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Fine Mesh Strainers vs Colanders: What to Use When

Do you have any tips for when to use a fine-mesh strainer instead of a colander and cheesecloth? I’m trying to make my own baby food, and I’d love to hear any tips on straining food better, faster, and with less mess and drama (if that’s even possible).

While they seem almost interchangeable, as you have already discovered, colanders are not strainers.

Colanders have larger holes, which are typically punched through metal or plastic.

They’re great for when you’ve got more or less solid ingredients that need to be separated from liquid (the most obvious being draining pasta) or for rinsing ingredients like produce, so the dirt and dust can easily drain away.

strainers and colanders
Photo: Casey Barber

Strainers, on the other hand, have a fine-mesh metal weave, ideally made out of stainless steel for longevity and dishwashability.

The fine mesh helps you separate two ingredients that are either both very similar in liquidity and texture (like fruit purees) or to rinse or drain ingredients that are smaller in size (like quinoa or lemon seeds) that would fall through the holes of a colander.

I use my strainers constantly when making ice cream so I’ll have the most luscious, smooth custard base ever.

strawberry puree in strainer
Photo: Casey Barber

They’re also essential for sno cone syrups and summer fruit pops, keeping watermelon mush and strawberry seeds out of my beautiful fresh fruit juices while keeping all the flavor in the liquid.

To strain purees well, you’ll want to use a fine-mesh strainer large enough so that your puree won’t slosh over the edges as you stir it with a spatula.

Stirring speeds up the draining process, but it still requires patience and a tiny bit of arm strength.

fine mesh strainers
Photo: Casey Barber

If you’d rather not wait around and stir, many professional cooks also often turn to a chinois, which is a fine-mesh strainer that looks like a big metal ice cream cone.

A chinois lets gravity do some of the work for you with its conical shape. The liquid drains through the holes while the solids stay in the bottom of the cone.

I use my chinois for the first pass at straining my cold-brew coffee, which is a lot less messy than a shallow strainer.

strainers and colanders

If you’re trying to get a smooth texture on a thick puree (for mashed potatoes, applesauce, or tomato sauce, you can always use a food mill.

With three discs for fine, medium, and coarse puree, the mill fits over a large bowl and uses a hand crank instead of a spatula to push the puree through while keeping seeds, skins, and other unsavory bits out.

Finally, as for cheesecloth… if you’re using it to strain items like, say, ricotta cheese or nut milk, I would recommend getting a big stack of washable, reusable flour sack towels instead.

draining ricotta in a strainer
Photo: Casey Barber

Cheesecloth is a big pain, frankly, and flour sack towels are much sturdier. I use mine to strain homemade ricotta and as a final pass on my cold brew coffee.

Plus, you can cut them up into smaller squares to use as covers for your jars when making homemade kombucha, or as impromptu teabags when using loose herbs and leaves for sun tea.

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3 Comments

  1. When my kids were wee ones (over 20 years ago) I used a tomato press quite often. I used it for tomato sauce and for making jams and jellies. It is very light weight and has suction cups that work well to keep the unit securely attached to the counter or table you’re working on.

    The same unit I used is still sold at Williams-Sonoma and is affordable.

    This is a link to the press: http://www.williams-sonoma.com/search/results.html?words=tomato+press

    I see it on Amazon for $10 more. They have some cool looking food strainers and sauce maker on Amazon. Too bad I looked, I feel like getting one of them but … I don’t get a discount at Amazon! :)

  2. is there a bad effect of rubbing or scraping baby food trough on a strainer?like ,metals would be eaten by the baby?

    1. Michelle, I’d only worry if you’re using a cheap-o strainer where you’re not sure exactly what the metal is made of. A quality stainless-steel strainer will remain intact forever, and you can run it through the dishwasher, too!

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