All kitchen towels are not created equal

By Domenica Marchetti
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010

I have a small obsession: kitchen towels.

Some of you may roll your eyes at the prospect of giving -- or getting -- kitchen towels for, say, Mother's Day. But I am thrilled whenever a new towel comes into my possession. A pretty new set of towels displayed on hooks or on the handle bar of the oven door can go a long way in freshening the look of a tired, overworked kitchen (like mine) or adding a seasonal touch.

For a long time, my primary criterion in choosing kitchen towels was looks. But, as with other areas in life, looks will get you only so far. Of course, the kitchen towel is about much more than aesthetics, unlike the tea towel, which, with dainty embroidered motifs and crocheted edges, is all about appearance. When it comes down to it, kitchen towels are workhorses that serve a variety of practical purposes, from wiping greasy fingers to drying crystal goblets. Some do the job better than others.

There have been two camps when it comes to choosing kitchen towels: those who prefer 100 percent linen, and those who prefer 100 percent cotton. (And, for indecisive people, the linen-cotton blend.) But that equation is changing, as more and more towels come onto the market that are made with synthetic microfiber and with eco-friendly materials, such as hemp or bamboo fibers.

Whatever the material, the most important feature of a good kitchen towel is its absorbency. Nothing is more irritating when you're facing a mountain of pots and pans to dry after a dinner party than to be at the mercy of a towel that merely moves the water around the pot without absorbing so much as a drop. My brother-in-law uses an absorbency test, in which he puts the corner of a towel beneath a running faucet. If the water beads even a little, he deems the towel a failure.

Because most stores won't allow you to "test-drive" their kitchen towels, there are a few features to consider when buying some.

Look for towels labeled "thirsty" or "highly absorbent." A towel in a store may not feel particularly absorbent, but that's because many towels, particularly those that are dyed and those with prints, are treated with a coating that protects the material and makes it stiff. Washing the towel before you use it usually removes the coating and makes the towel softer and more absorbent.

Waffle-weave cotton towels are among the most absorbent because of their fluffy, textured surface and pockets that capture water. Joanie Ballard, owner of R.H. Ballard Art Rug Home, in Washington, Va., says she uses French waffle-weave towels from Le Jacquard Francais for "the big stuff," like wiping countertops and spills. For drying dishes she prefers the company's smooth cotton jacquard towels, which come in a gorgeous array of woven colors and patterns.

For cleaning glass and crystal, look for finer-weave towels, sometimes labeled "glass towel." These are made from smooth, hard-twisted cotton or linen yarns that produce little or no lint. Microfiber, which is made from a polyester blend, is an increasingly popular material for glass towels because it, too, is lint-free. However, I've found that microfiber can be less absorbent than cotton or linen.

In addition to being absorbent, a good kitchen towel needs to be durable. Think of how often it gets tossed into the wash, and of the various duties it performs beyond drying china and cutlery. My kitchen towels double as oven mitts; and they've wiped up more than their fair share of tomato sauce splatters and red wine spills over the years. Usually, I just toss my dirty towels in the laundry. But for getting out resistant stains, Ballard recommends soaking towels overnight in water mixed with Oxy-Clean. It goes without saying that a kitchen towel that is not machine washable is not the kitchen towel for me.

Once a kitchen towel has been laundered, it loses its stiffness, and with that, its straight edges and clean, pressed look. This is nothing that a little ironing can't remedy. The plain truth, however, is that I am unlikely to iron my kitchen towels. Cheryl Mendelson, the author of "Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House," suggests rolling towels tightly around a tube while they are still warm from the dryer. But I consider it a victory if I get to fold them while they are still warm.

The best kitchen towels are those with both style and substance, beauty and brawn. I have a jacquard-weave towel from Italy that is probably as old as my 17-year-old marriage. But I refuse to get rid of it because not only does it dry well, but the woven design is an exquisite illustration of the ingredients for ribollita, a classic Tuscan bean soup.

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