So you came here wondering about the differences between a grill pan and a skillet? As usual, I’ve got you covered.
A skillet is a round pan with tall walls and a flat bottom for searing steaks, sautéing veg, and shallow-frying cutlets or latkes. Grill pans are square, with short walls and elevated ridges that lift the food from the cooking surface and give it grill marks as it cooks on the stove.
Not sure which one to pick and looking for my two cents?
The skillet is the must-have cooking vessel of the two. It’s the piece of cookware you will reach for and use the most, no matter the recipe and the cooking method.
Grill pans are less versatile. Yes, a good grill pan can help you make a formidable steak. But you can nary make an omelet nor simmer a sauce in it, and you probably won’t use it every day.
This is why grill pans are more of a nice-to-have for the subset of home cooks who like their meat and veggies crisper and slightly charred (I’ll tell you the main reasons behind that further in this article).
So if this is your first pan, get a skillet. And if you’re looking to add a new tool to your arsenal, get a grill pan. Of course, there’s more to it than that. Here’s what else you need to know to make the right choice for your needs.
Anyone who’s into cooking knows the term “skillet,” but what does it really mean?
A skillet, or simply a frying pan, is a round, flat, and sloped pan that’s mostly used for searing, sautéing, and frying foods on the stovetop. Many skillets can also go in the oven or under the broiler.
Don’t mistake a skillet for a saucepan:
Skillets have sloped sides that allow you to quickly shake and toss foods in them—a maneuver that restaurant chefs and cooking show hosts all too often like to show off. When it comes to skillets, lids are generally considered optional.
Saucepans, on the other hand, have tall and vertical sides and almost always come with lids. This makes them better at preventing splatter and retaining moisture, so they are the more suitable choice of cookware for pan-frying and braising.
Skillets can be made from a variety of materials, including, from most to least expensive, copper, stainless steel, aluminum (non-stick or ceramic), carbon steel, and cast iron.
Copper is dense, heavy, and conductive. Of all materials commonly used for making frying pans, copper heats the fastest and distributes heat the most evenly.
When I cooked in a copper frying pan for the first time, I was beyond astonished by the fact that the temperature on the sides was almost identical to that of the center.
However, copper comes at a steep price tag. A 10.25-inch copper skillet will set you back $300-$350 depending on the make and model. As you can imagine, this is entirely out of budget for most home cooks—so you won’t find pans made of this metal in every kitchen.
Present-day stainless steel frying pans are made of a stainless steel exterior clad around another metal that’s better at conducting heat, like copper (on the higher end) or aluminum (on the more affordable side).
Clad cooking vessels, for readers who may be coming across the term for the first time, are made by layering three or more sheets of metal on top of each other and bonding them together with the use of high pressure. Think of it as “sandwiched cookware.”
Clad stainless steel skillets heat evenly and—as long as the handles on them are made of metal—can also go in the oven. But delicate foods, like eggs, fish, and pancakes, tend to stick badly to their surface. In search of cooking convenience, a good few home cooks choose to look elsewhere.
Aluminum (non-stick or ceramic):
Aluminum heats up quickly and evenly enough for most of your daily cooking. Compared to other metals, it’s relatively inexpensive.
This is the main reason why most non-stick, which some of us know as PTFE, and ceramic frying pans are made of an aluminum core, with the coating sprayed- and baked-on.
While non-stick pans excel at most home cooking tasks, such as preparing an omelet or stir-frying veggies, a material used in their production, called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), became part of a significant scandal a decade or so ago.
The use of PFOA has been phased out since the year 2015.
We all remember our grannies leaning over the stove and cooking in heirloom cast iron skillets. Dirt-cheap, rock-solid, and long-lasting, cast iron cookware was the go-to choice for American home cooks in the 20th century.
Contrary to what most people think, cast iron is a poor conductor of heat. Compared to other metals, it takes longer to heat up. But, once it does, it heats pretty evenly—and is capable of holding on to that heat long after you’ve removed it from the stove.
Made of a single piece of cast iron, most skillets of this type are virtually indestructible (unless you drop them from a tall counter and watch them snap into pieces) and versatile to the extent that they can even be used over a campfire.
But they have two major flaws:
First, iron is a reactive metal and, without the proper protection, it corrodes and rusts. To prevent this from happening to your skillet, you need to season it, which essentially means to grease it with cooking oil on the inside and out, and bake it face-down in a preheated oven for an hour.
Some home cooks love the process of seasoning and see it as an act of care. For others, it’s a burden that they’d be happy not to take up by buying a skillet made of another material in the first place.
Second, cast iron skillets react to acidic foods (think tomato-, vinegar-, and wine-based sauces) and leach hefty amounts of dietary iron into them. So you should avoid making some recipes in them altogether.
You can work around that by getting an enameled cast iron skillet. That’s a cast iron cooking vessel with a fused-on porcelain enamel coat. They don’t need to be seasoned at all, and won’t leach any dietary iron into acidic foods (since the iron is concealed under the coating).
Grill pans are square-shaped pans with ridges and, on some models, pouring sprouts.
The ridges raise your food above the cooking surface, which prevents the build-up of steam as it sears and keeps it from coming into contact with any grease or moisture that drips down from it.
The pouring sprouts help you get rid of excess grease in the heat of cooking. That’s a feature that will definitely come in handy when you cook burgers or fattier cuts of meat on the stove.
Basically, a grill pan helps you mimic some of the conditions of cooking foods on a BBQ—but on your stove and in the confines of your kitchen.
It’s a great tool to have if you like your meat and your veggies with grill marks and a charred taste and, for one reason or another, you can’t (or don’t want to) grill them outside. Yet, as Culinary Consultant J. Kenji López-Alt pointed out at Serious Eats, it’s not like the real thing.
Most grill pans are made of PTFE-coated aluminum, cast iron, or enameled cast iron.
PTFE-coated grill pans are easy to use, as the slick coating keeps foods from sticking to the ridges, but they won’t brown and char foods as well as cast iron or enameled cast iron.
While cast iron may not be the best choice for a skillet if you like to cook acidic foods (or want to avoid the need to season your cookware), it should most certainly be your number one choice for a grill pan.
A cast iron grill pan heats evenly and doesn’t drop its temperature by much, even if you put a cold cut of steak or freezer-chilled burger on it. This results in the perfect sear and charring on thick meats and larger slices of vegetables.
But bare cast iron catches the smell of whatever it is that you’re cooking and retains it for at least two or three consecutive uses, which can be a deal-breaker for those of you who like to cook not only red meat and poultry but fish.
Believe me; you don’t want tonight’s chicken breasts to smell like yesterday’s salmon fillet. In this case, it’s better to go for an enameled cast iron skillet. Keep in mind that the price difference is substantial.
On the day of publishing this article, a 10.25-inch Lodge cast iron skillet cost $21.95 at the manufacturer’s online store, while a Le Creuset enameled grill pan cost $195. That’s an 8x price difference!
While you can also find stainless steel grill pans on the market, I struggle to find a reason why you’d want one in the first place (share your view in the comments below if you think otherwise; I’d love to understand why).
Personally, I find stainless steel grill pans costly, impractical, and lesser-capable than their good ol’ cast iron counterparts.
Still, if you find cast iron (and enameled cast iron) a bit too heavy on the wrist, non-stick aluminum or a stainless steel grill pan might be an appropriate option for you.