The Sauté Pan: Old World Ingenuity Meets New World Practicality
- A sauté pan’s high sides differentiate it from a skillet.
- Sauté pans are a great choice for braising, frying, and searing.
- Sautéing may actually be the sauté pan’s greatest weakness.
A sauté pan can be an invaluable player in your kitchen, but it often gets confused with a skillet. Although it shares some similarities with a skillet, a sauté pan is a valuable kitchen tool in its own right and earns its spot in any cookware set. Both a skillet and a sauté pan can be used as frying pans and may be used as everyday pans, though a skillet is the more traditional option.
Let’s take a look at the differences between sauté pans and skillets, and find out where a sauté pan truly shines.
Sauté Pan Origins
Let’s begin with some important information. A sauté pan gets its name from the act of sautéing, or cooking food in a bit of oil. The word sauté comes from the French verb sauter (to jump) and, in case you’re a word nerd, sauté is the masculine past simple or past participle form of the verb, i.e. ‘jumped.’
The term sauté itself comes from how food tends to ‘jump’ in the pan while it’s being sautéed. But just because the word is French doesn't it’s only for French kitchens. It’s become an important cooking-style in almost every kitchen.
How Is a Sauté Pan Different From a Skillet?
A sauté pan resembles the humble but mighty skillet but is different in some crucial ways. Although both can be used as a fry pan, a 10-inch sauté pan and a 10-inch skillet are not the same thing. The key differences between a sauté pan and a skillet come from the shape of the pans’ sides.
While a skillet curves at its outer rim, a sauté pan has straight sides. The straight sides allow for some significant differences from a skillet.
Perhaps most importantly, a sauté pan has a larger cooking surface area and volume than a skillet does. This size difference is important for a few reasons:
- A sauté pan allows you to cook larger batches of food than a skillet.
- The straight sides and large volume make a sauté pan able to hold more liquid while reducing the risk of spillage.
- A sauté pan is heavier than a skillet and often comes equipped with a ‘helper handle’ opposite the long handle to make lifting heavy loads easier.
- Crucially, the pan’s volume and size allow it to be used for different cooking techniques than a skillet.
In addition to the size difference, a sauté pan comes with a lid, which can help cook food more quickly and evenly by trapping heat. For example, you’ll find that home fries cook much faster in a sauté pan with a lid than they do in a skillet since they get cooked from all sides due to the hot air trapped inside.
Furthermore, the lid can also prevent over-reduction of sauces by trapping moisture. If you’re making a pasta sauce, for example, and have decided it’s reduced enough, you can put the lid on to prevent any further reduction through water evaporation.
Sauté Pan Advantages
As mentioned above, a sauté pan’s unique shape gives it some distinct advantages over a skillet when it comes to certain cooking techniques. We’ll explore each of these.
A sauté pan is ideal for braising, a technique that can create some truly tender and delicious meat. As a braiser, a sauté pan out-performs a skillet on every level.
Braising is a technique in which food, typically meat, is first cooked with dry heat, i.e. seared or sautéed at a high temperature. Afterward, the pan is covered and a liquid — like a broth, stock, or wine — is added to stew the food until it’s tender and has absorbed the flavors of the liquid. This technique is perfect for making fall-apart braised beef ribs or ultra-tender chicken thighs — something that’s not possible in a skillet.
A saute pan can be oven safe: Look for materials like stainless steel and cast iron, and check the handles as well to make sure they’re made from a material that can go in the oven. With an oven-safe pan, you can pop it in the oven to continue the braise. Braising after searing keeps meat perfectly moist and fall-apart tender: a perfect combination.
If your oven isn’t big enough or you simply don’t want to finish your dish in the oven, the pan can be left on the stove on low heat, effectively acting as a miniature dutch oven.
The depth and volume of a sauté pan give it a clear advantage over a skillet for frying food in oil. A sauté pan can be used to deep fry in small batches, but it truly shines in this field when it comes to shallow frying. The straight sides and the lid prevent oil from splattering you and your stove, making your kitchen safer and cleaner.
A saute pan’s large surface area allows you to sear either a significantly large item (like a steak) or a significant number of smaller items (like chicken thighs). The even heat distribution found in stainless steel is ideal for searing. And when the sear is complete, you can move to the sauce coup de grâce by deglazing the delicious bits stuck to the pan with an astringent like red wine.
Sauté Pan Disadvantages
A sauté pan’s unique shape means it’s less than ideal for certain tasks when compared to a skillet. The most important disadvantage is, ironically, tied to the name.
A sauté pan’s name is a misnomer: a skillet is much better at sautéeing than a sauté pan is. This is because the skillet’s curved edges allow items to be flipped in a pan with a flick of the wrist, whereas a sauté pan would require constant agitation with a utensil like a spatula or spoon. Using wrist action to flick food around in a sauté pan results in food crowding on one side, which you’d need to redistribute with a utensil anyway.
In addition, the extra weight of a sauté pan means you’d need more effort to flick the pan anyway.
What About Searing?
Realistically, a sauté pan and a skillet are equally effective at searing. The only reason a skillet might beat out a sauté pan for searing is that its shape allows for greater evaporation of liquid and makes it easier to flip the food to sear on the other side. On the other hand, a sauté pan’s greater surface area allows for larger items to be seared. So it depends on your goal.
What to Look for in a Sauté Pan?
Sauté pans come in many varieties: stainless steel, cast-iron, ceramic nonstick (like Greenpan’s), hard-anodized nonstick, and a myriad of other types. When it comes to choosing one, reliability and functionality should be your main concerns. We recommend stainless steel for several reasons:
- A stainless steel sauté pan can handle high heat, unlike a nonstick sauté pan. Additionally, a stainless steel pan is PFOA-free.
- Stainless steel pans are dishwasher safe, saving you the trouble of scrubbing and seasoning.
- Similarly, stainless steel pans are oven-safe, allowing for maximum versatility in the kitchen.
- Stainless steel pans last a long time — practically forever if treated correctly.
Some sauté pans like All-Clad's, Le Creuset’s, or some of Cuisinart's, come with a tri-ply stainless steel construction: a bottom layer of stainless steel, a middle layer of aluminum, and an outer layer of stainless steel again.
This multi-ply system works because aluminum is an excellent conductor of heat, while stainless steel retains heat well and distributes it evenly. Some pans feature a copper core, but copper is much more expensive.
Misen’s stainless steel sauté pan uses not just a 3-ply design but a superior 5-ply design, combining aluminum and stainless steel. This 5-ply stainless steel system allows for maximum conductivity, as well as maximum heat retention and even heat distribution.
A Pan for All Seasons
A quality sauté pan is a fine addition to any pan set and can help you master several valuable cooking techniques. Think of it as part of a team: it fulfills its roles quite nicely and complements other items in your kitchen. Check out Misen’s complete cookware set and assemble your ultimate kitchen squad.