BISCUITS. The word "biscuit" is derived from the Latin panis biscoctus, "twice-baked bread." From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, forms of the word included besquite and bisket. Similar forms are noted in many European languages. "Biscuit" covers a wide range of flour baked products, though it is generally an unleavened cake or bread, crisp and dry in nature, and in a small, thin, and flat shape. It has a number of cultural meanings. In the United States, a biscuit is a soft, thick scone product or a small roll similar to a muffin. The British biscuit is equivalent to the American cookie and cracker. These latter terms are relatively modern. "Cookie" comes from the eighteenth-century Dutch word koekje, a diminutive of koek (cake). "Cracker" is a North American term that also came into use in the eighteenth century, connoting the sound of the wafer as it was chewed or broken (at this time, "cracker" was also used to mean a firecracker or a noisy person or object).
Biscuits have evolved from different aspects of baking practices such as tarts, pastries, short cakes, and sugar confectionery. They have given rise to the wafer, macaroon, cracker, sandwich, snap, gingerbread, honey cake, rusk, and water biscuit. Some, like the wafer, were baked in the Middle Ages; others are of more recent origin, such as the "fancy biscuit," an early-nineteenth-century invention of British bakers that led to the development of a biscuit industry, which was later exported throughout the world. Biscuits are divided into two main groups. The first are plain or have a savory flavoring. The second type are sweet or semi-sweet in character.
Biscuits are made from a number of ingredients. Flour is the most basic and important. Different types give a range of textures and crispness. Wholemeal wheat flour is used in the "digestive," "sweetmeal," or "wheat-meal" type of biscuits. Oatmeal forms the basis of oatmeal biscuits. Rice flour and corn flour add flavor. Fats give the biscuits their "shortness." Butter and lard are the main fats, though these are augmented by vegetable and other refined fats. For fancy biscuits, sugar is an important ingredient, and introduces a range of tastes. It is added in several forms: processed as caster and Demerara sugars, syrups, honey, and malt extract. These have a range of consistencies and may help to bind together other ingredients. Aerating and raising ingredients, such as baking powder (bicarbonate of soda and tartaric acid), make the biscuit light. Flavorings are also added. These include dried fruit, nuts, chocolate (powder or chips), spices, herbs, and flavoring essences such as vanilla. The dry ingredients are bound together with eggs and milk (fresh, condensed, or dried) or water. Biscuits have a high energy content, ranging from 420 to 510 kcal per 100 g.
The mechanized process of biscuit-making is rapid and continuous. The ingredients are mixed into a dough that is then kneaded and rolled to a uniform thickness. Biscuit shapes are cut from it, and placed in a traveling oven. Some biscuits require special preparation and cooking techniques. Biscuit-making has become increasingly and highly mechanized since the early nineteenth century, when technological aids were limited and it was highly labor-intensive. They can be baked commercially or in the home.
Most biscuits are distinguished by their appearance: round, square, oblong, finger-shaped, or fancifully impressed with designs. Plain biscuits are normally punched with a cutter or docker, to increase crispness during baking. Fancy biscuits can be covered with sugar, icing, or coated (fully or partially) with chocolate. Each type of biscuit also has its own commercial name, which refers to ingredients, a designation (sandwich, wafer, macaroon, or cracker), texture, eating qualities, and the time when it was to be eaten. The range of biscuits has increased over the past 150 years. Huntley & Palmers, of Reading, England, a world leader in biscuit production, sold around 130 varieties in 1870; by 1898, this increased to over four hundred. Some became well established and have a long history. For example, the "Abernethy biscuit," a proprietary biscuit based on the captain biscuit, was devised by Dr. John Abernethy (1764–1831), chief surgeon at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London. Some biscuits have been eaten in large quantities. The Digestive (or Wholemeal) and Rich Tea became market leaders in Britain from 1949 onward. Other sorts fell out of favor, but new varieties are being continually developed as a result of consumer demand, changing tastes, and innovations in production techniques. Chocolate-coated biscuits started to become popular in the first decade of the twentieth century.
Some biscuits have become cultural markers. The snickerdoodle, flavored with nutmeg, nuts, and raisins, is a speciality of the Pennsylvania Dutch. The gingersnap, a thin ginger biscuit, is popular in Sweden. Povorone is a Spanish and Mexican biscuit of pastry dough flavored with nuts or cinnamon, rolled in icing sugar after baking. Shortbread, a rich, short biscuit that is a speciality of Scotland, is exported throughout the world. Traditionally, it was a festive food eaten at Hogmanay (the eve of New Year's Day), though it is now eaten on everyday occasions.
Biscuits are sold in several distinctive ways. They are marketed either as a single variety or as an assortment. Some of these, such as Victoria Assortment, are well-known in England and Canada. Originally, fancy biscuits were sold as novelties. They were kept in highly decorated tins, which are still sold, but have been largely replaced by other forms of packaging. The earliest tins held 228 g; later ones extended to 4.5 kg. They were sold in tens of thousands, especially at Christmastime. Biscuit tins have become something of a cultural phenomenon quite separate from the biscuits themselves, since the empty tins are commonly reused as household furniture, for storage, or as decoration.
