Until last month, I couldn’t remember the last time I had bought a kitchen towel. We always had a ton in the linen closet, a mix of hand-me-downs, gifts and who-knows-where-that-came-froms. Many were fraying, some were holey, and a good number were basically hand towels — not thick enough to be obviously absorbent but too thick to dry quickly.
Then I made an impulse purchase at possibly the best/worst place for giving into such purchases: Trader Joe’s. It was an evening after a long day of work, and in the course of stumbling around the aisles knocking various snack foods into my cart, I saw a display of striped cotton towels and had an epiphany: I need new dish towels.
As with many products at TJ’s, the label told a somewhat fanciful, romantic story: “Fouta have been used for centuries as towels for the hamman baths and to collect olives and other fruits,” it read. “These traditional fouta kitchen towels, an artisanal product exclusive to Tunisia, are made of 100% cotton, woven on large looms and are entirely hand-finished.”
Well, as irresistible as that origin story is, what I found most appealing was the price: $5.99 for three. Also, unlike my current towels: No holes. Sold!
And now I’m really sold. They’re thin, absorbent and dry very quickly. They get softer each time I wash them. I bought a second pack. And I’m not the only fan of cheap, thin towels: Plenty of home cooks swear by ones you can buy at Ikea.
Leah Daniels, owner of Washington shop Hill’s Kitchen, says her favorite type of towel is microfiber, but she knows a lot of people aren’t fans. (In its dish towel review, Cook’s Illustrated reported that testers hated the “static feel” of one microfiber set.) Microfiber is particularly good for cleaning glass and absorbing liquid. It’s one of three towels she has in her kitchen. The others are a flour sack, a traditional towel made of thin cotton and a cute, more-decorative-than-functional one. Daniels likes her flour sack for quick mopping, though it can snag on knives, and her microfiber for drying and polishing.
Daniels recommends buying a few types and seeing what works best for you. They’re generally inexpensive (are you really going to want to use that fancy French linen?), so you can experiment and not feel as if they’re a huge commitment.
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Try the towels in a variety of scenarios. Cook’s Illustrated tested how well the towels might absorb a big spill. Testers also used them to wring liquid out of defrosted frozen spinach, pick up hot baking dishes and dry Champagne flutes. They put towels through 26 laundry cycles, or six months’ worth. (You definitely want to wash the towels at least a few times before judging their absorbency. The magazine says that’s because towels are often given a water-repelling treatment when they’re new.)
The most recent winner of the Cook’s test was a set of thin, striped cotton towels from Williams-Sonoma. The previous winner, a ribbed cotton towel from Now Designs, is still highly recommended. “People are fanatic about them,” Daniels says.
Other types you might find at the store: waffle weave, which Cook’s says trapped water in its thick lattice; and terry, one brand of which had dangling threads after near-constant snags on its loops.
But, really, what’s most important is what works best for you.
“There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer,” Daniels says. “I am not a fan of telling people what the best thing is.”
Just don’t feel bad when you get your towels dirty. They’re meant to clean up your messes, after all. Plus, “your towels will get holes in them” eventually, she says. Think of it as a cheap excuse for an occasional upgrade or fresh look.
“Dish towels,” Daniels says, “are fun.”