Given two plates of raw, thinly sliced meat (e.g. hot pot or Korean BBQ), how can one reliably disambiguate beef from mutton?

Both appear as thin slices of red meat, with similar texture and marbling. Tasting them is not an option, nor is asking someone involved in preparing the meats.

  • 3
    Can you smell it ? beef and mutton/lamb smell different.
    – Max
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 14:03
  • @Max hot pot meat is served extremely chilled or frozen, and would often be near much stronger-smelling ingredients. Under those circumstances, it could be very difficult to distinguish the two by smell.
    – Sneftel
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 17:06
  • Are you specifically trying to distinguish beef from mutton (from older sheep, an uncommon meat in some areas), or from lamb (from younger sheep, and the most common form of sheep meet in the US and Europe)?
    – Sneftel
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 17:10
  • @Max - Smelling is possible, but not really ideal given the context, as Sneftel indicated.
    – darkside
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 17:59
  • @Sneftel - Specifically mutton as the term would be used on a menu for a (small, local) hot pot restaurant in North America. They have separate menu items mentioning lamb, so I can only presume they mean actual mutton.
    – darkside
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 18:02

2 Answers 2


What you are asking for is a classic task for learning pattern recognition, also known as the "chicken sexer problem" (derived from the people whose job at a farm is to throw recently-emerged chickens into one crate if female and another if male). The way to learn this is only one: practice. And not being able to taste is making it much harder.

Note that this is not a case where somebody could get you a description of how to recognize the difference and you could go through it and make checkmarks. Even people who succeed at the task will not be able to tell you how they know which it is (they may have a subjective explanation for it, such as "one of them smells faintly like a barn, the other doesn't", but it is not necessary true). The way to do it is to sit together with somebody who is adept at it, and watch their process intently over several hundred to thousand samples, until you realize you can tell the difference yourself. If there is no such expert available, the other way is to have those several hundred to thousand samples prepared by somebody who knows which is beef and which mutton, and you will have to start doing the process on your own, getting a correctness feedback after each sample. It will be slightly slower than sitting with an expert.

The task is likely to be rather context-dependent: you will probably have to go through a separate learning process for hot pot, and a separate one for Korean BBQ. The number of samples you need is also likely to be context-dependent, for example it is much easier to tell apart beef and mutton when grilled (there you will probably need less than one hundred samples) than when presented as salami.

  • Distinguishing beef from mutton when you know you have one sample of each in front of you is probably an easier task than distinguishing beef from mutton when you're only given one sample at a time (the chick sexing problem). However it's not clear which problem OP wants to solve.
    – The Photon
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 22:06

Sheep are raised almost exclusively on grass, whereas beef cattle (particularly the kind that will be turned into thin slices, rather than overpriced steaks) will be finished on grain feed. Grass-fed beef and mutton will have yellow-tinged fat while grain-fed beef will have white fat. So if one of the meats has a slightly yellower fat, that's almost certainly the mutton.

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