Alternatives to Cheesecloth

Yesterday’s post (The Most Surprising Ingredient in Cooking School) shared my surprise about the amount of times cheesecloth was used in the cooking courses I’ve been taking over the last few years.  Ingredients are frequently wrapped in a ‘bag’ made of cheesecloth and used to flavor food while it cooks and then removed later.

Several comments (on the blog and twitter) asked me about what could be used in lieu of cheesecloth – people were looking for something that was resusable/ not disposable.  I’ve been asked (in the past) about finding alternatives that are also not bleached.  Since people use it for cooking (and preserving), I thought it would be a good idea to share some alternatives to cheesecloth.

I use multiple alternatives to cheesecloth (and, yes, even use it from time-to-time) when cooking.  There isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution; the right tool for the job is generally determined by a combination of 3 factors:

  1. Can it be strained?  If I’m making stock, jelly or gravy, I know that I can strain the liquid to remove solids.  Peppercorns are easy to strain from soup but impossible to strain from a soup that’s filled with solids (such as chunks of vegetables).
  2. Is it hot?  This is really a subset of the straining question but an important one – I occaisionally use plastic (i.e. reusable coffee filters) for straining liquid.  I tend to avoid hot liquids (the irony of using a coffee filter for this is duly noted) and tend to avoid pouring scalding liquid through plastic.
  3. Is speed important?  If I’m making jelly I want to remove the solids in a hurry so I tend to use a tea diffuser (it also removes the clean-up step).

By understanding the answers to the question above, I use many different things to replace cheesecloth including:

  1. A tea towel.  IfI’m straining ricotta or yogurt an un-dyed tea towel can easily replace cheesecloth to strain the liquid from the solids.
  2. Re-use muslin bags.  This idea is often better sounding than in practice; many of the cheaper bags are technically reusable but you may find that they fall apart after only a few watches (which is why many are sold in larger quantities).
  3. A nut bag.  Used for making nut milk (like almond milk) these bags are reusable and durable.
  4. A blender.  I know this answer is cheating!  Sometimes I simply puree the ingredients to make the solids disappear (of course they are still in the dish but the consistiency is uniform).
  5. Use a metal strainer.  I have 4 in our house; all with different sized holes which makes straining a breeze.
  6. Use a plastic (but reusable) strainer.  A coffee filter or rice sieve are common.
  7. Use a tea strainer.  The metal kind that diffuses flab or into hot water is a great replacement for cheesecloth.
  8. Use a cloth teabag.  Yep, they exist too!
  9. Make your own reusable tea bags.  They’re relatively easy to make!

What are your ideas for replacing cheesecloth?



The Most Surprising Ingredient in Cooking School

I’ve taken a few cooking courses from the George Brown School Hospitality and Culinary Arts over the last two years.  I started them with my Father (who has now taken more courses than I have) and have found them to be full of knowledge, advice and time to practice.  They’ve been very useful.

I took each class with an open mind and knew there would be a few surprises; but one was bigger than them all.  I couldn’t believe the amount of cheesecloth we used!

I’ll admit that calling cheesecloth an ‘ingredient’ (per the title of this post) is a bit of a stretch on first glance but when it came to class it didn’t feel that way.  Herbs, spices and other ingredients were commonly wrapped in cheesecloth to infuse flavor into dishes (so that you could later pull the solids out).

Cheesecloth is often used in preserving (especially for jelly though it is used in other styles as well) but I hadn’t used it when making soups, stews or stocks.  It’s amazing how much flavor you can impart by tying ingredients in a small bag of cheesecloth and adding them to your cooking.

What Causes Legs in Wine?

I’m in love with this short film because it shows me something I’ve known for more than 20 years – except it shows it in a completely different light.

“Legs” on wine refer to the trails of wine that run down the insides of the glass after you drink or swish the glass.  What causes them?  Instead of answering that with theory, Dan Quinn grabbed a video camera, sped it up and shows us what happens:

How cool is that?!?

10 Things I’ve Learned from Preserving That Apply to Business

Last week I wrote an article about 10 Things I’ve Learned In Business that Apply to Preserving – this week I’m flipping the idea and sharing ideas from my kitchen that I apply to work.

