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Kitchen Towels Are My New Savior, and Other Lies I Tell Myself

With paper towels scarce, I’m gaining new appreciation for the standard kitchen towel

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Woman washing cloths in a kitchen sink, 1950.
Kitchen towels are no paper towels, but they’ll work for now.
Photo by SSPL/Getty Images

I have a paper towel problem. In a normal week I tear through two to three of those jumbo-size rolls that barely fit on the countertop holder. I use them to clean up small messes, big messes, non-messes, every mess. I use them to dry my hands after each little rinse in the kitchen sink. I use them as dinner napkins, as makeshift plates, as Kleenex. And mostly I use them to wipe the schmutz off every square inch of my two gross children multiple times per day.

I am acutely aware that using so many paper towels is wasteful and killing trees and makes all the other small eco-moves I do (Beeswax wraps! Glass containers!) seem hypocritical. But yet, paper towels are ever-so-easy and hygienic and convenient and, under normal circumstances, readily available. Parents get it — we discuss our rampant paper towel use with the same hushed tones and side winks that we do when divulging our dependence on screen time and prescription edibles.

For years, every time I tore through those little select-a-size perforations (note: the correct size is always three) I felt a twinge of shame — an emotion that, as it turns out, was for naught because the novel coronavirus has finally exposed the American public for the selfish, paper towel addicted monsters they really are. We are a nation of roll hoarders. It is now nearly impossible to find paper towels in any store in the U.S., anywhere. A neighbor recently sent me an urgent text when — in an act of true love — she spotted a roll shoved in a random abandoned cart at Target. By the time I hermetically sealed myself enough for a public appearance and drove down there, it was gone. At this very moment I have one half roll of the crappy stuff hiding in my cupboard that I am rationing out like the last dustings of a baggie on a Saturday night.

So, as is the case with many aspects of modern life in the wake of COVID-19, I’m being forced to adapt. And out of the ashes of my crumpled paper towel heap has arisen an unexpected new savior: The humble kitchen towel. I’ve always had stacks of these thin, stiff, mismatched strips fabric stuffed in a drawer, which I would break out from time to time to literally dry a dish, but that was about it. Now, with my multi-purpose disposable crutch unavailable, kitchen towels have emerged as an essential part of my kitchen — and honestly, life — toolbox.

Here’s why:

They clean things

I don’t know why I had it in my head that kitchen towels are only for drying things. They also sop and scrub and, when damp, actually clean pretty great! Just as before I can spray my countertop cleaner of choice and wipe a dish towel over it like one would a paper towel or a sponge — a disgusting, unsanitary sponge.

But they do so much more than clean things!

Need to wring the moisture out of shredded potatoes or zucchini? Twist it in a dish towel. Need to cover (but not seal) some proofing dough or steaming rice? Drape a kitchen towel over it. Lettuce too wet? Dab it with that towel. A couple wadded up (and dry!) towels work just super as pot holders, and folded over they’re great makeshift trivets. The use of kitchen towels as table napkins has been well documented, but now I actually tie one around my kids neck, tape the other end to the counter, and make a scoop bib for catching dribbles. Come month three of isolating with my family, I bet they’ll also make a choice escape rope when tied securely together at the corners.

They’re reusable

This seems obvious, but it didn’t really hit home until I started using them regularly. I can run a damp towel under my kid’s chair to snag all the gross cheerio crumbs and old wrinkly peas that are under there, take it to the sink, rinse it out, let it dry, and it’s good to clean something else gross and horrible in an hour or so. Plus, at the end of each night I just grab all the rinsed sullied towels, throw them in the washing machine, and they’re ready for the next days’ worth of destruction.

They look great

Paper towels are about as good for your decor as they are for the environment — but kitchen towels can make a statement. There are all kinds of cute designer patterns available, or you can go classic with the bistro-chic white with a red stripe. Queer Eye’s food-centric thirst trap Antoni Porowski has even made them into a fashion accessory, and I recently discovered I own six different variations of cat-themed towels, so there’s that.

So have kitchen towels totally cured me of my paper towel addiction? God no. Not even close. In fact if you have a lead on any rolls in the greater Southern California area please email me! Interesting barters considered. But do I now look at all those weird rags shoved in my kitchen drawer in a whole new light? Yes, sure. While you can get the same thrill from just about any piece of semi-absorbent fabric, if you need a recommendation, go for this four-pack of classic, no-fail white ones. They aren’t paper towels, but they get the job done.

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