Among the many pleasures of Michael Ruhlman’s Making of a Chef is a generous helping of kitchen technique and best practices, gleaned through his introductory Skills class at the Culinary Institute of America. The use of the side towel is a good example. Except when working front of house, every student is required to have a side towel, akin to a home dish towel but with a minimum standard for thickness and sturdiness, tucked into his or her apron string at all times. The side towel is not for wiping counters or washing dishes. It has only one purpose: handling hot pots and pans.
If you thought pot holders were for that purpose, take a look at the picture above. The surface of the pot holder has melted due to excessive heat in our recently acquired home kitchen, which has 15,000 BTU stove burners and two fierce ovens. And with that rubberized face I am sure it was marketed as a high quality pot holder, not a gewgaw. Much worse are “crafty” pot holders that are designed to be pretty rather than functional. I shudder at the thought of grabbing a half sheet pan of baguettes at 500 degrees F with such a rag.
With a side towel you know what you have as long as it’s thick, in good condition, and made without polyester. (Outrageously, some decorative dishtowels contain this or another plastic, which conducts rather than insulates against heat. There oughta be a law!) If you’re not confident in the protection, give it another fold. And keep it dry! Water is a great conductor of heat so a damp towel could poach your fingers. Ouch!