Is There a Difference Between a Sieve and a Strainer?
The words "sieve" and "strainer" are often used interchangeably in conversation (and sometimes even look alike) but in practice, they are intended for very different tasks. What's the difference between these two kitchen tools and what tasks are each intended for?
A sieve—also known as a sifter—is typically a basket made of a metal fine-mesh weave with a handle attached. Its job is to aerate and separate dry ingredients like flour, cocoa powder, and powdered sugar, which will lead to a lighter and more tender crumb in baked goods. It is particularly useful in delicate cakes like a sponge cake, which uses clump-prone cake flour.
A strainer separates any particles that are present in a liquid, catching them in the basket to create a smooth sauce, juice, or purée from the mixture. The most obvious way to tell whether you are technically sifting or straining is to look at the mesh basket at the end of the task: If there are any bits of food left hanging around, like in the picture above, then you've just strained something!
While these two tools were created for different tasks, reality begs us to ask the question: Does a home cook really need both? Whether it is due to space, budget, or you simply prefer to keep a more minimal range of kitchen tools on hand, buying both isn't a must. A strainer will be the most versatile of the two, but be sure to purchase one that is lined with a coarser mesh (not large perforated holes) so that it can function as a sieve if needed. The finer the mesh, the harder it will be to use as a strainer since larger particles will get clogged more easily.
If you are an avid baker of cakes, cookies, and quick breads, then it would be worth it to have a dedicated fine-mesh sieve for sifting dry ingredients, and then a strainer with a coarser mesh for everything else.