Unless you’re a regular Martha Stewart, chances are you don’t always have cheesecloth laying around in the kitchen. No worries—you can cheat it with common items like paper towels and coffee filters. These work for straining soups, sauces, and other liquids, and even removing broken pieces of cork from wine—very practical. The only thing you won’t get away with is using these alternatives for what cheesecloth is really intended for: straining whey from cheese curds.
Coffee filters, paper towels, and linen dishcloths are fine in a pinch. There’s one caveat: paper towels absorb liquid during straining until they saturate, so you lose a little volume from your soup or sauce.
Here’s how to do it. First, place a coffee filter, paper towel, or cloth into a mesh strainer, then set the strainer over a container. With a slotted spoon, remove as many solids (e.g. chopped vegetables) from the soup or sauce as you can, then ladle the liquid into the strainer until it reaches about 1/2 inch from the top of the filter, paper towel, or cloth; if you add too much too fast, the liquid overflows from the strainer.
Continue ladling the liquid into the strainer; if it drains too slowly, stir the liquid in the strainer.
After straining stock, broth, or consommé, there’s usually a thin layer of fat collected on the surface; this is normal and occurs even when you use cheesecloth. You can remove it with a coffee filter or paper towel. Cool the liquid after straining to let the fat float to the surface. Next, fold a coffee filter or paper towel in fourths and gently skim it over the surface. The filter or towel collects the surface fat and leaves a near-crystalline stock or broth.
Flour sack cloths and fine mesh bags double as cheesecloth, but they’re even less common in the home kitchen—unless you’re an almond-milk aficionado or store your flour 19th century–style.
Flour sack cloths, made of the same material used to hold flour before the advent of kraft paper, have a tighter weave than cheesecloth. They typically strain liquids much more slowly, but you get a smoother, clearer soup or sauce. You can get these online, at specialty markets, and at some supermarkets.
Fine mesh bags are commonly used to strain nut milks and for holding grains when using Brew-In-A-Bag (BIAB) home beer-brewing kits.
Use both of these options the same way as the coffee filter or paper towel method.
Straining cloths do everything cheesecloth does, but they have stronger cotton thread. They typically come in sizes ranging from 10×10 inches to 18×20 inches. Use straining cloths as you would cheesecloth.