When I started working in restaurants in high school, there were a few quirks that stood out to me. For one, none of the higher-end kitchens I staged in—the French word for an unpaid kitchen internship—provided knives. Instead, each cook would stumble into the kitchen, bleary-eyed and (usually) hungover, with their own set of paring, carving, bread, and chef’s knives rolled into a tight bundle. It took me much longer to pick up on the other restaurant kitchen quirk that has stayed with me since: With very few exceptions, you won’t find a single potholder or trivet in a professional kitchen. Most chefs instead rely on a stack of neatly folded cotton towels, several tucked into their apron and the rest piled on a corner of their work station.
Every day when I showed up for work, my first task was to pull hundreds of these towels from the clean laundry hamper and fold them into stacks for the other cooks to use. In professional kitchens, these towels are used for absolutely everything.
What makes these towels so great?
Dirt-cheap and easy to clean, restaurant-grade cotton towels don’t take up the extra space that potholders or trivets demand. In a small restaurant kitchen, any tools that can serve several purposes and save space are valuable. Those same qualities make these cotton towels—the best ones, in my opinion, are always branded with a blue stripe down the middle, like these Royal Cotton Kitchen Towels—just as useful for home cooks. But it’s more than just their size and foldability that make cotton towels a favorite tool of so many chefs.
As long as they aren’t damp, the towels—folded over several times—are just as effective at preventing burns as the best of potholders. For Christa Chase, executive chef at the soon-to-open Friends and Family Bar in Oakland, California, these towels are a more useful all-purpose tool than nearly any other. “We [use them to] clean our stations, grab sauté pans during service, grab sheet trays from the oven, brush flour off the bottom of a pizza," she says. "You can use it and toss it into the hamper at the end of the night!”
There’s a certain clunkiness to potholders and trivets. They're often big and bulky, and you can't easily sling them over an apron waistband for easy access the way you can with towels. Two cotton towels hanging at all times from your hip are always ready to be potholders when you need them, and when you need to set something hot down on a countertop, they're prepared to act as your trivets, too. You definitely won’t find potholders in Chase’s restaurant kitchen. “They get dirty and gross and do not feel as secure as a towel,” she says.
At Kopitiam, an all-day Malaysian cafe on New York’s Lower East Side, you’ll find these same towels stacked on each cook’s station. “We prefer cotton towels over potholders or trivets because of the versatility,” says Moonlynn Tsai, the cafe’s co-owner. “We can order a hundred of them at a time, and they can be used for a myriad of things: wiping, holding pots, [cleaning] spills. A bonus that we can always keep one in our back pocket—can’t really fit a potholder in there.”
Beyond their ability to take the place of potholders or trivets, these towels also make for a great non-slip surface between your cutting board and counter. A slippy-slidey cutting board is one of the easiest ways to slice your hand, especially if you’re cutting on a plastic board prone to moving around. Run your towel under water, wring it out so it’s barely damp, then lay it flat under the board. The damp towel will keep your board from moving around.
Our former senior culinary editor Sasha Marx will roll a cotton towel into a snake and wrap it around the base of a metal bowl, so it doesn’t tip over while he’s whisking eggs or beating cream. He’ll use a cotton towel to cover a bowl of rising dough, too. When he worked in restaurants, Sasha saw many fellow chefs stashing away the precious towels for later. They’d hide them in the backs of bulk bins, on top of refrigerators, or in their lockers. No one wanted to run out of one of their most important kitchen items before the weekly laundry delivery.
Kenji is all in when it comes to these towels, too. “I use the towel to wrap around moist vegetables like blanched spinach or shredded potatoes to squeeze out extra liquid,” he wrote in a post outlining some of his favorite kitchen tools.
The towels come in handy for all sorts of baking projects as well. Stella uses them to rub the skin off hazelnuts before she turns them into a paste or to towel off and remove the skins from blanched pistachios. "For stubborn skins that refuse to let go, pinching the pistachios through the towel can provide the traction needed to get things moving," Stella says in her guide to blanching pistachios. Good luck doing the same with a potholder.
We’re all for investing in good (and sometimes expensive) equipment. But when it comes to uni-taskers like potholders and trivets, we say take the cheap road and buy yourself a stack of the same cotton towels nearly every restaurant chef depends on.
The only question left: What can’t a cotton kitchen towel do?