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The side-towel topic


Fat Guy
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This is an example of a side towel:

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Typically, in restaurant kitchens side towels are used by cooks to grab the handles of hot pots. They're also sometimes used to keep a cook's area neat. In many restaurant kitchens, each cook works with two side towels or stacks of side towels: some for dry work (as a pot holder) and others for wet work (wiping up the station). Wet towels conduct heat quickly, so you don't want to cross over and use a wet towel as a pot holder.

Anthony Bourdain briefly discusses side towels in "Kitchen Confidential." On page 59 of my copy (there are various editions), he writes in part:

. . . messy station equals messy mind. This explains why side towels are hoarded like gold by good line cooks. When the linen order arrives, the smart cookies fall onto it voraciously, stashing stacks of the valuable objects anywhere they can hide them. One cook I knew would load them above the acoustic tile in the ceiling, along with his favorite tongs . . . . I'm sure that years later, though the restaurant has changed hands many times, future generations of cooks are still finding stashes of fluffy, clean side towels.

Every professional cook I know, every restaurant kitchen I've seen, they all use side towels. And they should: the side towel is versatile, practical and cost-effective. It is one of those rare things that's just great at what it does.

Yet, home cooks almost never take advantage of side towels. Instead, they use oven mitts, pot holders and other specialized items that cost more and don't work as well as side towels. With a side towel, you get excellent control over whatever you're grabbing. Mitts and pot holders are clumsy by comparison.

I was hoping we could accomplish a few things on this topic. First, I'd love to hear from restaurant veterans about your side towel stories. Kick in a photograph of your side towel if you have one around. What color is it (I see mostly blue around here, but apparently white is common and I've heard reports of purple), what are its dimensions? (The side towel above is one I wore out the door one night when I was trailing at Gramercy Tavern in New York City; if I stretch it to what are probably its original dimensions, it's 18"x24".) Second, to home cooks I issue a challenge and a call to arms: let's all get rid of our stupid pot holders and mitts and switch to side towels. And let's use this topic to express and revel in our newfound side-towel solidarity. Third and finally, let's discuss where to get good side towels cheap.

Let the side-towel discussion begin!

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Hmmm and hmmm. This would require re-training of head homechef, my husband. He is in a wonderful rut where he not only cooks breakfast and supper he serves me too. I'm not sure if it's to my advantage to upset his apple cart there.

Hmm, a revolution. He might go for it. I could tell him when he grows up he could be like Chef-boy-wonder, formerly known as Chef-wanna-be (our son).

Umm, don't home chefs generally tend to torch kitchens with flaming towels or was I just hallucinating?

And the hugest hurdle is the wetness factor.

Umm, I'm not trying to be a downer here but what happens in a home kitchen is unlike commercial kitchens where we have to elbow and threaten, bribe and cajole to get one or two decent towels daily. (Never thought to look in the ceiling!)The home kitchen is flush with towels. Eveyone uses them. The home cook would burn his paws off because someone would dry their hands on it and foil him royally. I use that eff word advisedly.

The big fat cushy awkward pot holders and mitts are kept dry avoiding calls to the firehouse and er.

Hmm...I'm not convinced but I'm open.

I mean after all we have folks who are bare handedly grabbing skillets out of hot oven. I'm afraid we'd set the world on fire.

But I will run this past chef...better not scew up my being catered to...

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I have always preferred side towels as an all-purpose home kitchen tool. I use them to grab hot panhandles; to clean up dribbles of sauce on plated presentations; to dry dishes, glassware, silverware, pots and pans; wet as a sponge alternative and dry as a paper towel alternative in cleaning up counters, etc.; to squeeze the water out of blanched greens I'm later going to sauté or cream; as a cover for rising dough; new and good-looking ones are nice for wrapping around a bunch of fresh warm biscuits or rolls in a bowl; and many other things.

I have my towels washed with the whites in hot water with bleach, so I'm not particularly concerned about bacteria or anything like that (certainly not compared to using a sponge!).

I keep my side towels folded and stacked in a deep drawer under the counter that is my main working space.

As others have pointed out, they're very inexpensive. Once mine start looking ratty, they're turned into general-purpose house cleaning and furniture polishing rags.

The thing that's nice about having a lot of them around is that you never feel like you have to conserve. If one of your side towels gets damp and you don't feel good about using it to protect your hands as you lift that cocotte out of the hot oven, just toss it into the laundry bin and get a fresh side towel.

Personally, I hate things like oven mits because they're awkward (my grip never feels as secure with oven mits as it does using a side towel) and single-purpose.

Places like Costco, Sam's Club and Bed Bath & Beyond always seem to have side towels in packs of 20 or so for a reasonably cheap price.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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I LOVE my side towels. However, I also LOVE my oven mitts. Because, I HATE getting burned by my clumsy self, when reaching into the ovens! My side towels are white with blue or pink stripes running down the edges, I got them at a jewelry supply company, a lifetime ago.

