Cheesecloth comes in various grades, from a loose weave to a fairly tight, linen-like version. Cheesecloth can be used over and over again for culinary projects if you thoroughly and properly clean it after each use.
Prerinse or Soak Immediately
Many foods coagulate or harden quickly once they’re removed from their cooking liquid, so to facilitate proper cleaning, immediately rinse your cheesecloth in hot water or place it in hot water to soak until you have a chance to wash it. After soaking, rinse again. Try to remove as many bits of food as possible before you start to wash it.
Food Safe Soaps and Cleaning Agents
Use only food safe soaps certified by the National Sanitation Foundation that display the NSF certification mark. Regular household soaps contain toxic chemicals that may soak into the cotton fibers and later come into contact with your food.
Lemon juice, white vinegar and baking soda can also be useful for loosening up crusty bits and removing stains. You can add any one of these ingredients to soaking water. Use 1/2 cup to 1 cup per gallon of water, depending on how grimy the cheesecloth is. You can make a baking soda paste to scrub out stubborn stains. Be sure to rinse the cheesecloth thoroughly, because even lemon juice and vinegar may attract pathogens or fruit flies.
Bleach is sometimes recommended for cleaning produce and kitchen equipment, but many bleaches sold for household use contain emulsifiers, lye or caustic soda. NSF-certified bleach does not cost any more than regular bleach, and in some cases may cost less if you purchase it in bulk. Pool supply stores often carry NSF-certified bleach, typically available in 5-gallon buckets. The packaging will say calcium hypochlorite, which is the solid — powdered — form of chlorine.
Borax is a naturally occurring mineral that releases hydrogen peroxide when combined with water. It’s sometimes used as a food additive, because it’s effective against yeasts, molds and bacteria. While you should keep borax powder far away from food and equipment, it is safe to use small amounts in water for soaking or washing. Be sure any powdered borax or bleach is completely dissolved.
Use only 1 tablespoon of bleach or borax per gallon of water to clean cheesecloth, and rinse thoroughly.
The rough fibers and tiny openings of cheesecloth retain bits of food, moisture and oils, so cheesecloth requires meticulous attention if you plan to reuse it.
Hand wash your cheesecloth in a sink full of hot water, using only food safe soaps or bleach. Scrub the entire length by rubbing the fabric against itself. Inspect periodically to make sure all food is removed.
If your culinary use involves any kind of meat, oil or grease, boil the cheesecloth in plain water for 10 minutes after washing to remove any lingering oil or grease in the fibers. Use at least twice as much water as fabric, to give the cloth plenty of room. Wash thoroughly again.
After each wash, rinse the fabric thoroughly.
Dry the cheesecloth in a hot dryer, or hang it outside to dry in the sun if you have adequately hot temperatures to dry it quickly. Do not let it collect leaves, bugs or pollen while drying.
Never allow cheesecloth that has been used for cleaning or any nonculinary purpose to come in contact with food.
Throw away your cheesecloth if there is a buildup of stains that you cannot remove, or if you detect lingering aromas. Even when cheesecloth is used for something as seemingly innocuous as straining tea, stains indicate a buildup of tannic acid and vegetative matter, indicating that the cloth should be cleaned or thrown away.
Do not add any acid, such as lemon juice, to a bleach solution — it will result in chlorine gas being released and potential injury.
References and ResourcesCentre for Food Safety: Boric Acid and Borax in Food
University of California: Food Safety
David Suzuki Foundation: Is Borax Safe
Clorox Ingredients: Material Data Safety Sheet
Water and Health.org: Chlorine Wash Is Safe for Food
State of New Jersey: Bleach Fact Sheet