American biscuit (left) and one variety of British biscuits (right). The American biscuit is soft and flaky; these particular British ones have a layer of chocolate filling between two hard wafers.

A biscuit (Template:Pron-en) is a baked edible product, which due to its Latin language basis and common adaptation in modern times, has different meanings for distinctly different baked products in different parts of the world.



The modern day confusion in the English language around the word biscuit is created by its etymology.

The Middle French word bescuit, is derived from the Latin words bis (twice) and coquere (to cook), and hence literally translated means "twice cooked."[1] This is because biscuits were originally cooked in a twofold process: first baked, and then dried out in a slow oven.[2] Hence:

This term was that adapted into British English in the 14th century during Middle Ages, in the Middle English word bisquite, to represent a hard twice-baked product.[3]

However, the Dutch language from around 1703 had adopted the word koekje, a language diminutive of cake, to have a similar meaning for a similar hard, baked product.[4] This may be related to the Russian or Ukrainian translation, where biscuit has come to mean sponge cake.

The difference between the secondary Dutch word and that of the Latin origin was that while the koekje as a cake rose during baking, the biscuit which had no rising agent generally did not (ie, gingerbread), except for the expansion of heated air during the baking process.

When peoples from Europe began to emigrate to the United States, the two words and their "same but different" meanings began to clash. It may hence have been an act of history, but after the American War of Independence against the British, that they adopted for American English the word cookie to have the meaning of a hard, twice baked product.

Further confusion to the modern language problem is added to by the adoption of the word biscuit for a small leaven bread popular in Southern American cooking.

Today, according to American English dictionary Merriam Webster:

Today, throughout most of the world, the term biscuit still means a hard, crisp, brittle bread, except in the United States, where it now denotes a softer bread product baked only once. In modern Italian, usage the term biscotto is used to refer to any type of hard twice baked biscuit.


Biscuits for travel

Ship's biscuit display in Kronborg, Denmark.

Main article: Hardtack

The need for nutritious, easy to store, easy to carry and long-lasting foods on long journeys, particularly at sea, was initially solved by taking live food along with a butcher/cook. However, this took up additional space on what were either horse-powered treks or small ships, reducing the time of travel before additional food was required. This resulted in early armies adopting the style of hunter-foraging.

The introduction of the baking of processed cereals including the creation of flour, provided a more reliable source of food. Egyptian sailors carried a flat brittle loaf of maize bread called dhourra cake, while the Romans had a biscuit called buccellum.[5] Roman cookbook Apicius describes:

a thick paste of fine wheat flour was boiled and spread out on a plate. When it had dried and hardened it was cut up and then fried until crisp, then served with honey and pepper.

Many early physicians believed that most medicinal problems were associated with digestion. Hence, for both sustenance and avoidance of illness, a daily consumption of a biscuit was considered good for one's health. Physically to this day, when biscuits get older, they get softer. So simply, the bakers of the time to solve this problem, extended this thought to create the hardest biscuit possible. Resultantly, because it is so hard and dry, properly stored and transported, the navy's Hardtack will survive rough handling and endure extremes of temperature. The more refined Captain's biscuit was made with finer flour.

To soften it, it was often dunked in brine, coffee, or some other liquid or cooked into a skillet meal. Baked hard, it would stay intact for years as long as it was kept dry. For long voyages, hardtack was baked four times, rather than the more common two, and prepared six months before sailing.[6]

At the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the daily allowance on board a Royal Navy ship was 1lb of biscuit plus 1 gallon of beer. Later, Samuel Pepys in 1667 first regularised naval victualling with varied and nutritious rations. Royal Navy hardtack during Queen Victoria's reign were made by machine at the Royal Clarence Victualling Yard at Gosport, Hampshire, stamped with the Queen's mark and the number of the oven to which they were consigned to be baked. Biscuits remained an important part of the Royal Navy sailor’s diet until the introduction of canned foods, with canned meat first marketed in 1814, and preserved beef in tins was officially introduced to the Royal Navy rations in 1847.[5]

Biscuits for pleasure

Traditional Polish Toruń gingerbread

Main article: Gingerbread

Early biscuits were hard, dry and unsweetened. But as they were cheap - early biscuits were most often cooked after bread, in a cooling bakers oven - they were a cheap form of sustenance for the poor. But as trade routes developed from the 1400s to the 1600s, the addition of spices and and sugar created a new form of sweetened and spiced biscuit.