I say, keep whatever works for you!

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I LOVE my side towels. However, I also LOVE my oven mitts. Because, I HATE getting burned by my clumsy self, when reaching into the ovens! My side towels are white with blue or pink stripes running down the edges, I got them at a jewelry supply company, a lifetime ago.

I say, keep whatever works for you!

I'm with you, Rebecca. Side towels are good for many things, but, for me, they'll never take the place of these Kool-Tek oven mitts.

"There is no sincerer love than the love of food."  -George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman, Act 1

 

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I don't think I have ever seen a kitchen mit in a professional kitchen--only towels. They're inexpensive, easily cleaned, and work extremely well when wet to wipe off plate garnishes or stable a cutting board (by putting it underneath).

At home I do not own any mits--you can by a set of small towels at any kitchen suply store not to mention Costco (if you prefer the nicer, more home oriented styled ones). I have about 30 of them and usually about half of them are dirty and half of them are in one of my kitchen drawers.

If any of them get burned or cut I use them to clean the inside of the oven, stove top, and sometimes even floor! If you get white ones, bleach takes care of almost any stain immediatly.

Definitely an unappreciated tool in the kitchen!

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Great topic!

My wife constantly bemoans my love of these things. I absolutely cannot use anything else - my hands just no longer work without them.

Unfortunately, I'm also a wastrel. If I'm a freak about a clean station, I'm a loser when it comes to using them judiciously - one bit of soil, I toss them into the bin and get another. As I do at home, and our basket is lined with more towels than anything else.

I have two kinds - white, rectangular, pale green stripe lengthwise; I use these wet for anchoring cutting boards, wiping finishe plates, etc. Others, plush, blue striped - pans, oven basting, etc.

-Paul

 

Remplis ton verre vuide; Vuide ton verre plein. Je ne puis suffrir dans ta main...un verre ni vuide ni plein. ~ Rabelais

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Yay Side-towels. Or 'dish-towels' as I still persist in calling them, having grown up without a dish-washer. Towels win because they're so multi-purpose; wet-wipe, dry holder, chopping board stabiliser, &c.

I grudge the counter space for a stack of towels, especially in the tiny galley I'm currently using. A small, simple stainless towelrail screwed onto the front of a drawer [in lieu of the handle] works adequately for me. Once the towel is wet it doesn't get back on the rail that session.

How many of us, I wonder, have discovered for ourselves just why a wet towel makes such a poor pick-up tool? :biggrin:

People give me mitts, and sets of mitts and matching towels [mitts too small for my big mitts, and towels usually too thin to be much use] - there's a whole 'gift for the cook' industry out there we'll be fighting against.

T.J.'s / Homesense often have decent towels at decent prices, but then I'm not buying stacks of thirty. The things hardly ever actually wear out....

Given that the mitts get used around me as a heat-pads to protect table finishes, my eye was taken by a pair of "square mitts" recently. Think heat-pad with an extra layer of fabric sewn to the underside, open generously at one corner to allow it to be 'worn' temporarily. Better functionality than the usual mitts, but less useful than the humble towel.

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Yeah, I ran this past my personal chef here, he came home for a minute, and he says, "Buy new hot pads?" See I can't mess up a good thing. That did not compute. We can't be in the revolution this time.

Besides think of all the little girls dutifully looming potholders that the revolution would put out of business were it not for those of us set in our ways. :biggrin:

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Hmmm, let's see. At the restaurants I worked in, side towels were always yellow or white, and I always would keep one over my shoulder (or in my hand), and another tucked into my apron, on the backside to the left. Obviously anytime I grabbed a pan it was with a towel (and it was always folded in half twice).

Of course, sometimes it was hazardous trying to reach for a pan in the back of the range with a towel (sometimes they'd catch fire), so we'd use tongs to grab the handle of the pan with one hand, drag it to the edge of the range, and then grab it with the towel hand.

The nice thing about using towels, was that they were reliable. As long as the towel was dry, you knew you wouldn't burn yourself. Since the towel was always folded, any holes in the towel didn't matter, there were more layers to protect you. In an oven mitt, often the insulation moves and theres spots where theres no insulation, so you burn yourself.

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I've found that no matter which type of protection you use -- pot holder, oven mitt, towel -- there's some risk that it will catch fire if you've got multiple burners cranking and you're reaching around in the inferno. I have not, however, found that a towel is any more likely to catch fire than, say, a pot holder. Towels can be folded down quite small and because they're not sewn in padded layers you get a lot of tactile feedback and you have a lot of control over the towel and the pot, whereas pot holders have a tendency to flop around, especially that little loop that many have in the corner.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Mmmmno, towels catch fire a zillion times more than potholders because of the fiddling and folding.

