The perfect potholder doesn’t exist

When you need to grab a Dutch oven or baking sheet out of a blazing oven, what do you use to protect your hands? There are many options to choose from to complete this task: basic squares potholders, large oven mitts, silicone gripping pads and gloves, leather pot handle covers, cloth ‘oven gloves’, and the chef preferred side towel. None of them is ideal.

Bulky oven mitts provide the most protection from incidental contact with hot surfaces, covering the back side of your hands that can easily brush against the top or side of the oven resulting in a nasty burn. Their downside is that they are awkward to use in close quarters. I can’t tell you how many cookies, cupcakes, and muffins I have dented because the huge thumb of the mitt poked into the side of a goodie when I grabbed the pan. Lifting a Bundt pan off of a delicate cake using oven mitts without damaging the cake is next to impossible. That said, earlier this year no less of an authority than the New York Times chose a huge silicone oven mitt as the best tool for the job.

Basic square potholders are perhaps the most commonly used device to handle hot pans, but they have issues too. Some are so thin that you only have a few seconds to maneuver your pan before the heat penetrates to your hands. It’s easy for your fingers to slip over the edge of the potholder and onto a hot pan, resulting in a painful welt (and in my case, plenty of swear words). And they don’t provide any protection for the back of your hands or your forearms.

So-called ‘oven gloves’ offer benefits when it comes to dexterity and protecting the backs of your hands, but all I have seen have very low levels of heat protection. They might be acceptable for pulling a cookie sheet out of the oven and immediately placing it onto a cooling rack, but if you have to tightly grab a heavy pan’s handle and hold it for any length of time you will quickly wish you had a bulky oven mitt.

Covers that slip onto the handles of your pans are another option, but you have to have one to fit every handle, they always seem to get lost, and they don’t help with baking sheets. The worst are those little silicone ‘pincers’ that you can barely fit a fingertip into – they do not provide enough leverage to hold onto anything heavy. One thing I do like about handle covers is that they keep you from grabbing onto the handle after it’s been out of the oven for only a minute or two and is still blazing hot (how many times must I burn myself before I learn?).

What about the side towel? Michael Ruhlman wrote about them extensively in his book The Making of a Chef and has referenced them in several other books. He says they offer much more control over potholders and oven mitts, which he claims ‘look silly besides’. I’m more concerned with performance over aesthetics, although I do think side towels work at least as well as potholders, if you fold them appropriately. My biggest concern with side towels is that a loose side can dangle down, a problem if you are using them on a gas cooktop.

My husband once suggested that I try leather welding gloves instead of oven mitts or potholders. They were not quite as bulky as the mitts but they were surprisingly poor at keeping the heat away from my fingers. I did enjoy the ‘mad scientist’ vibe I had when wearing them, though.

Despite their shortcomings, for the most part I stick with long, bulky oven mitts, with the occasional side towel thrown into the mix. I am always on the lookout for a new and improved tool that I can use to protect my hands while still being able to deftly maneuver hot pans in the kitchen. What is your favorite: potholder, oven mitt, side towel (or something else)?

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8 Comments

  • matag  on  April 13, 2022

    I love the ones my grandkids made on their potholder loom! They work and I have a sentimental attachment to them!

  • averythingcooks  on  April 13, 2022

    “Ovgloves” are our choice for inside…..I can manage even the heaviest cast iron pans and Dutch ovens with them – one thing….if you have left them near the sink /on the counter near any spill of water and get a wet spot on them – you’ll know soon enough 🙁 We also have a different brand specifically for the BBQ (extreme heat resistant etcetc)

  • FJT  on  April 13, 2022

    I have Le Creuset’s double oven glove and it is wonderful. Great protection – never feel any heat at all – and really practical. My first set lasted about 15 years and I’ve just bought a replacement.

  • StokeySue  on  April 13, 2022

    I like what I call oven gloves – two mitts, with thumbs, joined by a scarf like strip of material

    My mitts are silicone, so they don’t pick up grease and don’t stop working when wet, I really recommend them

  • EmilyR  on  April 14, 2022

    My favorite are discontinued, but they can still be found – they are the Fred + Friends Poppin’ Hot Oven Mitt. They are silicone and look like bubble wrap, which offers excellent protection and never need replaced – plus they are easy to rinse.

  • Foodycat  on  April 15, 2022

    I have oven gloves made of Nomex – which is used in firefighting uniforms etc. If they get wet they are useless and if they get greasy they are less heat-resistant but as long as you keep them clean and dry they are brilliant. Can definitely get a cast iron pot out of the oven without problems.

  • mharriman  on  April 15, 2022

    I’ve been using Kitchen Grips brand gloves for several years and now don’t use anything else. I buy the small size. They aren’t cumbersome like the quilted ones or flimsy like square shaped potholders. I find them easy to grip most every handle and sheet pan. My husband uses the larger size version. I also like that they withstand tremendous heat and are easy to clean in dishwasher.

  • cookbookaddict2020  on  April 16, 2022

    silicone mitts are the best thing on the market by far, and the pair I just got — “gorilla grip” – are actually pretty soft and nimble.

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