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Towel dry

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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I've become dependent on a certain white product. I was hoping to cut back in 2008, if not kick the habit entirely. I figured weaning myself would be good for me and everyone around me, and might save a little money, too. 

As it turns out, cutting back on paper towels is a lot easier than it sounds. 

You knew I meant paper towels, right?

In the Amster-Burton household, I can whip through a 12-pack of paper towels from Costco in less than two months. And those are the big rolls. Here's when I reach for my Bounty:

[%image papertowel float=right width=325 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/cveltri" caption="The big roll."]

 to wipe off my cutting board
 to wipe off the dining-room table
 to wipe something icky off the stovetop
 to wipe something icky off my daughter's face
 to pat the surface of meat dry
 to absorb excess oil from a pan

I do keep a terrycloth bar mop hanging in the kitchen, but it's basically there only for drying my hands and mopping up crime scenes and other major spills.

Aside from being environmentally unsound, paper towels are expensive. This is good, actually. I feel a shiver when my fiscal and environmental responsibilities are at cross-purposes (think of cheap meat, say). I'd like to save the world and be a cheapskate, thanks.

But two obstacles stood in the way of my enlightened use of paper towels.

1. Keeping the cutting board clean.

I use a wooden cutting board, and I frequently mince cilantro or parsley on it. This stuff sticks to the board and is hard to pry loose with a cloth towel. I thought about putting a plastic dishwasher-safe cutting surface on top of the board, as I do when cutting meat or tomatoes, but the rigidity of the surface makes it bad for mincing.

The solution was embarrassingly simple. Several years ago, Cook's Illustrated did a feature about uncommon uses for common kitchen tools. I laughed and made fun when they pointed out that a bench scraper can be used for — get this! — scraping your bench.

The joke was on me, of course. I have a bench scraper in the drawer just under the cutting board, and it gets used exclusively for working with dough and occasional deep-cleaning of the cutting board. Duh. So I minced up some cilantro, then pulled out the scraper and sent the leftover gunk directly into the trash.

In doing so, I realized why I'm hesitant to use the bench scraper. It has a wooden handle, and I only have one of them. I prefer my tools to be dishwasher-safe, not only because I'm lazy but because the dishwasher saves energy and money compared with hand-washing. (It's easy to forget this, especially if your dishwasher is as noisy as mine.) So I had a mental block against dirtying the lone bench scraper; I'd have to stop cooking and hand-wash it. This realization was almost as satisfying as when, several years ago, it hit me that rather than complaining when my favorite spatula was dirty, I could just buy more spatulas.

Solution: Buy a dishwasher-safe bench scraper. See? I'm saving money already.

2. Dealing with dirty towels.

I'm afraid of mildew. There, I admit it. I don't like to throw anything into the laundry hamper unless it's bone-dry, for fear that one day I'll find that all of my clothing has been replaced by fetid black ooze.

There's already a drawer full of fresh, clean towels in the kitchen. But if I start using them, they'll pile up. Then what do I do until laundry day? I can't just throw the used towels in the wash every day, because a load of laundry in my building costs $2.50. This would not be fiscally responsible. Nor would it be appropriate, according to my wife, to set up a drying rack of dirty towels in the living room. To make matters worse, my favored white bar-mop towels get wet fast, but take a long time to dry.

I was about to give up, when a little voice whispered one word in my ear: "Microfiber." For a moment, I was Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate.” 

The voice, however, came from, from the same thread that kicked off my anti-paper towel resolution in the first place: "A new strategy for dishtowels."

"Since I discovered microfiber towels, everything else seems like garbage to me," wrote eGullet user KitchenQueen. I'd heard of microfiber cloths, and I even have a couple already — small ones for cleaning my camera lens, my computer screen, and my glasses. They did not strike me as dishtowel material. The folks on eGullet, however, were gaga for microfiber, so I ordered some up from Amazon. They were two for $11, and I selected lavender. While I waited for them to arrive, I read up on what microfiber actually is.

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/Hallgerd" caption="Are you loyal to your cotton dishtowels, or would you switch to microfiber?"]

Microfiber, you will not be surprised to learn, is really, really thin synthetic fiber. It's fiber of less than one denier. A "denier" is equivalent to 1 gram per 9,000 meters. In other words, if you have nine thousand meters of a one-denier fiber, it will weigh one gram. Nine thousand meters is about six miles, and a penny weighs two grams, so microfiber is überthin. Microfiber makes waifish supermodels look like NFL players. After I received my microfiber towels, I weighed one on my kitchen scale and it was 90 grams, which means it contains a minimum of 500 miles of fiber.

What does all this fiber buy you? Insane absorbency. I've used up my allotment of bad similes for this column, but if microfiber towels were a person, they would be a very thirsty person. When you dry a glass with microfiber, it gets completely dry. In addition to the expensive towels from Amazon, I bought a pack of cheap green microfiber towels from my local supermarket, five for $2. They feel more like paper towels than cloth, but you can throw them in the laundry. I'm not actually sure which kind I like better; both are nice to have around.

Most important, microfiber towels dry quickly. My daughter and I soaked up several cups of water in one microfiber towel, then wrung it out and hung it up to dry. Periodically we would come over and poke at it. It took a couple of hours to dry, which was not that impressive until I recalled all the times I've hung up a bar-mop towel and found it still soaking the next day. These new towels are not going to mildew.

On the downside, microfiber towels pick up lint in the wash. The care instructions say to wash them separately, but I am not going to wash two towels separately. They also stain easily. But who cares about stains on kitchen towels?

"I used to use 2 rolls of paper towels a week. Now one roll goes for weeks," wrote KitchenQueen, eGullet's microfiber fan. I don't know if I'll get that good, but I'm going to buy some more microfiber, including some washcloths for child-degunking tasks. I still use paper towels for blotting meat and wiping up really gross things, but other than that, it's the low-denier life for me.

p(bio). [ "Matthew Amster-Burton"] writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

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