Most cooks have strainers and colanders handy for straining solids or liquids. But in some cases, nothing gets the job done quite like cheesecloth.
The Versatility of Cheesecloth
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. And 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 to Use Cheesecloth
Cheesecloth works for straining almost anything. As its name suggests, its primary function is to strain dairy products—particularly separating curds from whey when making cheese or cottage cheese. You can use it to remove excess whey from yogurt and leave it thick, Greek style. Cheesecloth is better than metal strainers for straining kefir grains from finished kefir, because metal can impair the grains' vitality. Layered cheesecloth can also remove fine grounds from cold-brewed coffee, or leave soup stock or fruit jelly totally smooth.
Basic Cheesecloth Technique
Cheesecloth is flexible, which is great in most cases; but if it needs some support and structure, use it with a colander, mesh strainer or funnel. Rinse the cloth under cold water to remove any lint. Then unfold or unroll it to generously cover the strainer, with at least 2 to 3 inches of excess hanging over the sides so the cloth doesn't collapse as you pour liquids into it. Avoid pouring everything in one big splash; it's safer to ladle in the liquids or pour them in a slow, steady stream. Sometimes it's useful to pause and remove larger pieces like vegetables or bones from the colander.
If the cheesecloth pulls or falls into the strainer no matter how careful you are, clip the cloth to the edge of the strainer with clean clothespins, or hold it in place with a large rubber band if that works with the shape of the strainer.
If the cheesecloth becomes clogged with debris and won't let liquids drain, empty the cloth out and rinse it under running water; or replace it with fresh cloth.
If maximum clarity is your goal, as when making jelly or broth, let the liquids drain slowly 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.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.