The role of the biscuit in the diet has also changed. In the early nineteenth century, the fancy biscuit was an expensive novelty, eaten only by the upper classes, and played a relatively minor role in popular diet. Only when the time of meals altered did the role of biscuits increase, being eaten at luncheon and afternoon tea. However, it was not until the 1960s that quality biscuits were within the range of most family incomes, especially in Britain. Biscuits have adapted to a range of uses. They have become health foods (sold in pharmacies), as well as slimming or digestive aids. They are now accompaniments to hot drinks, alcoholic beverages, courses of a meal (usually with cheese), snacks, or substitutes for bread, like the old ship's biscuit, eaten by men on long sea journeys. Biscuits have also assumed a place in popular folklore, for they surface in such expressions as "take the biscuit," which in Britain means the most surprising thing that could have occurred.
See also Baking; Bread; Cake and Pancake; Digestion; Pastry; Wedding Cake.
Adam, James S. A Fell Fine Baker: The Story of United Biscuits: A Jubilee Account of the Men and the Companies Who Pioneered One of Britain's Most Celebrated Industries. London: Hutchinson Benham, 1974.
Brown, Catherine. Scottish Cookery. Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1999.
Corley, T. A. B. "Nutrition, Technology and the Growth of the British Biscuit Industry 1820–1900." In The Making of the Modern British Diet, edited by Derek J. Oddy and Derek S. Miller. London: Croom Helm, 1976.
Corley, T. A. B. Quaker Enterprise in Biscuits: Huntley & Palmers of Reading 1822–1972. London: Hutchinson, 1972.
Manley, D. J. R. Biscuit Packaging and Storage: Packaging Materials, Wrapping Operations, Biscuit Storage, Troubleshooting Tips. Cambridge, U.K.: Woodhead, 1998.
Wolf-Cohen, Elizabeth. The Complete Biscuit & Cookie Book: Creative and Delicious Ideas for Making and Decorating Biscuits. London: Apple, 1994.
The American Biscuit—A Divergent Tradition
In Britain and most of Europe, the biscuit follows a direct lineal descent from the Latin panis biscoctus (literally twice-baked bread), but in North America broad inconsistencies have emerged in the way this term is used in advertising and in common speech. For light baked goods with a crisp, brittle texture, two terms are in common use: "cracker" and "cookie." Historically Americans also used the word "biscuit" like their British cousins, as in the case of the ship biscuits or water biscuits of the early 1800s. Both of these foods are called crackers in the United States.
The old water biscuit of the nineteenth century has become the oyster cracker of seafood restaurants and oyster houses. The ship biscuit, with its light sprinkling of salt, has become the boxed cracker of the supermarket. Nabisco Saltines were one of the first of this type marketed commercially on a national scale.
However, Americans call the soft crackers of Maryland's Chesapeake Bay area "beaten biscuits." This is a cracker made with high-gluten flour and water that is beaten (the technical term is "broken") until the dough becomes soft and spongy. When baked, the biscuits are tender and fluffy as though made with yeast. Out of this species of cracker evolved the fluffy raised biscuits made with baking powder that are popular in the South. These soda biscuits, as they were once called, represent a type of bread substitute served with gravies and various fricasseed foods. In the American South they are almost universally eaten at breakfast.
Two common denominators unite all types of American crackers. The first is that they are not sweet, and therefore they are not considered dessert foods. The second is that they are "docked," the baking term for punching tiny holes into the dough so they become light and brittle once they are baked. Docking prevents the dough from shrinking and becoming tough. The old baker's tool used for making the holes was called a biscuit dock, normally a wooden handle attached to a stamp featuring numerous spikes arranged in whatever pattern the baker wanted for his or her crackers. Many docks featured the baker's initials or a simple pattern, such as a ship's anchor for a ship's biscuit.
When sugar is added to these simple recipes, American terminology changes. The crackers become wafers, and if fat of any kind enters into the recipe, the wafers graduate to cookies. The term "cookie" was borrowed from the Dutch, who settled in New York in the early 1600s. The word simply means a little cake, and "little cake" is what most cookies were called in early American cookbooks, just as they were in England. By the 1790s, however, the New York term began to show up in many places outside of that state.
The popularity of the term increased because of its connection with the fashionable New York New Year's cookies, highly ornamented stamped cookies served during New Year's Day entertainments. The word moved into American cookbook literature and eventually came to encompass any crisp, sweet finger food. But one further distinction has developed. "Cookie" is applied to foods of this kind that are either homemade or intrinsically American. How is this known? Chinese fortune cookies were invented in the United States in the 1840s under the name of motto cookies. They are not foreign. By this same rule, imported French champagne biscuits are not called cookies. Likewise the Italian biscotti served at nearly every coffee bar would never be characterized as cookies. Cookies are comfort food. Cookies are what children are allowed to eat. The word separates what is recognizable and American from all the rest.
William Woys Weaver