However, when cleaning them, it is crucial to delicately handwash them to avoid tarnishing the pan. This is something you want to avoid, especially considering how much of a steep investment any copper skillet will inevitably be. 

 

What is a skillet?

 

Nonstick Skillets

Skillets with nonstick coatings are ideal for home cooking in a manner that is simple and convenient. This is because the nonstick surface can tolerate more acidic foods along with slightly delicate dishes like eggs without using a large amount of oil. Less oil is required because the nonstick surface will help prevent food from sticking to the pan. 

An added benefit of this fact is that these pans are often easier to clean than skillets made from other materials. However, nonstick pans should always be hand-washed with a delicate sponge as the nonstick coating can be stripped away by either the dishwasher or a metal scourer.

In addition, whilst these pans can be great at medium heat and are somewhat oven-safe, they aren’t suitable for high temperatures. This is because when used in the oven at high temperatures the nonstick coating may crack or release fumes that can make you ill. Additionally, the use of metal utensils should be avoided as they can scrape away parts of the coating.

 

Ceramic Skillets

Like Teflon nonstick pans ceramic pans will have a layer of ceramic coating that provides a nonstick coating to the pan. In fact, ceramic pans are often better for the environment and provide a superior nonstick coating than other options. Additionally, ceramic coatings don’t come with a lot of the associated controversy as other nonstick options.

However, whilst they may provide an excellent nonstick surface, these pans are very poorly suited to anything over medium heat and are not suitable for oven use at all. Additionally, they should only be gently hand washed with a sponge. The reason for these limitations is that the ceramic coating is rather fragile by comparison to other types of skillets.

Ceramic cookware is often conflated with porcelain cookware. If you’re curious on the differences and which is better, we can help answer your questions.

 

Aluminium Skillets

Aluminium skillets are known for being lightweight, quick to heat up and are typically more affordable options than other varieties. Additionally, they are oven safe for the most but may not be ideal for extremely high temperatures. Aluminium pans are quite common for these reasons and are often the basis for nonstick pans.

However, aluminium is reactive with acid, meaning that acidic foods should not be cooked in these pans. The reason for this is that acidic foods like tomatoes and red wine will react with the aluminium the skillet is made from and cause it to corrode. This damages the pan along with potentially causing you to ingest aluminium which can be toxic in high doses.

 

Anodised and Hard Anodised Aluminium Skillets

Anodised aluminium skillets are skillets made using anodised aluminium. Simply put this means that the aluminium has been treated in order to be less reactive. This treatment makes for a more durable pan that is less likely to warp over time or become corroded. These pans are often mixed with a very smooth cooking surface which mixes well with various colours. As such many of these pans are brightly coloured.

Hard anodised aluminium skillets on the other hand are a particularly durable variant of anodised aluminium skillet popularised by Calphalon. These benefit from being even more durable and significantly more tolerant of higher temperatures. Additionally, these pans are typically not coated in nonstick coatings unlike regular aluminium pans or anodised aluminium pans. This is because hard anodised aluminium has a natural nonstick cooking surface that is incredibly resistant to scratches, meaning that metal utensils can be used.

 

Carbon Steel Skillets

These skillets contain a lot of iron, as such like skillets made from cast iron they are incredibly durable, last a long time and are able to tolerate high temperatures. However, carbon steel skillets are able to heat up and cool down much more quickly and have a natural nonstick quality to them.

However, just like aluminium skillets, these are not resistant to acidic food like tomatoes or red wine. As such these foods should be avoided when cooking with carbon steel. Additionally, like most skillets, carbon steel skillets must be hand washed.

 

What is a skillet?

 

Skillet Sizes & Uses

Skillets come in a variety of different sizes with pans of each size being better suited for different tasks. Below are the different sizes of skillets and how they should be used.

 

Mini Skillets

These are skillets with a surface area under six inches. These are ideal for cooking smaller dishes as the smaller pan will provide a more even rate of cooking to your dish.

 

Small Skillets

Roughly these skillets will be between six and nine inches in diameter. As such they are ideal when cooking a simple meal for two individuals as the higher sides help prevent food from overflowing.

 

Medium Skillets

These are ideal for meals serving families or just dishes that contain a lot of ingredients that require moving around frequently. Medium-sized skillets will be roughly ten to twelve inches in diameter.

 

Large Skillets

Large cuts of meat or meals containing a lot of pasta or rice are best suited for these types of skillet. Additionally, if cooking for a large number of people, this type of skillet is ideal. Large skillets will typically measure between thirteen and fifteen inches.

 

Extra Large Skillets

These skillets will be at least sixteen inches, as such, they provide plenty of room for cooking.  Often they will be used on a grill to cook a large amount of meat and vegetables whilst providing a smokey flavour.

 

What is a skillet?

 

FAQs

 

What makes a skillet a skillet?

A skillet can be differentiated from a frying pan by its taller sides, additionally, many skillets come with and/or can be used with a lid. However, it is distinct from a sauté pan due to the sides of a skillet being shorter and diagonal.

 

What is a skillet Good For?

Skillets can be used in many of the same ways a frying pan can be. However, typically they will be used for braising, stir-frying and to a limited extent sautéing.

 

What is the difference between a skillet and a frying pan?

Whilst skillets and frying pans can be used somewhat interchangeably, this isn’t always true. This is because the taller diagonal sides of a skillet make it more ideal for braising, stir-frying and certain other slightly advanced cooking techniques. 

 

Can you put a skillet in the oven?

Whether a skillet is oven safe depends entirely on the material it is made from. Most types of skillet are considered oven safe. However, ceramic ones should not be used in the oven at all, whilst aluminium and nonstick pans are ill-suited to high temperatures.

 

How to Maintain a Skillet?

How to maintain a skillet primarily depends on the material it is made from. Most skillets should be hand washed and may be damaged by the dishwasher. However, copper, ceramic and nonstick pans need to be cleaned very delicately with a sponge rather than a metal scourer to avoid damage. Additionally, skillets made from cast iron should be seasoned regularly whilst carbon steel and aluminium pans shouldn’t be used with acidic food such as wine or tomatoes.

 

Recommendations

As someone who cooks with a skillet multiple times a week, I believe they are a pan that everyone should have in their kitchen. This is because they are not only incredibly versatile and simple to clean but if well maintained will honestly last forever. So if you were to only have one type of pan in your kitchen I would recommend it be a skillet.