Cooks love to tell burn stories. The worst I know happened to my friend Jerome, the baker at Ducasse in Paris at the time. It occurred when he was baking delicious olive rolls, similar to cinnamon rolls but filled with savory tapenade. Like many pro cooks, he often took the baking sheets out of the oven using only folded side-towels (another name for kitchen towels) to protect his hands from the heat.
One day, a pan fell out of the oven as he was removing it and landed on Jerome’s bare forearms. If you’ve ever tried to shift a steak you’ve just slapped down in a hot skillet, you’ll know how flesh can stick to pans. After a second of shock, Jerome ripped the pan away instinctively, taking off layers of his skin. His forearms were soon covered in giant blisters, and he will be scarred forever—as will be everyone who witnessed the horrifying sight.
If he’d been using long oven mitts, this wouldn’t have happened. But chefs often don’t want to spend the few seconds it takes to pull on mitts. Potholders are regarded as too homey (read: uncool). Inexpensive, multipurpose side-towels, tucked into apron strings at one’s side (hence the name), are the preferred protection. They insulate hands well enough for most jobs, even when damp, if you fold them over. Except for when they don’t.
I heartily endorse side-towels. But as a home cook, you don’t need to take big risks in the name of speed. Why not get a couple different kinds of protection and grab the right one for the job?
Silicone Pot Holder with Magnet
By OXO, $11.99
Despite their dowdy rep, these OXO potholders have been spotted hanging on the home fridges of quite a few pro chefs. They actually stick to the fridge, thanks to magnets embedded in them. There is a silicone loop for hanging, too.
Ribs of heat-resistant silicone (up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit) cover the exterior. They’re flexible, and hold even wet or greasy surfaces securely, unlike stiffer holders that never get a grip. They have a breathable fabric lining and cover up to your wrist.
They come in six different colors and are machine washable and dryable, just like your old-fashioned terrycloth ones. But the silicone surface will keep them snazzy-looking long after those cloth holders have bitten the dust.
Mayflower Kitchen Towels
By Bragard, $78 per dozen
The things you want in a great bath towel—big, soft, fluffy, absorbent—you don’t want in a kitchen towel. In the latter case, you want something a little stiff, preferably made of durable linen, and not too absorbent, so it dries fast, staying cleaner and safer to use for hot pickups. One of the first lessons a cook learns about his kitchen towel is that when it’s wet, it gets hot fast, because water is a better conductor of heat than air.
Bragard is the most venerable name in chefs’ coats among pros, but the company’s towels are not as well known. That’s because most professional kitchens get their towels from a linen service. Bragard towels are typically ordered directly by chefs for special use, like a public demo.
While Bragard does have all-cotton towels, the Mayflowers are half linen. Made from the fibers of flax plants, linen can absorb water quickly yet dries rapidly, which is why it’s long been a summertime clothing staple. These towels are 24 by 30 inches, perfectly sized for hanging off your apron strings or over a towel bar. Quickly fold them down some more, and they work as potholders.
If you’re a vintage kitchen linens freak, the natural-colored linen and red stripes look and feel a lot like expensive French torchons you see in Provence flea markets—or sometimes on eBay—but at a fraction of the price. Plus you can actually use them as kitchen towels because they’re not nearly as precious.
Right now, Bragard is offering three free towels for every dozen purchased.
The towels are machine washable. They look best after they’ve been ironed, which, yes, can be a pain, but the luxurious results are worth it.
In professional kitchens, especially bakeries, you’re more likely to see puppet-style mitts than conventional mitts. Puppet mitts let thumbs stay in their more natural position when picking something up: over the palm, not jutting out to the side. This style was designed for the best handling of flat things, like baking sheets and oven racks. They’re also terrific for outdoor grill pans, and just about any hot thing, pot handles included. These Kool-Tek mitts are about as puffy as your grandmother’s old cotton ones but are all high-tech OSHA-approved protection inside. The palms, the most-used and -abused area of gloves, are Kevlar-enforced. The mitts come in a 24-inch-long model, but the 12-inch covers and protects wrists and forearms well enough for most home use.
They hold up to commercial laundering, so will survive your normal wash load in excellent condition.
While they may seem a little pricey for the home cook, remember that they were built for heavy professional use and will probably be the last pair you’ll ever need to buy.