By the 7th century AD, cooks of the Persian empire had learnt from their forbearers the secrets of lightening and enriching bread based mixtures with eggs, butter and cream; and sweetening them with fruit and honey. One of the earliest spiced biscuits was gingerbread, which is often translated into French as pain d'épices,literally "spice bread." Brought to Europe in 992 by the Armenian monk Grégoire de Nicopolis. He left Nicopolis Pompeii, in Lesser Armenia to live in Bondaroy, France, near the town of Pithiviers. He stayed there seven years, and taught the Gingerbread cooking to French priests and Christians.[7][8][9] This was originally a dense, treaclely (molasses-based) spice cake or bread. So as it was so expensive to make, early ginger biscuits were a cheap form of using up the leftover bread mix.

In mediaeval times, biscuits were made from a sweetened, spiced paste of breadcrumbs and then baked (eg: gingerbread), or from cooked bread enriched with sugar and spices and then baked again.[10] With the combination of the Muslim invasion of Spain, and then the Crusades developing the spice trade, the cooking techniques and ingredients of Arabia spread into Northern Europe. By the time King Richard I of England, (aka Richard the Lionheart) left for the Third Crusade (1189-92) with "biskit of muslin," which was a mixed corn compound of barley, rye and bean flour.[5]

As the supply of sugar began, and the refinement and supply of flour increased, so did the ability to sample more leisurely food stuffs, including sweet biscuits. Early references from the Vadstena monastery show how the Swedish nuns were baking gingerbread to ease digestion in the year 1444.[11] The first documented trade of gingerbread biscuits dates to the 1500s, where they were sold in monastery pharmacies and town square farmers markets. Gingerbread became widely available in the 1700s.

It is hence of no surprise that often together with local farm produce of meat and cheese, many regions of the world have their own distinct style of biscuit, so old is this form of food.

Biscuits today

Biscuit rose de Reims

Most modern biscuits can trace their origins back to either the Hardtack ships biscuit, or the creative art of the baker:

Biscuits today can be savoury or sweet, but most are small at around 2 inches (5.1 cm) in diameter, and flat. The term biscuit also applies to sandwich-type biscuits, where a layer of cream or icing is sandwiched between two biscuits, such as the Custard cream. European biscuits tend to be thinner, softer and more sugary in consistency, and often more creative in design; while British biscuits tend to be harder and plainer - perhaps in deference to the countries naval history.

Dunking a biscuit

Sweet biscuits are commonly eaten as a snack food and are generally made with wheat flour or oats, and sweetened with sugar or honey. Varieties may contain chocolate, fruit, jam, nuts or even be used to sandwich other fillings. There is usually a dedicated section for sweet biscuits in most European supermarkets.

In Britain, the digestive biscuit and rich tea have a strong cultural identity as the traditional accompaniment to a cup of tea, and are regularly eaten as such. Many tea drinkers "dunk" their biscuits in tea, allowing them to absorb liquid and soften slightly before consumption.

A dark chocolate Tim Tam

Savoury biscuits or crackers (such as cream crackers, water biscuits, oatcakes or crisp breads) are usually plainer and commonly eaten with cheese following a meal. There is also a large variety of savoury biscuits that contain additional ingredients for flavour or texture, such as poppy seeds, onion or onion seeds, cheese (such as cheese melts) and olives. Savoury biscuits also usually have a dedicated section in most European supermarkets, often in the same aisle as sweet biscuits. The exception to savoury biscuits is the sweetmeal digestive known as the "Hovis biscuit," which, although slightly sweet, is still classified as a cheese biscuit.

Generally, Australians, South Africans, New Zealanders, Indians, Singaporeans and the Irish use the British meaning of "biscuit" (colloquially referred to as a bickie) for the sweet biscuit. Two famous Australasian biscuit varieties are the ANZAC biscuit and the Tim Tam. This sense is at the root of the name of the United States' most prominent maker of cookies and crackers, the National Biscuit Company, now called Nabisco.

See also


  1. ^ "Biscuit". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2009. ((cite encyclopedia)): |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  2. ^ "Biscuit". Retrieved 2010-01-14.
  3. ^ a b c "Biscuit". Merriam Webster. Retrieved 2010-01-14.
  4. ^ a b "Cookie". Merriam Webster. Retrieved 2010-01-14.
  5. ^ a b c "Ships Biscuits - Royal Navy hardtack". Royal Navy Museum. Retrieved 2010-01-14.
  6. ^ Article on Hardtack from Cyclopædia
  7. ^ La Confrérie du Pain d'Epices
  8. ^ Le Pithiviers
  9. ^ Monastère orthodoxe des Saints Grégoire Armeanul et Martin le Seul
  10. ^ "Biscuits". Retrieved 2010-01-14.
  11. ^ [1]