If you’re looking to experience traditional British cuisine, look no further than the classic mince pie. Here’s everything you need to know about the little pie with a big history:
What Is Mince Pie?
Mince pie (or mincemeat pie, depending on where you’re from) is an English pie made with mincemeat, which is a mixture of dried fruit, spices, spirits, and sometimes—but not always—beef suet (the hard fat of beef found around the loins or kidneys), beef, or venison (deer meat).
It’s traditionally served around the holidays.
Related: What Is Figgy Pudding, Anyway?
Mincemeat vs. Minced Meat
It’s easy to see why someone, especially someone who is not familiar with British cuisine, would confuse mincemeat and minced meat.
Unfortunately, the common mistake could have disastrous results of Friends’ Beef Trifle proportions.
Let’s clear this up once and for all:
Mincemeat is “a finely chopped mixture (as of raisins, apples, and spices) sometimes with meat that is often used as pie filling,” according to Merriam-Webster. Though it can be semi-savory, mincemeat pie is considered a sweet treat.
Minced meat typically refers to ground meat, such as ground beef or chicken. Ground meat is found in savory dishes, like spaghetti and meat sauce, tacos, or hamburgers.
Read more: What Is Mincemeat?
Mince Pie vs. Cottage Pie vs. Shepherd’s Pie
Mince pie, cottage pie, and shepherd’s pie are all pies with English origins.
While mince pie is sweet, shepherd’s pie is savory. Its filling is made of ground lamb, peas, carrots, onions, and gravy and it’s topped with a layer of mashed potatoes.
“Shepherd’s pie” and “cottage pie” are often used interchangeably, though they’re not the same thing.
They have almost everything in common, save for one defining difference: Shepherd’s pie is made with lamb, while cottage pie is made with beef.
Mince Pie History and Symbolism
Mince pie’s history dates back to the 12th-century, when European knights returned from the Crusades with a newfound taste for certain aspects of Middle Eastern cuisine.
“Recipes of meat cooked with fruit and sweet spices were popular then, mixing sweet tastes with savoury,” according to A Christmas Compendium by J. John.
British food historians believe mince pie’s ingredients are deeply rooted in religious symbolism.
Traditional spices include cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, which are said to be symbolic of the wise mens’ three gifts to Jesus.
In Tudor times, the pies were larger than they are today. Instead of a regular pie plate, the mixture was placed in an oblong tin that may have represented Jesus’s manger. This claim may not be based in fact, however, as old English cookery books often referred to pie crusts as “the coffin.” (via British Popular Customs, Present and Past by T. F. Thiselton-Dyer).
When the English Civil War rolled around in the mid 1600s, the mince pie became the subject of much contention. Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans associated the pie with Catholicism and tried to ban it, along with many other Christmas traditions. The ban was lifted in England when Charles II reinstated Christmas.
These days, mince pie looks a little different than it did 800 years ago. Its shape is round instead of the traditional oval, and it is usually made without any meat at all (though beef suet is still a common ingredient).
How to Make Mince Pie
Want to spice up your holiday table this year with a homemade mince pie? We’ve got you covered with this easy recipe. This version calls for beef suet because it adds a velvety rich taste and texture. If you want to leave out the suet, though, that’s totally fine—just use butter instead.
Get the recipe: Homemade Mince Pie