What is Mincemeat?
Even if you have no idea what exactly mincemeat is, right off the bat, I think that we can all soundly agree that this is arguably one of the worst food words. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s discuss what this oddly-named food actually is. Given that “meat,” is part of the word, it would only make sense that this dish is largely comprised of...meat. Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case. In order to fully understand why it has the name that it does, and what it’s comprised of today, we first need to take a brief look back into history.
Mincemeat came about during the 12th century as a way to preserve (finely chopped) meat (hence, its name) without salt or smoking—instead, they used sugar (or honey/maple syrup), alcohol/vinegars, and East Asian spices that returning Crusaders brought back to England (including cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves) to do the trick. These spices possess properties that inhibit the growth of microorganisms, thus allowing the treated meat, most typically beef or mutton, to be preserved for months on end. By the 20th century, beef suet—the raw fat located around the kidneys or joints of a cow—replaced meat as the primary ingredient in mincemeat.
As the recipe has progressed closer and closer to present day, the vinegars and wines have been swapped out for liquors (like brandy or rum), and the meat/suet has been swapped out for fruits (like apples, raisins, currants, or candied citrus). It is thought that this switch from meat to fruit came about because of the warm, sweet spices that were traditionally used. Most modern versions of mincemeat do not involve meat, although it’s still a readily available option, if desired. According to the Food Lover’s Companion, the ingredients are combined, covered, and allowed to mature for at least a month, thus giving the various flavors an opportunity to mesh and mellow.
Mincemeat also possesses a strong connection to Christianity and Christmas, more specifically, as the spices incorporated were used because the dish is symbolic of of the gifts given to baby Jesus by the Magi. Because of this metaphorical tie, it was traditionally made during Christmas time, and it’s said to be good luck to eat this during the 12 days of Christmas. Despite its somewhat polarizing effect (along the same lines of fruitcake), mincemeat is still commonly prepared and consumed during Christmas, particularly in European countries.
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If you’re ready to whip up a jar of mincemeat for yourself, grab some dried fruits, whatever open spirits you’ve got lurking, and your favorite warm, holiday spices. If you’re wanting to stick to tradition, go ahead and talk to your local butcher so you can get your hands on a quality cut of suet. Once prepared, this fruity, spicy concoction will keep in your refrigerator for several weeks or frozen for up to 6 months. If starting from scratch isn’t your thing (no shame), commercially prepared mincemeat is available in most supermarkets, especially during the holidays. Typically, it’s baked into a pie crust, mini-tart shells, or cookies, however it can be enjoyed straight out of the jar if that’s what tickles your fancy.