Published October 1, 2009. From Cook's Country.
Don’t throw in the towel! One cloth does it all.
Many dish towels can’t handle the smallest kitchen mishap. Some have zero absorbency, while others wipe up spills easily but stain just as readily. Then there are towels that shrink to the size of a tissue in the dryer or break delicate stemware with their bulk. We tested eight towels, from $2.50 to $8.99, in our search for a dish towel that would soak up liquid, dry dishes without streaks or destruction, and look good as new after washing.
SOAKING IT UP
Our dish towels came in fabrics from microfiber to cotton, bamboo to rayon. Microfiber—a synthetic made by splitting polyester and polyamide fibers—stuck like Velcro to fingertips and fabrics. Cotton and cotton-blend towels differed radically, depending on the weave (flour sack, ribbed, or terry cloth). Bamboo felt cushy as a baby blanket. The most unusual was rayon, which promised to pick up 12 times its weight in water.
We suspended each towel over a measured bucket of water, letting one end dangle in the liquid. After 15 minutes, you could see a rising line as towels soaked up water, except for a few towels, which simply floated. A microfiber towel was the thirstiest, drinking a full cup. But when we wiped up spilled water, it dried no better than other materials, more or less pushing the spill around. Overall, one towel performed best; its ribs created extra surface area to dry every last drop.
We dried glass and metal bowls, wine glasses, and delicate champagne flutes. Thick, high-pile cotton towels couldn’t fit into narrow flutes, while flour sack and bamboo towels were so big and cumbersome (nearly 5 square feet) we were afraid we’d drop glassware. The most useful size was 3 square feet: One towel was just undersized, and another just oversized, but both were thin enough to maneuver in tight spots.
To simulate messy spills, we stained each towel with mustard, wine, soy sauce, beet juice, and oil, and let them sit over a weekend. On Monday we found a dry, caked-on mess. After one laundry cycle, only one towel was completely stain-free. Despite seven more laundry cycles, no other towels ever came clean.
Every towel shrank a little after eight cycles of washing and drying. But bamboo towels underwent a sea change: They emerged from the machine curled, tattered, and truly miniature, with one brand shrinking by a whopping 53 percent. Microfiber towels, at 9 percent, shrank the least.
Innovative materials promised better absorption but often failed to deliver in the kitchen. While microfiber performed well, we couldn’t get past its uncomfortably prickly texture. In the end, we preferred the feel and absorbency of cotton, but some cotton towels were too bulky, and some couldn’t stand up to demanding kitchen work. Only one towel passed all our tests with near perfect scores: It’s the towel we’ve been waiting for. Now, we have no excuse for not drying the dishes.