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Kosher Food: Preparation & Guidelines

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Some dietary restrictions are personal choices; others are a bit more serious. In this lesson, we are going to review Jewish dietary laws and see what makes certain food fit to eat.

Kosher Food

Many people will choose to abstain from gluten or dairy or carbohydrates for various personal health and fitness goals. For some people, however, dietary restrictions are not a choice; they're a commandment.

In the Jewish religion, kosher foods are those that are acceptable to eat in accordance with kashrut, Jewish dietary laws. The Talmud, the body of Jewish law, outlines specific rules that food must meet in order to be kosher, which is defined as fit or appropriate. We're going to go over some basic guidelines that will be relevant to the culinary arts, but remember that Judaism contains many branches and some rules may change within them. If you're planning to cook in a kosher kitchen for a specific population, consult a rabbi to make sure you've met all regulations.

Kosher food adheres to the dietary restrictions of Judaism
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Kinds of Kosher Food

So, what kinds of food are kosher? What kinds of food are not kosher? Jewish communities classify kosher foods into one of three categories.

Meats

First are meats. To be kosher, meat must come from an animal that chews its own cud and has split hooves. This includes cows, sheep, and goats. It does not include pigs, which Jewish law specifically bans. Poultry can also be kosher, as long as it comes from the right type of bird. Scavengers and birds of prey are expressly forbidden, while domesticated chickens, ducks, and geese are acceptable. Most Jewish communities recognize turkeys as kosher, but some do not since turkeys (which are only native to the Americas) are never directly mentioned in traditional Jewish texts. The rules for meats extend to any animal byproducts as well, including fat and stock used in cooking.

Dairy

The second category of kosher foods are dairy products. This includes cheeses, milk, butter, yogurt, and even ice cream. A dairy product is kosher if it comes from a kosher animal and is prepared appropriately (we'll get to that later).

Pareve

The third category are foods recognized as pareve, neither meat nor dairy. This includes eggs, as well as all fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Anything plant, or plant-derived, is kosher. Additionally, fish are kosher if they have scales and fins. So, salmon is kosher, shellfish are not.

Preparation

Kosher cooking requires kosher ingredients, but those ingredients must remain kosher from the moment they are produced to the moment they are consumed. This means that food preparation is as important a part of keeping kosher as the ingredients themselves.

Let's start with basic kosher preparation standards: everything must be clean. Meat, fish and eggs must be thoroughly washed to ensure that there is no blood. Blood makes a product not kosher, or treif'. Fruits and vegetables must be thoroughly washed as well, largely because bugs and bug byproducts are not kosher. In addition, cooking spaces and utensils all must be sanitized.

Now for the ingredients. In order for meat to be kosher, it must come from a kosher animal. However, that animal also has to have been slaughtered in a precise way. In general, the animal's throat has to be sliced in a single cut and the blood drained in the right way by a shochet, a specialist trained to do this. This is actually widely regarded as more humane than what is practiced by most commercial food producers.

In all honesty, this probably won't be a big issue in your kitchen unless you're planning to slaughter your own animals. However, the meat you purchase does need to have been prepared in this way. Kosher food will generally have a stamp that indicates the preparation has been overseen by a rabbi (but not necessarily blessed by a rabbi, that's a common misconception) and/or a shochet. If meat is not prepared in this way, then it's not kosher, no matter what animal it came from.

There are many logos used to indicate that something is kosher, this one comes from the Kosher Supervision of America
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