How My Family Uses ‘Kosher Colors’ To Make Our Kitchen Work For Us
When I moved in with my husband 10 years ago, there were a lot of adjustments to make —I’d never shared a bathroom with a man, for one thing. (So much beard hair.) But the biggest change for me personally was that all his life, my husband has kept kosher at home, meaning he follows the Jewish dietary laws that prohibit mixing dairy products and meat products in the same meal (as well as a slew of other dietary rules, including not consuming pork or shellfish). He intended to continue keeping kosher in our new apartment, something I of course respected. But while I grew up Jewish, my family never kept kosher. I had a basic sense of the rules, but setting up a kitchen to follow them was intimidating. There was a lot to learn.
You Need a Lot of Stuff
Here are the basics: any time you make something to eat, you need to decide if your meal/snack is going to be a “meat” meal or a “dairy” meal, and then you will prepare and serve it using cookware and dinnerware from that category. Craving grilled cheese? You need a dairy frying pan, a dairy spatula, a dairy knife, and a dairy plate for the finished product. Making chicken stir-fry? You need a meat pan, a meat cutting board, a meat stirring spoon, meat plates — you get the idea. You would never use the same pan you made the grilled cheese in to make a chicken stir-fry. This means most kosher kitchens have at least two sets of all the major kitchen tools — sometimes three sets, if you want to make something “pareve,” which means it contains neither meat nor dairy and would be things like fruits, veggies, grains and, confusingly, eggs. If you mess something up — say, use a dairy spatula on a meat pan — it is Not Good. So the goal is to have everything you need to prepare the foods you eat, and make it easy on yourself to distinguish a meat spatula from a dairy one.
You Need a System for Your Stuff
There are a few systems that kosher homes use to help keep track of all the stuff you need. (It probably goes without saying, but I will say anyway, that it can be very expensive to keep kosher. My family and I are very grateful to be able to do so.) Some people just rely on their memories to know that meat plates are plastic and dairy plates are ceramic and the meat forks are the ones we got from Grandma Roz and the dairy forks are the ones we got from Grandma Yetta. We tried a version of this for the first few years we lived together, in fact. But the big drawback became clear once we had our first child: it’s hard to send someone else into your kitchen if the whole key code to your system only exists in your mind(s). Enter our solution: switching to the Kosher Colors.
There is fairly widespread agreement among kosher-keeping families that meat is red, dairy is blue, and pareve is green. You can actually buy things like oven/dishwasher/microwave-safe stickers to put on your items to indicate what they are and the meat ones are red, the dairy ones are blue, and the pareve ones are green. The origins of the color scheme are fairly recent, despite their relative ubiquity, Jonathan D. Sarna, the director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, tells me.
“The color red, for meat, is generally attributed to the color of blood,” he says. “I suspect that some of the early kosher manufacturers invented [the rest of] these colors and they caught on, but proving this would take lots of effort.” (He also notes that the color scheme isn’t completely universal — some communities do use other colors as their standards, though red seems persistent for meat — but the availability of the stickers in both English and Hebrew indicates that the color scheme is at least common in both American and Israeli kosher homes.)
By leaning into this schematic, we figured we could make our lives easier as well as the lives of anyone who happened to be passing through our kitchen. And let me tell you, it worked. If you are in my kitchen and holding something, it is now immediately obvious what category that thing belongs to. Take a look:
We have three sets of measuring bowls, cups and spoons from KitchenAid in red, blue, and green that make mise en place and recipe prep so much simpler. (We have all three because the pareve set comes in super handy for making non-dairy desserts, something kosher families often try to do when having a meat main course.) You can also find great tri-color versions on Amazon!
Le Creuset makes enamel-coated cast iron skillets and pots in deep blue, fiery red, and a sage-y green that make it easy to know if you’ve got the right pot in hand immediately. Cast-iron cookware is one of those things that’s pricey at the outset but lasts forever, but you can occasionally find some less-expensive ones, like this cheery red one or this little blue one which is a great size for cheesy scrambled eggs.
One of my favorite finds are these ceramic knives from Kyocera: the red, blue, and green handles, paired with the tri-color Oxo cutting boards, have cut down on chopping mix-ups significantly. You could also save a little bit of money by getting one set of multi-colored knives! (if the yellow or purple ones don’t correspond to an obvious category, you can always add a sticker on them so you don’t get confused!)
The truth is, my husband and I had both initially resisted the idea of a “kosher colors” color scheme because these aren’t our preferred color choices. But the truth was that having our “own” system was confusing us. By fully committing to the established color-coding, we gave ourselves an easy visual shortcut when we’re trying to get dinner on the table in the midst of two hungry toddlers. And when we notice a gap in our arsenal — say, we need more dairy food storage containers — we don’t have to hope we’ll find something, uh, chocolate-colored that will work. Blue Tupperware abounds.