How to Strain Without a Strainer (10 Techniques That Work)

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cloth strainer

There is little doubt that a fine mesh strainer is one of the handiest kitchen tools that you can own.

When you need to drain pasta or are preparing blanched vegetables, a few utensils work to separate foods from liquids without losing much of either.

However, there may be times when you don’t have a strainer available. That is what is where the information in this article could come in handy.

Whether you’ve rented a condo for the weekend or find yourself cooking a meal doesn’t leave you time to wash your strainer between dishes, there are items you can use to strain the soup, pasta, or even fresh loose-leaf tea when a fine wire sieve is not available.

Don’t have time to read? Here’s a quick summary of the products we recommend.

Product Name Grade
12pcs Assorted Bandanas A
Olicity Cheese Cloths A+
Katy’s Large Coffee Filters A
Bellemain Micro-perforated Colander A+
Universal Lid A
Pro Quality Nut Milk Bags A+
Hanes Pantyhose A
OXO Slotted Spoon A+
Hotec Stainless Steel Kitchen Tongs Set A+
Unbleached Paper Towels A+


assorted bandana

A bandana may seem like an unorthodox item to use to strain foods, but they actually work very well. Most are thin, made of cotton fabric, are tightly woven, and cheap.

You can simply drape the bandana over a container, pour in your ingredients, and then lift to strain away from the liquid, or if you are straining light products like tea leaves, you can suspend the bandana and then carefully pour through it while holding it in place.

You should be careful of three things when using a bandana to strain in these manners.

  1. Be sure to gather the corners together and lift evenly to avoid food from rolling and pouring out the sides.
  2. Bandanas will absorb liquids and pull hot fluids toward your hand.
  3. Use a bandana that you don’t plan on wearing again. Foods will leave stains that are difficult to remove.

12pcs Assorted Bandanas

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Cheesecloth, Muslim, Flour Sack Towel

Cheesecloth is used much as a bandana is but is a much looser weave.

Its weave is loose enough that it can be used to sift flour if the need arises.

Cheesecloth works well for stringier pasta, blanched vegetables, and removing ingredients from course broths.

If you need to strain finer bits, you can use a Muslim similar to cheesecloth but finer or a flour sack towel with the tightest weave of the three. Another possible substitute is a clean cloth diaper.

All of these are made of cotton fabric, with the only difference being the tightness of the weave.

The same precautions that are used for bandanas should also be observed for these fabrics.

Olicity Cheese Cloths

Olicity Cheese Cloths, Grade 100, 20x20Inch Hemmed Cheesecloth for Straining Reusable, 100% Unbleached Precut Cheese Cloth Strainer Muslin Cloth for Cooking, Baking, Juicing, Cheese Making - 6 Pieces

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Coffee Filter

To be honest, Coffee filters are probably our second least favorite strainer substitute on this list.

They do an excellent job of straining and can even give you completely pulp-free fruit juices.

The issues are they are small and slow. Watching water seep through can be like watching grass grow.

coffee filter paper

Unless you have access to commercial coffee filters, you will be limited to how much you can strain at a time, and even if you have access to large coffee filters, they take a long time for liquids to drain through.

One major advantage they do offer is you can balance the filter basket from your coffee maker on top of a bowl and use it to hold the coffee filter.

This is the preferred coffee filter method.

Katy’s Large Coffee Filters

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A colander is often substituted for a fine mesh strainer.

The main difference between a colander and a sieve is how they are constructed.

Where a strainer has a basket made of fine wire mesh, a colander is made of solid material with small holes in it, and colanders most often have handles on each side where a mesh strainer will normally have a long handle and with one or more hooks on the opposite side.

pouring water colander

The majority of colanders have much larger holes than a mesh strainer, which allows liquids and water to drain away faster and allows larger pieces of food to pass through.

This can be less than ideal when draining small pasta, rice, and other small grains.

The best type of colander to use in place of a mesh strainer is a fine chinois.

