What is mincemeat?

It's a classic ingredient at Christmas in mince pies, but mincemeat can be used throughout the year in baking.

Mincemeat is essentially an ancient mixture of dried fruits, ground almonds and spices, sugar and fat, almost certainly brought back to England from the Middle East by Crusaders.

It once contained minced meat and fat (lamb usually), and well into the 20th century, beef suet was always included, even when made at home. Today, most recipes or mince pies use vegetarian suet instead, but check the label if you're buying ready-made.

How to cook mincemeat

For a traditional mincemeat recipe try James Martin's classic method.

Adapt an old recipe at home by using grated or chopped butter rather than suet. Add such exotic Middle Eastern flavours as orange blossom or rose water, grate in fresh orange zest (highly recommended), add a screw or two of black pepper plus any other sweet spice you like best. Alcohol is usually minimal and black rum or brandy are probably best; fruit-based spirits, especially apricot brandy are recommended. Apricot jam or a chunky Seville orange marmalade are also excellent improvers.

The simplest way to use mincemeat more often is to combine it with fruit. Add a layer to an apple pie or crumble, to a plum crumble or in a plum pie. You could also bake a pie with fresh or canned pineapple chunks on a layer of mincemeat, which is a great favourite from Norfolk Island in the South Pacific. Try Tom Kerridge's mince tart with crumble topping for something a little more special.

Versions containing animal fats should be cooked before use but those including butter can be used as they are, perhaps stirred into an ice cream mixture. You could even serve an especially tasty version with whipped or clotted cream as a sumptuous festive topping for warm scones. For a twist on a mince pie, try little Eccles mince pies.

How to store mincemeat

The high sugar content of mincemeat, enhanced by fat and perhaps alcohol, means mincemeat can be stored at a cool ambient temperature for many months. Once opened it will keep for even longer refrigerated.

Availability of mincemeat

Homemade mincemeat can be prepared any time of the year and when properly sealed it will develop a broader, more balanced flavour as it matures. Canned and bottled mincemeats can generally be found on the shelves of larger supermarkets all year round and are universally better if their flavours are expanded, as below.