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Can I use a strainer instead of a jelly bag?

Making jelly at home can be a fun and rewarding way to preserve the flavor of fresh fruits. However, it does require a few specific tools to help separate the fruit pulp from the resulting juice. One of the most essential items is a jelly bag or strainer cloth that allows the juice to filter through while keeping the solids behind. So what if you don’t have an actual jelly bag on hand? Can you use a strainer instead?

What is a jelly bag?

A jelly bag is a thin, porous cloth that is specially designed for straining fruit juices and purées when making jellies, jams, and preserves. It’s typically made from lightweight muslin or other finely woven cotton, linen, or even nylon fabric. The weave is loose enough to allow liquids to filter through easily but tight enough to catch seeds, skins, and pulp. Jelly bags usually come in the shape of a small sack or have a drawstring at one end to contain the fruit.

When using a jelly bag, the cooked fruit mixture is placed inside and suspended over a bowl to allow the juice to drain into the receptacle below. Thebag’s lightweight fabric and loose weave facilitate draining, while the bag’s containment of the solids provides more clarity and purity in the resulting juice. Jelly bags can be reused many times if properly cleaned between uses.

Key attributes of a jelly bag

There are a few important features that make jelly bags ideal for juice extraction:

  • Sheer, lightweight, and porous material: This allows maximum flow and filtration of juice.
  • Fine weave: Small enough to catch solids but large enough to let juice pass through freely.
  • Suspension method: Jelly bags are often tied up or hung to facilitate dripping of juice.
  • Drawstring or sack shape: This contains solids while liquid filters out.
  • Reusability: Jelly bags are made of washable fabric.

Why use a jelly bag instead of a strainer?

While various strainers and filters can separate liquids from solids, jelly bags have some advantages that make them uniquely suited to juicing fruits and making jellies:

  • Finer filtration: The tightly woven but porous material of a jelly bag is more effective at trapping very small fruit particles and sediments.
  • Increased yield: Jelly bags allow you to extract more juice from the fruit solids compared to some strainers.
  • Prevents clogging: Alternatives like cheesecloth can get clogged with pulp more easily than lightweight jelly bags.
  • No residue: Jelly bags typically don’t shed fibers or particles into the filtered juice.
  • Shape and containment: The drawstring sack or hanging design makes juice extraction cleaner and more efficient.
  • Easy washing: Jelly bags are made of washable fabric, allowing reuse.

For these reasons, jelly bags tend to produce clearer, more filtered juice, ultimately creating superior preserves. That said, in a pinch, some substitute methods can work.

Can I use a strainer instead?

While jelly bags are specially designed for juice extraction, various types of strainers can be used instead if you don’t have access to an actual jelly bag. However, the results may vary depending on the strainer type.

Fine mesh strainers

Strainers made from tightly woven mesh materials can mimic some of the filtration capabilities of a jelly bag. Opt for stainless steel, nylon, or other fine mesh products. Make sure the weave is tight enough to block most solids and particles.


Layering a couple sheets of cheesecloth can act as a substitute filtering material. However, it may not be as effective at trapping very small particles, and the weave can clog more readily.

Nut milk bag

Reusable nut milk bags are made from nylon or other fabric that allows straining of solids from liquids. As their name suggests, they are commonly used for making homemade nut milks. But their lightweight material and fine mesh may also work for fruit juices.

Coffee filter

In a true pinch, a paper coffee filter inside a strainer can trap some solids and particles. But juices may take much longer to filter through the denser paper material. Cellulose can also slough off into the juice.

Flour sack towel

These thin cotton towels have a tighter weave than cheesecloth. Fold into layers inside a strainer for improved filtration compared to cheesecloth or coffee filters.

Tips for using a strainer as a jelly bag

When using a makeshift jelly bag alternative, keep these tips in mind for best results:

  • Select the finest mesh or weave possible for maximum filtration.
  • Layering multiple sheets of material can improve straining.
  • Avoid materials that may shred or disintegrate when wet like paper towels.
  • Let juices drain in batches if flow becomes slow. Don’t force solids through.
  • Contain strained solids in another container instead of leaving in the strainer.
  • Cheesecloths, nut bags, and towels are reusable if cleaned properly.
  • Discard disposable materials like coffee filters after one use.

Comparison of jelly bag and strainer methods

Here is a table comparing some key differences between using a purpose-made jelly bag versus a substitute strainer when extracting fruit juice:

Method Filtration Ability Yield from Fruit Risk of Clogging Juice Clarity
Jelly bag Excellent High Low High
Mesh strainer Good Moderate Low Good
Cheesecloth Moderate Moderate High Moderate
Coffee filter Poor Low High Poor

Should I invest in a jelly bag?

While it’s possible to improvise with other straining tools, a purpose-made jelly bag is inexpensive, reusable, and the most effective option for juice extraction and clarity. Investing in a high quality jelly bag is recommended for frequent jam and jelly makers who want superior results from their fruits. They help maximize the yield of precious juices and allow the clearest, most transparent gels to set.

Look for jelly bags made from tightly woven, lightweight natural fabrics. Muslin and fine cottons work well. You can find reusable jelly bags online or at cooking specialty stores for around $5-15 depending on size and materials. With proper use and care, a jelly bag should provide many years of service.

Proper use of jelly bags

To get the best performance from a jelly bag, keep these usage tips in mind:

  • Wet the bag before use to prevent absorption of juices.
  • Carefully ladle cooked fruit mixture into the bag.
  • Tie the bag closed or twist the top to contain solids.
  • Suspend or hang the bag above a bowl to facilitate draining.
  • Gently squeeze bag to initial get flow started.
  • Let juices drain in batches for clearest results.
  • Don’t force solids through by over squeezing the bag.
  • Store jelly bag in a dry place between uses.
  • Wash thoroughly after each use.


While makeshift strainers can work decently well, an actual jelly bag is specially engineered to produce the clearest, most full-flavored juices for jellies and preserves. Taking the time to acquire a purpose-made jelly bag is a worthwhile investment for the home preserver. Proper use and care will provide many years of reliable juice extraction. But in a pinch, fine mesh strainers lined with a flour sack towel or layers of cheesecloth can substitute when making an occasional batch of homemade jelly.