Many of these have openings as fine as any mesh; their sturdiness makes them very versatile tools,

Another option is a mini colander (6-inches or less); these smaller versions of the traditional colander have the advantage of being compact, and many are almost as fine as a chinois.

Bellemain Micro-perforated Colander

Bellemain Micro-perforated Stainless Steel Colander-Dishwasher Safe (5-Quart)

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Using a lid to drain food is a method that we have resorted to at some point in our lives.

On the plus side, the lid for the pot we’re cooking is usually at hand or one the useable will be.

On the minus side, it is difficult to all the water from pasta and other food using this method.

It is difficult to hold the lid firmly in place with just a small gap and tilt the pot simultaneously, and achieving the best results requires lifting the entire pot.

For large pots, you have to have a good grip to avoid accidents, and past a certain point, it is still impractical if not dangerous to use this method.

Universal Lid

Universal Lid for Pots and Pans - Heat-Resistant Tempered Glass Frying Pan Lids One Size Fits All 7.9" 8.7

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Nut Milk Bag

Nut milk bags are basically large fine-mesh bags that you place food inside to strain.

They are designed so you can squeeze them to extract all the liquid possible.

A fine mesh bag does offer many advantages over a strainer.

They not only work well for draining fine grains and making nut milk but are also excellent for extracting juices, which is why they are often called jelly bags.

The best method that we have found for using a mesh bag for straining softer food is to fill the bag and then tilt slightly side to side.

squeezing nut milk to bowl

Because they are intended to be rolled and squeezed, these bags are extremely strong and can handle large amounts of food inside.

Pro Quality Nut Milk Bags

Pro Quality Nut Milk Bag - XL12"X12

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Another item that people often overlook when needing a strainer is pantyhose, but they work very well for filtering liquids.

That is, provided you aren’t straining anything that is too hot.

Pantyhose offer a couple of advantages as strainer:

  • They are stretchy, so they can be formed around the top of odd-shaped containers.
  • Pantyhose are amazingly strong, so you can squeeze fruit or ground nuts to get every bit of the liquid out.
  • They have different sized areas, so you can use as much or little as possible, making them cost-effective.

Needless to say, you should use clean pantyhose and, if possible, silk instead of nylon for its higher heat tolerance.

Hanes Pantyhose

Hanes Alive Full Support Control Top Pantyhose, B, Jet

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Slotted Spoon

using a slotted spoon is very simple but can lead to the loss of product if you are not careful.

slotted spoon drains corn

Tilt your pot slowly, allowing the water to flow out, and use the slotted spoon to hold back whatever you are trying to strain.

You can also use the spoon to dip out the solids from soup or other dishes into a serving dish.

The main issue with using a slotted spoon as a strainer is that they are inefficient and can be tedious to work with.

OXO Slotted Spoon

OXO Good Grips Stainless Steel Slotted Spoon

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Tongs work best for small pasta noodles like linguine or spaghetti but are not very effective with bowtie pasta or similarly sized foods.

Just lift the noodles from the pot with your tongs and allow the water to drip off before placing them in a serving dish.

Hotec Stainless Steel Kitchen Tongs Set

Hotec Stainless Steel Kitchen Tongs Set of 2 - 9" and 12

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Paper Towels, Paper Napkin

bacon on paper towel

A paper towel should be used as a filter of last resort for straining food.

They will often cause foods to have a paper taste and, if not strong enough, can add paper fibers to your food.

If you are going to use paper towels, they should be formaldehyde and chlorine-free for health reasons.

The best are the heavy-duty, bleach-free paper towels like are normally found in a commercial kitchen.

As far as paper napkins, forget them. A cloth napkin can be used, but paper simply disintegrates.

Unbleached Paper Towels

Seventh Generation Unbleached Paper Towels, 100% Recycled Paper, 6 Count, Pack of 4

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Best Strainer Alternative For Fresh Loose Leaf Tea

If you’re making tea and wondering how to strain without a strainer, then your best bet is going to be coffee filters.

The same characteristics that make them less suitable for other straining purposes make them ideal for filtering tea.