I stopped using cheesecloth for cooking purposes about 2 years ago. It was expensive to purchase at markets and cookware shops. It got caught in my scissors at the most inconvenient times. It had to be discarded after each use. I got fed up and instead, turned to unbleached muslin. I have never looked back. Here are 5 reasons for using muslin in the kitchen:
1. Affordable – You can buy it by the yard at a fabric store for as little as $4 per yard.
2. Easy – Just tear it along the grain into the size you need. (I aim for 24 by 24-inch pieces but also have smaller odd-size pieces.) Snip an inch then pull the fabric apart with your hands. It should tear along its natural weave. No tricky sewing skills needed to neaten things up. The torn edges fray in the wash to develop a handsome appearance. Check out my stack above.
3. Washable and reusable – After using the muslin, immediately rinse and wring it out in the sink, then hang it up to dry. You don’t want to let wet fabric sit in your hamper for long. Launder the muslin with a load of laundry (we include it with the towels) and it’s ready for more kitchen duties.
4. Squeeze and press – Put salted napa cabbage or cucumber, or chunks of tofu into the piece of muslin and expel excess moisture. The relatively smooth texture of muslin means that liquid will pass through easily and lint won’t get stuck in your food. The cabbage for classic Chinese dumplings (jiaozi) is ready for mixing with other ingredients. The cucumber can receive a Vietnamese salad dressing because it's dryish and ready to absorb new flavors. Tofu for dumpling fillings (think Korean mandu) or meatballs get crushed and partially mashed as you massage and squeeze.
Muslin is also perfect for making soy milk as it doesn’t break like cheesecloth or flour sack towels. (I know from experience.) Plus, muslin is just porous enough to let the milk pass through without any soybeans solids going along for the ride.
You can scrape off the soy milk lees (okara) easily from muslin and there’s little waste. Food bits cling and get stuck in cheesecloth’s more open weave.
5. Strain – Use it for hassle-free straining of liquids, such as stocks and broths. Last night, I used muslin to strain a double batch of one of my favorite stealth ingredients, Japanese seasoned soy concentrate (Asian Tofu, page 208). It contains a number of ingredients including soy sauce, dried kelp, dried shiitake, and shaved bonito flakes, which can get messy for clean up; see the photo below. When I'm through with straining and pressing the soy concentrate, I dump the solids into the trash. I regularly use muslin to to produce a super clear dashi broth too.
I tend to use the same piece of muslin for pho and other super fragrant noodle soup broths because their perfume lingers for a few washings. The muslin tends to trap some of the fat too, which is fine as what fat does go through I keep in my pho broth.
Where and how to buy muslin for cooking purposes
Weight. Go for a lightweight unbleached (natural/buff color) muslin. Think of a shirt that you’d be happy to wear in the hot summer. The muslin will shrink after you wash it.
100% cotton, unbleached. That’s how most muslin is described. It’s pretty natural basic stuff. There’s no need to go fancy. Muslin is often described as being used for backing quilts. Tell the fabric store that you’re using the muslin to squeeze out soy milk or strain stocks. They will help you find the right bolt of fabric.
Choose a width. If you just need a couple pieces, buy a 48-inch-wide piece. Fabric is sold in different widths and muslin varies. There’s a super wide one that comes in 108-inch-width, which is what I eventually succumbed to.
Want to line a mold (like a tofu or cheese mold)? Use slightly lighter weight “voile” which will fall into place in your mold because it’s thinner than muslin and a shade lighter in color. In the above photo, the voile is on top so you can distinguish the weave difference. It looks just like muslin but is often in another part of the fabric store.
I really like this cheesecloth alternative. Maybe you've already discovered it (share your thoughts!) and enjoy it too.