Leather is Better! (Sorry PETA)
Until you get calluses built up on your hands, and even then, you’re going to need a good set of grilling mitts. Now, I know there are a lot of other grilling tools out there much more manly than a set of grilling mitts, but we’re classifying the mitt as an “Essential Tool,” and having some good mitts can be essential, especially when grilling with charcoal.
I prefer leather mitts for several reasons. One, they just plain work better for heat protection when dealing with hot chimneys and grill grates. Leather is naturally a good insulator and not a great conductor of heat. Never mind that stylish, cherry red “leather” interior we’ve all burned our legs on whilst jumping into a sun beaten LeBaron convertible. If you really want to geek out, check out the Thermal Conductivity of Some Common Materials.
Secondly, they will hold up longer. Leather mitts don’t get burn holes in them from coals like fabric mitts do. I can’t tell you how many fabric mitts I’ve literally burned through over the summers. Leather stands up to the task, even if that’s juggling hot embers. Just be sure to juggle at your own risk and always wear safety glasses.
Finally, the leather mitts I’ve used have always seemed to have a better grip than competing mitts. Trust me, that’s important when you’re carrying a chimney full of hot coals over to your grill in shorts and sandals.
I use a mitt made by Outset, and like the tongs, once I found the one I liked I bought a few of them. They will always come in handy. Just make sure to get a well made pair, thick enough for high temperatures.