In this guide, I explain the differences between a wok and a sauté pan.
You’ll learn how they compare in terms of shape, size, primary uses, versatility, price, and more.
So keep reading if you’re ready to upgrade your kitchen but need help deciding between a wok and a sauté pan.
Use the links below to navigate the comparison:
- What Is a Wok?
- What Is a Sauté Pan?
- Wok vs. Sauté Pan: Comparison Chart
- Cooktop Compatibility
- Cooking Utensils
- How to Use
- Bottom Line: Do You Need a Wok, Sauté Pan, or Both?
A wok is a versatile cooking pan used for stir-frying, steaming, sautéing, and even deep-frying. The wok originates in China and is used primarily in Asian cuisine.
Woks are famous for their unique rounded shape and sloped sides. The shape prevents splatter as you stir fry and allows you to regulate the heat as you rotate ingredients from the bottom, which is the hottest part, up the sides.
Woks are generally made from carbon steel or cast iron. Those materials are ideal for woks because they become non-stick as the seasoning develops. Plus, they have a high heat tolerance and retain heat well.
Often confused with skillets, sauté pans are designed for sautéing meat and vegetables. They are usually made from cast iron, stainless steel, or aluminum with a Teflon or ceramic non-stick coating on the interior.
Sauté pans look similar to skillets, but the sides are vertical instead of a gradual slope. The steep sides of sauté pans help keep liquid from spilling over, and they also make it easy to toss and turn food while cooking.
Besides sautéing, you can use a sauté pan for browning, braising, and frying. It’s an all-purpose pan that can cook vegetables, sear and roast meats, and simmer sauces.
The chart below provides a quick comparison of woks vs. sauté pans.
|Shape||Tall, sloped sides and rounded bottom||Short, vertical sides with a wide, flat bottom|
|Usage||Stir-frying, steaming, deep drying||Sautéing, browning, braising, pan frying|
|Common Sizes||12 to 14-inch diameter||3 to 6 quarts (11 to 12-inch diameter)|
|Materials||Carbon steel and cast iron||Stainless steel, aluminum with non-stick coating, or enameled cast iron|
|Storage||Requires larger dedicated storage space (ideally hung)||Fits easily even in shallow cabinets|
|Cleaning||Hand wash with water||Hand wash with soap and water|
|Maintenance||Requires seasoning||Low maintenance|
|Price||$$-$$$ (view comparison chart)||$-$$$ (view comparison chart)|
Woks have a unique shape that stands out from other kinds of cookware. A traditional wok has a rounded bottom and tall sides. It will either have one long handle on one side or two looped handles (one on each side).
Although traditional woks used in restaurants have round bottoms, most residential woks have a flat base to accommodate home cooktops.
Sauté pans look like frying pans or skillets, with a wide and flat bottom. They have long handles and straight sides, which help keep food and liquids from splattering over.
Some sauté pans have a small helper handle opposite the long handle to make it easier to transfer from the stove to the oven, and almost all come with a tight-fitting lid.
Woks are generally used for frying and cooking Asian dishes, particularly stir-frying. The high, sloped walls are ideal for stirring and flipping food without spilling over the sides.
They’re designed for quick, high-heat cooking, and you can regulate the heat by constantly stirring and tossing the food from the bottom to the sides.
Thanks to its tall sides, you can also use a wok to steam veggies and deep fry.
Besides sautéing, sauté pans are the ideal cookware for dishes that require shallow liquid, like braising a piece of beef or cooking a pasta dish with sauce. Because of the wide opening, sauces will reduce fast, helping the flavors concentrate.
The main difference between woks and sauté pans is that sauté pans maintain a consistent temperature across the flat cooking surface, which makes them ideal for steaks, burgers, and large pieces of meat.
Woks are hottest at the bottom, but the temperature reduces as you go further up the sides. Because of that, woks are better for cooking meals with smaller, chopped-up ingredients.
For most home cooks, a sauté pan is more versatile and has more practical uses. However, it depends on the kinds of foods you intend to prepare. If you plan on cooking stir fry dishes or deep frying, you may get more use out of a wok.
Traditionally, woks are cast iron or carbon steel — but as they’ve grown in popularity in recent years, they’re being made in a wide range of materials, including aluminum and stainless steel and even hybrid materials like HexClad).
Sauté pans are often made with stainless steel or aluminum exteriors with a non-stick coating on the cooking surface. Some are made of enameled cast iron, though they are less common.
This chart provides examples of woks and sauté pans made of various materials.
|Carbon steel||Made In||Northwest Skillet Company|
|Stainless Steel||Cuisinart||Made In|
|Enameled Cast Iron||Le Creuset||CrockPot|
Since woks are usually carbon steel or cast iron, you need to season them regularly. Seasoning a wok is the process of coating the surface in a thin layer of oil and baking it in the oven. As the oil polymerizes, the surface becomes smooth and non-stick.
Seasoning helps to protect the metal from rusting while also giving your wok a non-stick interior. Although the process is simple, it takes extra time and effort.
Hand-wash your wok using hot water and a gentle scrubbing brush after each use. The dishwasher’s harsh detergents and high temperatures will degrade the seasoning, so always wash by hand.
Sauté pans require less maintenance than woks unless you buy a carbon steel or cast iron sauté pan. Stainless steel, enameled cast iron, and non-stick sauté pans don’t need to be seasoned. And these materials are easy to clean; scrub them with soap and water.
