What Exactly Is Kosher?

By: Michael Engle

With Passover just about to begin, many may be wondering what in fact makes a food kosher or non-kosher. Few non-Jews truly know the meaning and reasoning for the kosher food label. Kosher food can be dated back to the beginning of the Jewish religion and are known as a framework for foods that are fit to be eaten by those practicing their Jewish faith. But with little knowledge of what exactly is in our own processed food nowadays, it can seem a daunting task trying to figure out if something is kosher or not. Imagine having to, while grocery shopping, inspect every single label not just for calories and allergens, but also for religious approval. Luckily, kosher supermarkets exclusively stock kosher products, allowing observant shoppers to focus more of their energy on menu planning.

Kosher food products are specifically approved by trained kosher inspectors; they certify that each kosher item was made with kosher ingredients in a kosher facility. By Jewish law, all kosher inspectors are graduates of rabbinical school.While there are many different regional and state-specific kosher designations, the most "national" is that of the Orthodox Union, which is denoted with a "U" inside of an "O." "Glatt kosher," another popular label with national recognition, is exclusively used to certify kosher meat; in other words, there is no such thing as glatt kosher cheese. Glatt kosher is, essentially, a "steakhouse quality" grade for kosher steakhouses.

Believe it or not, there are occasional discrepancies among kosher regimens. For instance, beef tongue, does not satisfy the requirements for "Beit Yosef" kashrut, even though it is an excellent sandwich filling at most New York area delicatessens. As a result, tongue is almost exclusively eaten by ashkenazim (Jews of Eastern European descent), and forsaken by sephardim (Jews of Western European, African, and/or Middle Eastern descent). This tongue represents a rare case where an extra label is required, in order to maximize customer satisfaction. Kosher markets have their fair share of ethnic ingredients and Israeli imports, as well as curious food items; like a kosher bacon-flavored dip for crudites, thanks to the wonders of imitation bacon soy bits.

Some meat is kosher. Most cheese is kosher as well, because the three most commonly milked animals (cows, sheep, and goats) are kosher. With these facts in mind, would a cheeseburger be kosher? Surprisingly, the answer is "No." Despite the fact that kosher and halal rituals and diets are similar, kosher's prohibition against mixing meat and dairy is one of the most notable distinctions from halal. Most kosher homes have separate ovens, plates, utensils, and even sinks, in order to ensure that meat and dairy never intermingle. Furthermore, most observant Jews impose an hours-long "waiting period" in between dairy and meat meals.

As a result, "pareve" items (neither meat nor dairy, e.g.: all raw produce) are treasured in kosher cuisine, whether as dairy substitutes or as simple, yet versatile, snacks. While kosher cheesecakes do exist (and are wonderful), most desserts tend to be pareve, because they can be eaten at any time. From personal experience, pareve desserts are, more often than not, just as decadent as their dairy counterparts! (In case you were wondering, eggs are pareve, even though they are "animal products." Meanwhile, fish with scales, such as salmon, herring, and tuna, are pareve as well; poultry is meat.)

While specificity of the kosher requirements in the Jewish law can go on, that was a brief explanation to what makes a food kosher or not. Sometimes it may not cross our minds why our favorite matzo ball soup is kosher, but knowing that it is makes it all the more tastier!

Photo: drhenkenstein

For more food stories, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)