In no particular order, here are things I’ve learned from Preserving that Apply to Work of any type:

  1. Patience
    When I’m making a big batch of preserves on a hot summer day it’s important to stay relaxed, loose and having fun.  Someone once told me that it’s “tough to get good at anything you don’t enjoy” and remember to be patient/ have fun when the heat is key to success – in the kitchen or at work.
  2. Time can improve things
    Fermenting, dehydrating or making pickles all take time to develop flavor.  At work this means that the first idea isn’t always the best and letting it sit for a while will often improve the results.
  3. Watch your fingers, especially when tired
    I never plan to cut myself in the kitchen but it happens from time to time; generally when I’m tired or near the end of making something.  I’ve learned to take extra care when I feel the same way at work.
  4. Take pride – but not too much
    There’s a certain satisfaction in what we’ve produced that inspires us to produce more.  It’s fun to take a few moments to look at the shelf of preserves we’ve put up over the last few years – as long as we don’t get stuck in reflecting on the past.  Past momentum helps build momentum in the present to push forward.
  5. Share your work
    Share your preserves and share the things you do at work – the more you do, the more you’ll receive in return.  Sharing creates community, support and collaboration at work and at home.
  6. Taste as you go
    A few years ago I preserved every pea that came into our house.  I didn’t eat a single one fresh and realized once pea season was over.  I’ve learned to enjoy fresh veg and fruit when they’re available as well as taste jam and other things as they’re being made.  Same thing applies to work – check your progress often as opposed to waiting for the end to find out how you did.
  7. Research in advance
    Reading recipes, blogs, magazines and brainstorming all allow me to preserve and cook things that I get great joy from and couldn’t do without preparing in advance.  The same applies to work – spend some time planning what you’re going to do before running ahead.
  8. Keep a secret stash of supplies
    I have am extra set of every size jar that I use, extra rings lids, sugar and vinegar hidden in a box in the basement.  There’s nothing worse than running out of supplies at the time that you need you most and my secret stash has saved me many late night dashes to try to find last-minute items.
  9. Share your knowledge
    I almost excluded this because of point 5 (share your work); the principal is the same but it’s just as important.  I know so many people who are expert preservers who will gladly swap jars but say that they “don’t know enough to share” when it comes to preserving.  The more you share, the more you’ll learn.
  10. Make tasty things
    When I preserve I make food that I’m excited about and it makes me want to make more.  If it didn’t taste good, it wouldn’t be worth it and it wouldn’t excite me to make more.  When I work I try to make things that excite me – they’re far more fun and generally better received by others!

Of course there are exceptions to any of these items but they serve me well – what would you add to the list?

A Trick for Storing Dried Thyme

I store most of my dried herbs in mason jars.  It’s an easy choice because we have lots of them, they fit on our shelves easily and (most importantly) they have lids to keep humidity, moisture and dust away from our dried herbs.

But that’s not my trick.  Take a look at this photo and see if you can figure out another advantage of using mason for storing thyme:

A Trick for Storing Dried Thyme Thyme Herbs dried herbs [Read more...]

A Change for the 2014 Moose Hunt in Ontario

A small press release hit the internet from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources yesterday.  It includes the following statement:

To ensure moose populations remain healthy and resilient, Ontario is reducing adult moose tags across the province by about 18 per cent for 2014.

A Change for the 2014 Moose Hunt in Ontario moose hunting hunting [Read more...]

10 Things I’ve Learned in Business That Apply to Preserving

I’ve worked in different businesses most of my life.  I’ve worked in all sorts of different companies in all sorts of roles.  I’ve never been a big believer in completely separating work from the rest of my life; there are all sorts of things I’ve learned at work that I use in the rest of my life – and all sorts of things I’ve learned in life that I use at work.

Here’s 10 things I’ve learned from work that apply to preserving:

  1. Teamwork
    A good team will out perform a group of solo-stars.  While I do plenty of preserving by myself it’s fun to preserve in small groups – especially when preserving large batches.  I adore a good pickle or jam session with Dana and/or a few friends, great music and a supply of wine or beer.
  2. Organization
    Be organized.  It makes the task easier, faster and more enjoyable when you’re making preserves.
  3. Planning
    I once made more than 300 jars of jam in 60 days.  I was jam-drunk.  I was having so much fun making jam that I didn’t think of the consequences – specifically what the heck I was going to with 300 jars of jam.
  4. Mesure twice, cut once
    Each year I make at least one dreadful mistake related to measuring.  I forget the sugar, double the vinegar or forget a key ingredient.  Read the recipe in advance, check as you go and measure everything carefully!
  5. Cheer the progress
    Take time to pat yourself and others on the back for preserving.  It feels good to put food up for the winter – celebrate the little victories to stay motivated.
  6. Fun
    It’s difficult to get good at anything you don’t enjoy.  Preserving is a lot of fun but if you’re too focused on the results it can be easy to forget to ‘fun’ part.
  7. Practice
    Make small batches (Food in Jars has a ton of recipes for them), swap with friends and preserve with others before making giant batches.  When learning to ferment hot sauce I would ferment a cup or hot peppers at a time (over the winter) before committing to make a gallon (or more) of hot sauce.
  8. Learn
    Read, study and watch videos.  Go beyond the usual sources and look for inspiration from other cultures, chefs, books, blogs and magazines.
  9. Share
    The more you share, the more that will be shared with you.  Talk to friends, family and others that share your passion and you’re bound to learn more about it.
  10. Coach
    When you’re comfortable with the process of preserving, help others learn how to do it.  The more you share your knowledge, the more you’ll learn!