The little loops on the mitts & hot pads got nothing on a wimpy fold. Even if it's a great fold, it's still got a lot of excess material flailing around there in/near the flame.

bwhooosh

You were blessed by God to get anything resembling white or yellow or blue in a commercial kitchen/bakery for a towel. If I could find one that didn't look like we'd cleaned the health inspector's white walls with it I was having a good day.

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Love this topic!

I am a collector of dish towels. I buy them in places that I travel as memory keepers and use them for dish work or for when company comes. As they wear, I relegate them to the side towel status, ready for stains, burns, ect. I have not had a dishwasher for 10 years, since my home was built in the 40's and the counters will not properly fit a dishwasher (this is changing). When I am housecleaning with an old favorite, I appreciate the memory of where it was purchased and how it was used. It helps with the drudgery. I have a couple of towels that I purchased at the Grand Canyon gift shop over 25 years ago, with my husband, before we were married. Those are now in our camping gear and I love using them on our yearly camping trips. I have dish towels that my mother purchased in her travels which are "company only" as she died when I was young and I want to preserve them.

Since joining my supper club, I have needed more side towels. There can be eight of us cooking and messing at a time. I buy those at Costco and cycle them to floor work and house cleaning as they wear. They are cheap, but their drawback is the "threadiness". The threads are not condusive to plating or drying stemware. I hate seeing wipes on my plate in resturants. If I had a ton of money I would use the William Sonoma dish towels for drying and side work. They provide a great grip without the threads (combed cotton maybe?). As for potholders, I appreciate them more after they have worn down a bit, especially the ones with the "flame retardant" underside. But new potholders and oven mits (especially) do not fit my small hands and therefore provide a poor grip, especially after a couple of glasses of wine!

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Mine are always white or yellow. For the last while I haven't had to hoard them, because as chef I've had the key to the linen stores... :cool:

I may be in the minority, here, but I think both the mitts and the towels have their place. I like the short (wrist-length) heavy-duty Kevlar oven mitts, found at most kitchen supply places. They're thick enough that it takes a long time for the padding to wear thin, even in a busy place, and they're short enough that the cuffs aren't hanging over the gas and catching fire.

I tend to use the mitts for heavy items (full stockpots, roasting pans with a full case of bones in them, etc) and the towels for most other things. I have burned myself more with towels than mitts, but that says more about me than the towels. I have incinerated a lot of towels in my time, and a few of my whites have scorched cuffs. At one time, my daughter's weekend sport was checking my forearms for tell-tale bare patches where the hair had burned off. To me, forearm hair is my early-warning system: when I smell burning hair I know I've got a split second to move my arm before I scorch something important.

Towels are the most amazingly versatile tool in my kitchen, though. In addition to the above uses, I especially value them as a way to get a decent grip on a slippery fish skin. Skinning a fillet without a towel is an exercise in frustration, unless your fingertips are sandpapery by nature.

Side towels also provided one of several unintentionally humourous moments in Ruhlman's Making of a Chef. Early in the book, the obviously-awed Ruhlman mentions that the CIA uses specially-imported towels from Germany, since American-made towels are simply not of high enough quality. Shortly thereafter, he pounds home the point that these towels are not to be used for wiping hands, cleaning counters, or anything else...they are for handling hot pots and pans. That's emphatically all.

I remember cracking up when I read that. What are they saying, there's no American towel fit to hold a pot with? Gimme a break!

(No offence, MR...I loved the book, I just found that part funny)

“Who loves a garden, loves a greenhouse too.” - William Cowper, The Task, Book Three

 

"Not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition...The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.” - psychologist David Dunning

 

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I don't take issue with using serious mitts for hauling around big stockpots and roasting pans. What I think is counterproductive is using oven mitts for cooking on the stovetop, or for handling a pan under the broiler, or for pulling cookie sheets from the oven, or any of several other tasks home cooks (who rarely need to lift hot stockpots) use them to perform.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I, too, love this topic!

I've always used mitts (or pads) for handling hot items--mainly because my mother (who is an indifferent cook) always did. They're conveniently stashed in a small, otherwise useless (because it's too narrow) drawer between the ovens and the cooktop. The up side is that I always know where they are (or should be) and it's become second nature to reach for them there. In addition, I have an extremely random assortment of kitchen towels, mostly in pairs, from Target b/c I can never resist their cute, seasonal offerings. Most of those are "flour sack" type--I'm not very fond of the cheap terry ones as they tend to leave lint on my dishes. In the wet bar, we have a stash of terry bar towels that don't seem to have the same problem, but I rarely use those in the kitchen.

It honestly never occurred to me to transfer the professional kitchen concept of side towels to my home kitchen. D'oh! :rolleyes: I think my brain is just too compartmentalized. Now that we're seriously planning the new kitchen, however (meeting with the contracter in an hour to get a quote on the "heavy lifting" portion of the project), I've just had a side towel epiphany and am trying to determine where I'm going to be able to incorporate storage for the clean and dirty towel stashes.

