Most cooks have a number of strainers and colanders tucked away in their cupboards, for times when it's necessary to strain solids out of liquids, or liquids out of solids. These all have their uses, but one of the most valuable of all straining tools looks quite different. It's cheesecloth, a gauzy, loosely woven fabric sold in rolls or large rectangles for kitchen use. In a number of uses, its flexibility makes it more suitable than conventional strainers.
One of cheesecloth's main virtues is that it's adjustable. Every time you add a layer of the gauzy fabric, the overlapping mesh strains out finer particles. If you're straining large pieces of vegetable from a broth, for example, you'll only need one layer. If you fold it to create four layers, it makes a fine enough mesh to strain out even the tiniest particles of pulp from fruit or berry juices. This variability makes cheesecloth a superbly versatile tool. It has the added advantage that, unlike other strainers, it can be gathered up into a pouch and hung for hours to drain, or you can squeeze the pouch to quickly extract every drop of liquid.
When and Why
You can use cheesecloth for straining almost anything, but a few specific uses spring to mind. For one thing, as its name suggests, it's superlative at straining dairy products. Hobbyists use cheesecloth to separate curds from whey when making cheese or cottage cheese, because the fabric won't discolor the curds or impart off-flavors. Strain ordinary yogurt through cheesecloth to remove excess whey, and leave the remainder at a Greek-style thickness suitable for making tzatziki. Use cheesecloth to strain kefir grains from the finished kefir, because metal strainers can impair the grains' vitality. Layered cheesecloth can remove the fine grounds from cold-brewed coffee, or leave your soup stock or fruit jelly crystal clear.
Basic Cheesecloth Technique
Cheesecloth is flexible, so typically you use it inside a colander, mesh strainer or even a funnel to provide some support and structure. Rinse the cloth under cold water to remove any lint; then unfold or unroll it to generously cover the strainer. Be sure to overlap the edges by at least 2 to 3 inches to reduce the risk that the sides will collapse into the strainer as you pour or ladle liquids into it. You're more likely to run into trouble if you pour the contents of your pot into the cheesecloth in one great splash, so whenever possible, ladle in the liquids or pour them in a steady stream. Sometimes it's useful to stop, and remove larger pieces such as vegetables or a soup bone, from the colander.
Tips and Tricks
You might find that the cheesecloth pulls or falls into the strainer, no matter how careful you are. To avoid frustration, clip the fabric to the edge of your strainer with clean clothespins or -- if it works, given the shape of your strainer -- hold it in place with a large rubber band. If your cheesecloth becomes clogged with sludge and won't let liquids drain, pour the remainder back into your original pot or container. Rinse the cheesecloth under running water, or replace it with fresh cloth; then resume pouring. If maximum clarity is your goal, as when making jelly or broth, let the liquids drain on their own. If you want maximum extraction, such as for cheese or a nut milk, press firmly on the solids or gather up the cheesecloth into a ball and compress it.