How we tested
In professional kitchens, a trusty, albeit flimsy, side towel folded over a few times offers protection from things hot. Home cooks, however, whose hands are not as hardened as the vocational cook's, prefer to protect their paws with potholders. And, lucky for them, there is a panoply of potholders from which to choose, from simple terry-cloth swatches to high-tech silicone to plush leather squares. We selected five different potholders and used them when handling the handles on a tea kettle, stockpot, and heavy skillet (which had been in a 450-degree oven for 15 minutes), when removing a soufflé from the oven, and when manipulating hot pie plates and cake pans in the oven.
All potholders were adequately heat-resistant. The attributes of a winning potholder were softness, thinness, and suppleness, all of which allow a potholder to conform to the shape of the hand, making it comfortable to use and easy to grasp a hot object, whatever its shape.
The two best were a very basic potholder, and a pocket mitt. Both potholders were made of terry cloth and had a comfortable, broken-in feel from the get-go, but we slightly preferred the plain potholder over the Pocket Mitt because of its compact size (about 8 1/2 inches square before washing, about 8 inches square after three washes) and its thinner, more svelte feel. But the pocket mitt was good as well, just a bit bulkier.
We were skeptical of the potholders that can’t be machine washed (the label says to wipe clean with a damp sponge or cloth). Knowing how grungy potholders can become with use, we wondered about the life expectancy of these potholders.
Two potholders fell into the "not recommended" category. The first was far too rigid, even after three washes. A potholder has to conform easily to the movements and shape of the hand to make grasping the small rims on pie plates and cake pans or securing a good grasp on the narrow girth of a skillet handle easy. The look of our silicone potholders elicited wows, but they failed to impress when pressed into service. Though bendable, these potholders possessed a springy nature that made them awkward to use. On most surfaces, silicone potholders afford the user a firm, no-slip grip. But even a small drop of fat on the potholders or the item being grasped can render them slick and slippery, as one test cook discovered when using one to grasp a skillet whose handle had been lightly splattered with grease.