Devices used to separate water from food come with many names (and I’m not talking about salad spinners here). A colander is typically a bowl-shaped tool with holes to drain water. A china cap is a cone-shaped, perforated metal strainer with a long handle. A chinois (pronounced “sheen-WAH,” French for Chinese, masculine form) looks like a china cap, but strains through mesh. Chinois is often misspelled and mispronounced as chinoise (“sheen-WAHZ,” French feminine). In a French kitchen, every kind of conical strainer is called a chinois. In the United States, both are often just called strainers, and the mesh one specifically a bouillon strainer.
And they’re all good for different jobs. You need a colander to drain pasta or wash fruit and vegetables. A china cap or chinois works too, but they’re designed to funnel and drain stocks and soups directly into a pot, plus they’re usually more expensive.
The Superbag is yet another type of—relatively new—strainer that’s very popular right now with experimental chefs. It looks and feels like a Tyvek sack (that tear-resistant material used for everything from shipping envelopes to wrapping your house), but is actually a fine yet durable filter used for achieving ultraclear products like consommés.
Here are my three favorites.
Most colanders look like mixing bowls with holes punched in them. The roomy, 5-quart Endurance Precision Pierced Colander, on the other hand, resembles mesh at first glance. In fact, it’s stainless steel that’s been perforated with a laser. It washes clean with a few swipes of a soapy sponge, unlike mesh, which can require a stiff brush. The colander’s holes are small enough that even the finest capellini won’t slip through or clog up the works.
This Endurance colander is lightweight, unlike the All-Clad one I picked up recently. The latter is gorgeous and solid, but you don’t need its heavy weight when you’re draining a hot pound of pasta.
A ring pedestal keeps the Endurance off the bottom of your sink and is easier to wash than the three individual feet found on some colanders.
According to the manufacturer, it’s dishwasher safe, but it’s been reported (registration required) that the colander’s big loop handles sometimes pop off after repeated machine washings. For the most part I’m just rinsing off pasta water or produce dirt, so hand-washing works fine—plus I hate jamming colanders into a home dishwasher because they take up half a rack.
A chinois—or strainer—has traditionally been your last line of defense against graininess. Remember when Top Cheftestant Betty suffered from unsmooth soup because she failed to use her chinois enough? You want one that’s fine yet tough.
This so-called bouillon strainer—a.k.a. chinois—by Matfer is distinctive in restaurant kitchens because of its unique heat-resistant plastic handle and lip. Most strainers are completely stainless steel, but not only is the Exoglass plastic heat resistant up to 430 degrees Fahrenheit, the handle is also insulated, so even if the chinois is hanging over a stockpot on a hot stovetop, you can hold it comfortably with your bare hands. The Exoglass is molded in one piece as well, so there are fewer crevices in which food particles can hide.
Sturdy wires cross around the stainless-steel mesh cone to provide unobtrusive protection against dings and jabs, which, like stocking runs, will lead to holes that will render the chinois useless. Some strainers are protected with wider metal bands that can annoyingly get in the way while draining every last drop or washing.
Two toothy hooks on the front of the lip secure the strainer across the top of the pot. If you’ve ever had a chinois with only a single shallow hook slip, you’ll appreciate the added protection against the culinary tragedy of spilling everything you’ve just strained. Strainers are often pressed into heavy duty, literally, with ladles mashing out every bit of liquid, and this Matfer model holds up well. It’s also dishwasher safe.
I first encountered Superbags while working at El Bulli. We used them for the exhausting task of squeezing almond milk out of fresh almond purée. We simply filled the large porous bags with the purée, then squeezed them to release a torrent of almond milk, and finally wrung them to extract every drop.
The Superbag is a rarity in even the finest restaurant kitchens because it is so new, and I suspect chefs believe it looks flimsy. But when you need an extraordinarily fine filter that won’t impart a metallic taste to delicate ingredients, plus is flexible yet durable, heat resistant, and dishwasher safe, there is no other choice.
Chef Shola Olunloyo of Studiokitchen in Philadelphia uses Superbags to collect tomato water, allowing raw tomatoes to sit in the bags until they drip out their clear, fragrant, flavorful liquid. He also creates a transparently green honeydew soup, which he garnishes with blue crabmeat, lemon balm, and basil oil.
Superbags are available in the United States exclusively at Le Sanctuaire, in 1.3- and 8-liter sizes at three filtering levels: 100, 250, and 400 microns.