Thursday, July 22, 2010

Hands On - Straining and Draining

What is the difference between a strainer and a sieve?  Is a metal colander better than a plastic one?  How many strainers do I really need? 

Thanks to you, I have been pondering these draining questions.   I hope you are not disappointed because I don't have hard and fast answers.  I do have some thoughts for you to consider as you equip and perfect your own personal kitchen.  Please note the word personal.  If you have been reading this blog often you may have noticed that I use the "p" word a lot.  That is because I fervently believe that the act of cooking - either for yourself or others - is nothing if not personal.   That is one reason it can be so satisfying and - dare I say - meaningful.

At some point after all the cookbooks and TV talking heads and blogs and grocery store displays and kitchen equipment stores and CSA boxes --  it is just you and the food.  You and the food will work out accommodations and routines and habits and preferences  - like we all do in any good relationship.  And you will make personal decisions about practical matters like tools and equipment - such as how many and what kind of strainers and colanders you need to accomplish your cooking goals.  You probably won't talk to friends about this at dinner parties.  (If you do I think we need to talk.)  But you and I know this is important quality of life stuff on the domestic front lines.

Even if you are an old kitchen hand like me it is never a bad idea to evaluate your equipment situation for convenience, efficiency or even safety.  Probably no one is going to give you a colander for your birthday.   So go on.  Treat yourself.  Buy yourself a nice big colander if you don't have one.  If you can find a good one at the Salvation Army or a garage sale, all the better.  I gave my favorite 30 year old aluminum colander to my younger son several years ago and still am making do with an old blue enameled metal colander that my Dad didn't need any more.  Some day the colander of my dreams will come along and I will upgrade.  It's something to look forward to.  Better than furs or diamond jewelry in my opinion.  With those things you just have to buy more insurance and worry about someone stealing them.   With a big new colander you can serve spaghetti to lots of friends at once.  And hardly anyone steals colanders.  If they do they must really need one.

Sometimes I just make do with a medium sized stainless steel strainer with a coarse mesh that I use like a colander.   It is starting to collapse on one side but I think I can get another year or two out of it.  Kitchen tools sometimes get to be like old friends.  So you keep them around even if they are falling apart.  Because they are comfortable and familiar.  Because you have been through a lot together. 

The Fannie Farmer cookbook advises that you "Get a big substantial one made of metal."  I tend to agree.  And Jane Brody says it should be big enough to hold one pound of cooked pasta.  Good advice.  You can spend a lot of money on a big stainless steel colander or you can still find basic aluminum ones at a hardware store.  I am partial to the basic aluminum.  I don't think you really need stainless steel to do the jobs a colander does.  You can get plastic colanders but I don't think they will hold up like you would want them to.   On the other hand a good quality heavy duty plastic might serve you better than a cheap metal colander with feet that break off in year one.  No matter what your colander is made of - look for some quality.

I use my colander all the time.  I  drain pasta or dried beans,  wash and drain fruit like grapes, cherries or berries and to drain vegetables like chopped eggplant or grated squash or cucumbers after salting them.  (This is a good technique to use for some salads and other dishes where you want to remove excess moisture.)

Somebody has invented collapsible colanders made of silicone.   I am skeptical as to their reliability.  They seem a bit gimmicky to me.  You definitely don't want your colander collapsing on you when you are trying to drain a bunch of hot pasta.  But since I have never used one I can't really give you an opinion either way.  Do you have one?  Do you like it?

You can get a classic Portuguese aluminum colander (made in Portugal of course) for about ten bucks on sale from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It is minimalist in design and only has holes on the bottom.  Easier to clean and probably quite functional.  You really don't need all those holes just to drain something.  Check it out.

A strainer is used to separate solids from liquids - like lemon seeds from juice or tea leaves from tea or canned beans from the canning liquid.   A sieve could be used for that purpose - but usually when a sieve is referred to the job at hand is separating solids.  For example, ground grain may be sieved to separate larger from smaller particles.  Sometimes a sieve or a strainer can be used to make a puree by pressing solid food (usually cooked or otherwise softened) through the mesh.  In these days of food processors, I think this process is much less common.  A food mill can also be used to separate out unwanted skins or seeds or simply to puree foods.

I think you should have at least two strainers - one large and one small.  At least one should have a fine stainless steel mesh screen.  It is easy to find strainers - even in very good condition - at second hand stores.  I just like how the old ones look and feel, so that is what I use.  The old ones are not generally made of stainless steel.  It is easy to find very nice stainless steel strainers at places where kitchen tools are sold.  It is best to wash strainers immediately after use to keep the mesh clear.  It is a good idea to keep an old toothbrush around to remove any stubborn food that might get stuck in the holes of the mesh.

These are the strainers I use all the time.  Four of them have a fairly fine mesh.  The one on the right isn't really a strainer - but it is great for lifting poached eggs or other foods from cooking water.  I like it better than a slotted spoon.  

If you are still with me, thanks for sticking around.  I am feeling a bit drained, so I will say goodbye for now.

Tomorrow:  Focus: Fennel


  1. I believe America's Test Kitchen (aka Cooks Illustrated) determined that slot-holed colanders (with long, thin oval holes) drain better than tiny dot-holed colanders. I personally don't like the feel of aluminum colanders. We bought a large sturdy plastic one- it has feet so it doesn't tip over in my sink when I dump hot pasta in it. My older, smaller one tended to dive to one side as I poured, very frustrating.

  2. Where was this post when I tried my hand at pumpkin soup the first time? :) The recipe called for me to blend the soup so it was nice and smooth. Then it recommended to put it through a strainer to catch any chunks. I didn't have a strainer, so I just dumped it from my blender through my colander (a cheap plastic thing) into a bowl. I poured a little too quick and the stuff filled the colander, ran down the sides of the bowl, onto the counter and on to the floor. I think I lost a quarter of my soup. And it was HOT! Later I looked up what a strainer was and had a little Ah-ha moment thinking about what SHOULD have happened. Happy to report that I still make my soup and it's just fine without straining. I'm getting married in October and registered for a beautiful strainer and a metal colander to replace the old plastic one. I've got my fingers crossed. This fall I could make my first strained pumpkin soup! Thanks for this post. As always, I learn so much from you.

  3. Hi Manda. This is a perfect example of recipes that I think make life needlessly difficult. I am guessing that if you want creamy pumpkin soup all you really need to do is cool it a bit and then use a blender. Straining seems like more work than you need - unless the idea is to remove excess liquid so the soup is not too thin. One thing you learned through your mishap is the importance of having a right sized and well balanced container to catch the liquid after the strainer catches the solids. I should have mentioned that too in the post. (Unless the liquid is just going right down the sink as in pasta draining.)

  4. Peggy, I totally agree with you. I've found the recipes that feel really rigid and have too many steps can be confusing, intimidating and frustrating. I have much more confidence in the kitchen learning and cooking from your blog.

  5. In passing, colanders are bulky so I hang mine on the kitchen wall with all my other larger strainers and tools such as my handled pot strainers, my tamis, my China cap, my Chinois, my food mill and my solid copper egg white bowl.

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