If you've always assumed that saucepans and frying pans are the same thing, you're not alone. Even the most experienced home chefs can get confused at the distinction between the two. Here's a simple guide to help you tell the difference.
Saucepan vs Frying Pan: Design
Saucepans are usually deeper cooking vessels that are designed to hold more liquid than frying pans. If a pan has fairly high sides in relation to its width, then it's probably a saucepan.
You can find saucepans in a variety of sizes. Some are designed to hold just a small measure of ingredients, while others are capable of heating up to four quarts of liquid. The largest ones could almost be mistaken for stockpots. In general, the bigger a saucepan is, the higher its sides will be.
Most saucepans will come with a lid, but it's possible to find them without lids. They're also outfitted with handles that are long enough for gripping. Some larger units will come with one handle on each side to make the pot easier to hold. The second handle is typically shorter than the first.
By contrast, frying pans are shallower, with sides that are set at a slight angle. They're usually smaller than saucepans, and their low sides make them appear even smaller. However, they may be much broader in circumference, meaning that more surface area is exposed to the heat.
While some frying pans are sold with matching lids, this is fairly unusual. Their slanted sides make it difficult to form a tight seal, which is the main point of having a lid in the first place. That said, it may be possible to add the lid from a larger saucepan or stockpot if necessary.
Another way to tell a frying pan from a saucepan is to look at the handle. A typical frying pan will have just one, and it will be longer than the handle on a saucepan.
Saucepan vs Frying Pan: Materials
Saucepans are typically made of aluminum, stainless steel, or a combination. Aluminum is a superb heat conductor and resistant to corrosion and rust. Stainless steel has both these attributes, but it's also induction-ready and dishwasher safe. Many brands like to offer the best of both worlds by manufacturing aluminum-clad stainless steel pans.
Anodized aluminum is another popular choice. In addition to creating great heat conduction, it's scratch- and dent-resistant.
Copper and carbon steel are good conductors as well, and carbon steel has the benefit of being induction-ready. These last options are likely to be more expensive than either aluminum or stainless steel.
A frying pan can use any of the above materials in its composition. Sometimes, the cooking surface will offer a nonstick coating, which is useful for making scrambled eggs (see below).
Cast iron is another popular choice for frying pans. Although it requires a bit of seasoning before the first use, cast iron can last a lifetime if it's treated correctly.
Saucepan vs Frying Pan: Cooking & Types of Food
As the name suggests, saucepans are designed for making sauces. In a broader sense, they can be used to heat any type of liquid. You can heat water in a saucepan for tea or hot chocolate in the morning, then use the same receptacle for soup later in the day.
Saucepans are also great for making pasta sauces, or for cooking the pasta itself. In fact, they come in handy for cooking any type of grain, as long as you're not making too much at a time.
When cooking for one or two people, the saucepan is a good bet, as it will cut down on the amount of dishes you'll have to do later. For larger groups, a stockpot would probably be a wiser choice.
The frying pan also lives up to its name by turning out excellent eggs and bacon. They're ideal for pancakes and French toast as well. Note that if you're using the pan to make eggs, it's better to use a nonstick version.
There's no need to stick with breakfast foods, either. You can also use your frying pan to make pan-seared steak, fried chicken, or stir-fried vegetables.
While a saucepan can be used for many of the same things as a frying pan (see Related Questions, below), the reverse isn't always true. Because of their shallow sides, frying pans aren't designed to hold saucy dishes like pasta or risotto. The liquid will evaporate too quickly, which will make the sauces too thick. If you're not careful, it could even burn your ingredients.
Is a skillet and a frying pan the same thing?
These two types of pan are similar enough for the terms to be used interchangeably. The only notable difference is that skillets tend to be slightly deeper, with high sides that make them suitable for braising.
Skillets also usually come with matching lids, which is a feature that most frying pans lack.
What is the difference between a frying pan and an omelette pan?
On the other end of the spectrum, there's the omelette pan, which is designed for one specific purpose.
These pans are made with gently sloping sides. The slope is gradual enough to allow you to flip the omelette without destroying it. Most frying pans will have edges that are slightly higher, so that the ingredients won't fly out when you stir them.
Can I use a saucepan instead of a frying pan?
In most cases, yes. A saucepan can be used for most of the same cooking applications as a frying pan.
However, it's important to use your common sense. A saucepan wouldn't be suitable for the aforementioned pancakes and French toast, for example. You might have a hard time using it for bacon or sausages as well, although it would probably work in a pinch.
As a rule of thumb, try to use the saucepan for dishes that contain more liquid, and save the frying pan for ingredients that need to come into direct contact with the cooking surface.