Sauté pans work well on gas and electric stovetops, and some, but not all, will work with induction stovetops. It is important to check first whether your sauté pan is compatible with your induction stovetop if you have one.
Flat bottom woks work on all cooktops. However, round bottom woks require a custom wok insert.
If your stove doesn’t have a built-in insert (most residential stoves don’t), you’ll need to buy a wok ring. These ring-shaped adaptors sit on top of the burner and stabilize the wok’s round bottom.
Wok rings work well on gas stoves but not on electric or induction because they don’t allow the wok to contact the cooktop directly.
Woks and sauté pans are constructed and shaped differently, so specific cooking utensils work better with each.
For sauté pans, use a silicone or wooden utensil. Metal utensils are not recommended for non-stick sauté pans because the metal can scratch or damage the coating.
When cooking with a wok, a traditional utensil is called a wok chuan. It features a unique shape similar to a little shovel or a bent spatula. Its design is excellent for scooping food and moving it around the wok while stir-frying.
You can still use standard cooking utensils like spatulas and spoons when cooking with a wok, but the advantage of using a wok chuan is its long handle that keeps your hands clear of the wok’s hot sides.
To use a wok, first heat it on your stovetop to a moderate heat level (between medium and medium-high) for about 2-3 minutes. To ensure the wok is hot enough, try the droplet test: toss a few drops of water into the wok, and if they quickly sizzle and roll around in the base of the pan like beads, it is ready.
Add a small amount of oil to the base of your pan, and add your ingredients. Add the food that will take the longest to cook first. Proteins like beef, chicken, or large shrimp should be added first, fried, and then set aside.
Then, add the vegetables — those that cook the quickest should be added at the end. You can always move ingredients to the side of the wok, where they’ll be kept warm but away from direct heat. Finally, toss your wok to mix the ingredients before serving.
There’s no special technique required to use a sauté pan. Instead, here are a few tips and tricks to get the most out of it.
Another tip is to start your sauté pan over medium heat and adjust the temperature as needed. Heating your pan too high can burn the oil and scorch your food. If using a stainless steel sauté pan, follow these tips to avoid sticking.
Woks are challenging to store due to their tall sides and rounded bottoms. They’re not ideal for stacking in cabinets, mainly because it’s crucial to protect the seasoning on carbon steel or cast iron woks. If you have the space, hanging your wok is the best bet.
Due to their flat bottoms and short, straight sides, sauté pans are much easier to store. They fit in shallow cabinets and can be stacked with other cookware. However, be careful when stacking non-stick pans, so you don’t scratch the coating.
Whichever pan you choose, measure your available storage space before purchasing, and remember to include the handles in your measurements.
The exact price of any cookware, including woks and sauté pans, will vary by brand, material, collection, size, and more. However, generally, woks are more expensive than sauté pans.
For a better idea of what you can expect to pay for either a wok or sauté pan, check out this pricing chart:
|Made In Cookware 12-Inch Carbon Steel Wok||Amazon|
|Mauviel 12-Inch Carbon Steel Wok||Amazon|
|Heritage Steel 13.5-Inch Stainless Steel Wok||Amazon|
|YOSUKATA 13.5-Inch Carbon Steel Wok||Amazon|
|Craft Wok 14-Inch Carbon Steel Wok||Amazon|
|Babish 14-Inch Carbon Steel Wok||Amazon|
|Gotham Steel 5.5-Quart Aluminum Non-Stick Sauté Pan||Amazon|
|Cuisinart 5.5-Quart Stainless Steel Sauté Pan||Amazon|
|All-Clad 3-Quart Stainless Steel Sauté Pan||Amazon|
|Made In Cookware 3.5-Quart Stainless Steel Sauté Pan||Amazon|
|T-fal 5-Quart Aluminum Non-Stick Sauté Pan||Amazon|
|Scanpan Classic 10.25-Inch Aluminum Non-Stick Sauté Pan||Amazon|
So should you buy a wok or a sauté pan? Or both? Before I offer my recommendation, let’s quickly recap the key differences.
- Woks have tall, sloped sides and rounded bottoms. Sauté pans have large, flat bottoms, long handles, vertical sides, and a tight-fitting lid.
- Woks are mainly used for stir-frying, but they can also be used to steam or even bake food. A sauté pan is primarily for sautéing, braising, and browning food.
- While most sauté pans are low-maintenance, woks need to be seasoned regularly.
- Round-bottom woks require a wok insert or wok ring to work on gas stoves. If you have an electric or induction
- cooktop, flat-bottom woks work best. Sauté pans work well with gas and electric stoves, but not all are induction-compatible.
If you have the space and budget, it’s convenient to have both. You can take advantage of a wok’s unique shape for stir-frying, and a sauté pan’s large, flat base for searing and braising.
But if you plan to buy one type of pan, consider the cookware you already own and the kinds of food you’ll cook most often.
In most cases, a sauté pan is a better buy because it’s more versatile. With a sauté pan, you can braise short ribs one night and make a pasta dish the next.
Its flat surface allows you to cook large and small ingredients. And if you already have a saucepan or Dutch oven, you don’t need a wok for deep frying.
That said, woks are also versatile and the clear winner for making fried rice, stir fry, and other Asian-style dishes.
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