What is Mincemeat?

I wrote a little about this last week, but now that mincemeat is an official project, the subject bears a little more scrutiny. Someone who’s never heard of the stuff before might be forgiven for thinking it’s simply minced meat. But of course it isn’t. At least not these days. Meat hasn’t been a common ingredient in mincemeat for over 100 years.

The “mince” part of the name, well, that’s still accurate. Although I should mention that on this side of the pond we don’t use the word “mince” very much. We employ words like “grind”, “chop” and “shred” to the same end.

So what’s “minced” in mince meat? These days mostly dried fruits, occasionally nuts, and lots of fresh apples. Suet too, at least in the really good recipes. To that mixture sugar and molasses are added, plus spices, cider for moisture and brandy for, well…interest.

In the old days, meat was a regular feature of mincemeat. It’s been said that mincemeat was once a popular method for preserving meat. I doubt that very much. Drying and salting are vastly more efficient — to say nothing of economical — methods for extending the shelf life of meat. I think it’s clear that mincemeat was just a tasty way to recycle leftovers.

However there’s no denying that mincemeat contains more than a few anti-microbial substances which, all combined, act as preservatives. In my research I found more than one 19th Century recipe that instructed the cook to store mincemeat in crocks for several weeks — presumably at room or cellar temperature — to “mature” it before using. And let me underscore: these recipes contained meat.

I’d never try anything like that myself, though when you consider how much sugar and alcohol went into these mixtures, the meat was certainly pickled to the point that it didn’t pose much risk (“much” being the critical word). Baking would have provided another safeguard against food borne illness…but certainly not enough of one, at least for any modern health inspector.

So why we don’t we see much meat-containing mincemeat anymore? I think we’ve answered that. Like nice, ripe fruitcakes, the most prized mincemeats were once those whose flavors had been developed by aging. But people don’t keep meat-containing mixtures in crocks in their basements anymore. Neither do people can meat (or meat mixtures) at home since it takes a good deal of precaution not to mention a pressure canner.

Me, I’m not hung up on aging. I just want to taste a mincemeat with meat. I may keep mine for a week or so in the fridge to mellow it, but after that I’ll relegate it to the freezer until the holidays roll around.

6 thoughts on “What is Mincemeat?”

  1. Might I suggest you do an experiment? Use half your mincemeat now, and leave half of it sealed up to mature for however long. If it’s just suet you’re putting in it, and not muscle, it’ll keep just fine.

    1. Hey Bronwyn! No question that mincemeat without muscle meat in it will keep for ages. Canned, the stuff will keep for years. Even with just a wax top (what we in the states call “open kettle” canning), months would be very reasonable. But this batch will definitely have muscle meat in it. It’s going to stay refrigerated.

  2. I thought I’d share an amusing story with you about my recent mincemeat encounter. I live in Norway and an international market came through just before Christmas. There was a British booth selling all sorts of jarred treats and they had a whole section of mince meat. Having read your post on the history of mince pies, I chatted with the owner about it and asked all sorts of questions. Turns out he knew very little about what mince meat is and I ended up teaching him a thing or two about its history. Thanks to Joe Pastry 🙂

    1. People say it a lot: when this blog isn’t causing them brain damage they actually pick up bits of useful information. Some of it is even applicable in real-world situations! Glad I was able to help you sound like an expert in that instance, Chelsea!

      – Joe

  3. I catered some house concerts and brought some homemade mincemeat pies (not the big kind, small rounds of pie dough topped with mincemeat and another round of dough, then pressed down around the edges – the size of a cookie). So, everything was labeled – even the Tom & Jerry, and especially the vegetarian stuff. However, after 70 people ate the mince pies, one young fella came up and complained bitterly that there was meat in the mincemeat pies. He’d assumed. still, I make my own mincemeat, going on 40 years, and not a complaint yet. Don’t leave out the citron – really.

    1. The poor fellow obviously doesn’t understand quality mincemeat! What a shame. By keep on keepin’ on Phyllis! Don’t let the Philistines win!

      Thanks for the note!

      – Joe

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