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Paper Towels

It took 96 rolls—88,608 sheets—to find one phenomenal paper towel.

What We Learned

Colorful Dutch ovens, turbocharged blenders, and flashy knives may hog the spotlight, but the most essential piece of equipment in our test kitchen just might be the humble paper towel. We use paper towels to sop up grease, water, and other messes; to blot meat and dry herbs; to scrub gritty stovetops and counters; to oil grill grates; to wipe out cast-iron skillets; and simply to dry our hands. A good paper towel is tough, absorbent, and versatile.

While many shoppers just buy whichever paper towels are on sale, we decided to test them to find out which product performs best. We focused on the smallest rolls sold by the top seven national manufacturers. Since people have very strong opinions on the issue of full-sheet versus variable-sheet paper towels, we included both styles: five full-sheet and seven variable-sheet, for a grand total of 12 products priced from about $0.90 to $2.50 per roll.

Towels and cleaning supplies in hand, we set to work. We used single sheets from each roll to scrub all-purpose cleaner off six different surfaces—plastic, wood, metal, granite, marble, and glass—and examined the towels for tears, lint, and excessive wetness on the surfaces or our hands. We used folded towels to blot four steaks dry and drained fried bacon onto a triple layer of each towel, checking to see if any meat juices or grease soaked through. We loaded the rolls onto a paper towel holder and ripped sheets off with wet and dry hands. And then we scrubbed some more, examining the appearance of each towel after 100, 200, and 300 passes across a semiabrasive plastic cutting board.

We also took some measurements, examining the thickness and dimensions of each towel and counting the number of sheets on each roll. We got an objective read on absorbency by weighing single sheets dry and then fully soaked with water to calculate the amount of liquid they could hold per square inch, and we measured strength by lifting 30-, 200-, and 500-gram weights (about 1 ounce, 7 ounces, and 17 ounces, respectively) placed on top of both dry and wet towels. Finally, we rounded up 36 testers to try out the rolls at home over the course of four weeks.

The first thing we noticed: There was no performance difference between full-sheet and variable-sheet paper towels from each manufacturer. Though the variable sheets were about half the width of full-size sheets, they were equally as strong and absorbent per square inch. Testers were firmly split over which style they favored, so we called it a wash and agreed that style is a matter of preference, not performance.

But sheet style was the only thing our testers were split on—most towels completely bombed o...