I wonder if a configuration something like this will work--if I could work it out to have only two bins. OR... What about a 12" cabinet with two drawers--the top one for clean towels, the bottom one for dirty towels (although I think maybe it would need to be lined with a plastic tub for the truly wet towels). OR... Does anyone know where I'd find something like wire mesh baskets in place of wooden drawers for a kitchen cabinet--something like you'd see in a cheap closet-organizing system.

(Top of the fridge is out since I'm planning on an integrated refridgerator)

Thanks for starting the conversation, FG!

Feast then thy heart, for what the heart has had, the hand of no heir shall ever hold.
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We have stacks and stacks of what I call dish towels; so many in fact, that they won't all fit in the drawer assigned to them. The good part of this is that means there's always a clean stack waiting their turn down in the laundry.

Ours are also a mix of flour sack type and a sort of waffle weave. The flour sack ones are generally souvenirs of places we or our families have visited. The waffle weave sort are typically purchased in bulk packs of 6 or so from BJ's Wholesale club.

However, we don't use any of them as potholders. Although I haven't been a little girl for quite some time, I still dutifully weave our potholders and hot pads on my little red looper loom. I buy cotton loops (no nylon! Ouch!) in bulk on eBay to weave these little guys. They are thick and great protection if kept dry, and they wash really well. I highly recommend them, although they certainly would look very out of place in a professional kitchen.

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I think another issue to using side towels more in home kitchens is expertise or rather lack of it. In a commercial kitchen, the cooks and chefs are used to quickly whipping out the towel (and having asbestos hands really helps a lot too) because this is a technique they repeat hundreds of times. But in home situations, I just see the cook fiddling with the towel and dipping it in the fire. Especially when they need to move quickly.

Ok here's a thought. Y'know what a quillow is? It's a little throw quilt, just a small size quilt that folds up into a pillow because there's a little pocket sewn into one place where you can fold it all up and tuck it into the clever little perfectly placed pocket--all one piece of course. I think the home chef needs that much help to have the pocket to act as the guide to keep him from torching the place. But just out of regular towel material.

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I'm slowly accumulating more data on side towels. I spoke to a chef this morning who says that a lot of the restaurants around here (New York City) get their blue side towels from a laundry service in Queens. He says that in restaurants in other cities where he has worked they usually use terry-cloth bar-mop towels as side towels, but that the blue side towels in widespread use here are not terry. Rather, they're thick but flat, and are not particularly absorbent. So at the restaurants that use them, they issue the blue towels for use as pot holders and they issue white bar mop towels for cleaning up the station. This color scheme also helps prevent mistakes. I'm trying to find out the name of the actual supplier -- maybe I can get some samples.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I've been using cotton "shop rags" for years in my kitchen. They work for everything... pot holders, wiping up spills, and drying pots and pans. Here's a company that sells them I just found on the net.

In poking around a little, I see that they also sell side towels, as well as bar towels and dish towels.

Edited by Country (log)
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Target sells packs of flour sack towels for $6/6 towels--I picked up a couple of packs yesterday (damn you, eGullet, for the power of suggestion!); once they're washed and in use, I'll post a report.

Feast then thy heart, for what the heart has had, the hand of no heir shall ever hold.
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If I never had to touch a dish towel again it would be perfect.

I think I have 3 in the house and maybe a Christmas decorative one (the others have kitties on them).

They are often damp and I dont know how they got that way, I hope no one wiped the counter or anything I might eat off, because I may have wiped my greasy hands on it....see too much maybe, could be yucky or damp or greasy or been near dog hair.

Yes I am a paper towel addict

no mitts just flat pot holders

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I'm glad somebody said rags, because that is what everybody calls them in Halifax. We definitely have had some rag hoarders where I work. Three of them, in fact, and they all just quit. I wonder if we'll ever find all their stashes? :)

Anyway, here's a question for all you science minded folk: Why does a wet rag conduct heat when a dry rag doesn't? Water has such a high capacity for heat, you would think that it wouldn't make a rag a worse insulator. But we've all been burned by a rag we didn't realise was wet, so obviously something is wonky.

Any ideas?

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Anyway, here's a question for all you science minded folk:  Why does a wet rag conduct heat when a dry rag doesn't?  Water has such a high capacity for heat, you would think that it wouldn't make a rag a worse insulator.  But we've all been burned by a rag we didn't realise was wet, so obviously something is wonky. 

Any ideas?

I think it has something to do with the water turning to steam. Also even a damp rag (see I called it a rag) will likely be more compressible than a dry one meaning among other things that there is less air in it which likely also degrades its ability to insulate.

Jon

--formerly known as 6ppc--

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