09/12/2014 12:48 GMT | Updated 10/12/2014 14:59 GMT

What Exactly Is Mincemeat, Anyway?

David Marsden via Getty Images

If you didn't grow up with mincemeat, chances are you're totally confused about what this food actually is. From the sound of it, one would assume that meat was the main ingredient, but that would be entirely wrong. Well, almost entirely wrong.

Mincemeat is (more often than not) just a mixture of chopped boozy, spiced fruit that is widely popular in the UK. It is traditionally served around Christmas -- often times baked into pies. In order to understand how this spiced fruit recipe came to be called mincemeat we have to take a look at history.

Mincemeat was first created as a way of preserving meat -- usually mutton -- without having to salt or smoke it. It became a Christmas staple when the Crusaders returned home in the 12th century with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. The three spices used in this recipe were symbolic of the gifts given to baby Jesus by the Magi, therefore linking this recipe to Christmas. The spices contain antimicrobial properties that helped keep the meat through winter (and also probably masked any flavors of old meat). The meat used was normally finely chopped -- also known as minced in cooking lingo -- and that's where this pastry got its name.

But by the 20th century, beef suet replaced the meat in most mincemeat, and the fruits (such as apples, dried raisins and candied citrus) took center stage -- always with booze like brandy. These days sometimes even the suet is taken out and replaced with butter, making mincemeat a vegetarian-friendly food. (It should be noted that some people still make it the old-fashioned way with meat, but that's far less common.)

Despite this food's transformation over the centuries, it is still a popular -- albeit polarizing -- Christmas item with some UK bakeries noting sales up to 40 million mincemeat pies over the holiday season. Despite high reaching sales of commercial bakeries, it is generally agreed upon that homemade is the better way to go. The ingredients list is long, but the payoff is great. If you're up for it, here's a good recipe to try.

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