7 Great Uses for a Fine-Mesh Strainer (Besides Straining)

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik unless otherwise noted]

When you live in a small New York City apartment with virtually no storage space, you learn a trick or two. You mount floor-to-ceiling shelves, you compress all your sweaters and blankets in vacuum-sealed bags, and you make sure that every single piece of kitchen equipment you own earns its keep. You say good-bye to stand-alone fryers or bulky, single-function countertop appliances, and you find ways to broaden the applications of the essential tools you keep. You find out that there's more than meets the eye when it comes to cast iron pans, wooden spoons, and, yes, even silicone muffin cups. And you learn that a fine-mesh strainer is one of the best multitasking tools in your arsenal.

With its slim, easy-to-nest profile, a mesh strainer doesn't take up much space. A good one—and this is crucial—will have one or more hooks that allow it to perch securely over mixing bowls and stockpots for hands-free use. It will also have a heat-safe handle and be dishwasher-safe, it won't ever rust, and it'll come relatively cheap. And, once you have it (if you don't already), you can use it for a whole lot more than rinsing vegetables, draining pasta, or straining the solids from stocks and broths. Here's a look at our go-to tips.

Foolproof Poached Eggs

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Before I learned this never-fail technique, I would've told you that there's no guaranteed way to make a perfect poached egg every single time. I'd stirred up vortexes, added vinegar and salt, and even accumulated a drawer of various poaching contraptions. But no matter what I tried, I couldn't seem to get away from messy, wispy, flattened eggs that looked more like boiled sunny-side-ups than the elegant, restaurant-style staples I was after.

While making sure your eggs are fresh will definitely help things along, the real trick is draining off any excess liquid white in a fine-mesh strainer—that's the stuff that'll leave you with a flurry of tendrils instead of an evenly shaped, smooth, and tender white. Simply transfer your cracked egg from a bowl into the strainer (set over the sink or a bowl), and gently swirl it around until that watery liquid drips away. Then lower the strainer into a saucepan of simmering water, and tip your egg in. Stir it a few times with a slotted spoon for even cooking, and in just a few minutes, you'll emerge with the platonic ideal of a poached egg. It's that simple.

See the full step-by-step technique and science behind perfectly poached eggs »

The Smoothest Purées

A blender or food processor will go a long way toward making your blended soups, smoothies, and purées creamy and delicious. But unless you've shelled out hundreds for a high-end blender, no amount of puréeing is going to pulverize your ingredients enough to yield a truly silky-smooth, velvety texture. A quick pass through a fine-mesh strainer, helped along with some pressure from the rounded base of a ladle, will separate out any of the gritty or pulpy components. It's the secret to our easy gazpacho and wide range of creamy vegetable soups. With a little extra muscle, you can even use it in place of a food mill, like we did for this tomato coulis.

Citrus-Squeezing, Simplified

20160201-strainer-juicing.jpg

This one's such a straightforward, borderline "that's just straining" tip that it almost didn't make my list. But since it was an aha moment for me, I'll share it with you in good faith. I spent years without a handheld citrus press, reamer, or juicer, so I'm all too familiar with the infuriating process of trying to pinch a slippery stray seed out of a salad dressing or cocktail. Nowadays, though, I just reach for a strainer and balance it over my bowl or glass—the juice goes through and the seeds stay behind. Sure, it may be a no-brainer, but it's saved me from countless accidental bites of bitter, pithy seeds. May it do the same for you.

Airy Sifted Flour

While we definitely don't recommend sifting flour for measuring purposes (you'll want to use a scale for that!), the process has its uses. Sifting aerates flour for faster and easier incorporation into delicate batters, and prevents clumping or pilling in soft doughs. Think: everything from light and tender potato gnocchi to fluffy, springy angel food cake. Instead of investing money and space in a bulky sifter, I just add my desired amount of flour to a fine-mesh strainer and tap the side with one hand or, for higher volumes of flour, stir it with the base of a ladle to help pass the flour through. You'll wind up with a snowdrift-style mound of perfectly aerated flour in no time. A strainer also comes in handy if you need to dust a countertop for rolling out a pie crust or fresh pasta and don't quite have a knack for sprinkling (or "throwing," in baker-speak) evenly by hand.

Fancy-Looking Cookies and Cakes

Step 7: Cool, then Sugar Top Cookies

Ever try to get an elegant powdered effect on cakes and cookies, only to wind up with uneven patches and clumps of sugar or cocoa? You don't need a fancy tool or magic sprinkling powers to make it happen—just load some confectioners' sugar, cocoa, or your garnish of choice (almond meal, for instance) into your fine-mesh strainer and, holding it a foot or two above your dessert, give it a gentle tap. The mesh and extra height help with wide, even distribution and careful volume control, so you don't wind up overdoing it or dusting only a small, concentrated area.

Quick and Easy Fresh Cheeses

20150831-fresh-mozzarella-vicky-wasik-9.jpg

Cheese-making can be a mystifying process to the uninitiated, so it's easy to assume that it takes a lot of know-how, special equipment, and proper storage facilities to do it at home. But if you love fresh cheeses like ricotta, farmer's cheese, and mozzarella, you're in luck. Making these cheeses at home can take as little as five minutes and requires nothing more than a gallon of milk heated with an acid like lemon juice or vinegar (or, in the case of mozzarella, citric acid and rennet). Then it's just a matter of extracting and resting the curds in your—you guessed it—fine-mesh strainer. No cheesecloth? No problem: Our mozzarella recipe doesn't call for any at all, and a couple of layers of paper towels in your strainer will do just fine when it comes to ricotta and queso fresco. Best of all, the results are practically guaranteed to be vastly superior to the prepackaged supermarket stuff.

Perfect Steamed Vegetables

20160201-strainer-steaming-vicky-wasik.jpg

I'll be honest: There's no love lost between me and steamed vegetables. But every now and then, steaming is a thing I need to do, whether it's for recipe testing or because I want to make a quick and easy meal with minimal cleanup (or cooking fats) required. In any case, my expandable metal vegetable steamer was lost in some long-ago move, and I've never bothered to replace it, since setting a strainer of chopped vegetables over an inch of simmering water and slapping a lid on top does the job just as well.