What would you add to this list?

3 Minutes of Reality; Preserved Food and Sad History

This is a sobering 3-minutes.

It’s a simple monologue from a Canadian woman named Mary who shares how her family depended on preserving meat in order to survive the winter and shares that starvation wasn’t the only threat.  It’s an important story to share; one that reminds me of the importance of the journey of preserving as well as a reminder of a sobering part of Canadian History that’s rarely shared:

I know this goes beyond the levity of most things we share here; but it’s a video that’s really had me reflecting and thought others might appreciate the chance to see and share it as well.

Book Review: Pickles & Preserves (A Savor the South Cookbook)

We’re close to spring and that means a lot of us are getting ready for our gardens, farmers markets and the ramping-up of preserving season.  All of this means it’s also the time of year where a bunch of cookbooks and preserving books hit the shelves.

I was excited to receive an email from Andrea Weigl who offered to send me a copy of her book to review.  When it comes to reviews like this we have a simple approach: we welcome people sending us copies but only write about it if we love it.

Book Review: Pickles & Preserves (A Savor the South Cookbook) books Book Reviews Andrea Weigl [Read more...]

What Temperature to Dehydrate Food at

I wrote an article a few years ago that walked through the theory (i.e. WHY) of dehydrating food at different temperatures.  I also gave a few examples but fell short with a definitive guide.

Here’s a quick guide, courtesy of the thermostat of our Excalibur Dehydrator:

  • Herbs (95F/ 35C)
  • Living Foods (105F / 41C)
  • Raising Bread (110F / 43C)
  • Making Yogurt (115F / 46C)
  • Vegetables (125F / 52C)
  • Fruits/ Fruit Rolls (135F / 57C)
  • Meats/ Fish (155F / 68C)
  • Jerky (155F / 68C)

While that’s a decent guideline, there’s a few things to keep in mind, including some fine print:

  • The dehydrator gets warmer than those temperatures.  A thermostat on an Excalibur is set for the surface area of the food (which will never equal the ambient temperature of the air around it).  The actual temperature of the air fluctuates; at it’s highest it’s around 10 degrees higher than the numbers above (but the food is at the temperatures in the chart).
  • Many want to keep the integrity of living food in tact and dehydrate everything at a lower setting.  The disadvantage of doing so is that it can take much longer to dry things and be more expensive and some food (such as meat) isn’t safe at certain temperatures.  When I dehydrate Ghost Peppers (they are SUPER hot) I generally don’t worry about the temperature as I’ll never eat enough dried Ghost Peppers to gain any significant nutritional value.
  • Some food (especially meat and seafood) must be dried at an ambient temperature of 165F or more (the guide above says ’155F’ but the first bullet explains the variance).  I share this because dehydrating allows us to safely experiment a lot – but there are certain safety precautions you should always follow (I always look to the National Center for Home Food Preservation for such guidance)
  • Circulation is a vital component.  Herbs will dry at 95 degrees (and even less) if they have free airflow.  Jam them in a plastic bag and they won’t do what you’re hoping.
  • The above are guidelines.  Experimentation may reveal that you prefer different temperatures (I love to air dry mushrooms without added heat for example).
  • The end result matters.  I sometimes ferment dried hot peppers and dehydrate them at lower temperatures to keep as many of the nutrients/ bacteria in tact as possible.
  • Lastly, you might not have an option.  Many people dry food in dehydrators that don’t have a thermostat.  It’s not the end of the world as long as you’re following their guidance (some of these units call for pre-cooking of meat in order to make jerky as an example).

What are your tips for ‘the right temperature’ when dehydrating?