A biscuit is a flour-based baked food product. In most countries biscuits are typically hard, flat and unleavened.
Biscuits are usually sweet and may be made with sugar, chocolate, icing, jam, ginger or cinnamon. They can also be savoury and similar to crackers.
Types of biscuit include sandwich biscuits, digestive biscuits, ginger biscuits, shortbread biscuits, chocolate chip cookies, chocolate-coated marshmallow treats, Anzac biscuits, biscotti and speculaas.
No other country buys and eats more biscuits than Britain.
In the United States and Canada, a biscuit is a small piece of bread, which after baking usually has a somewhat firm, dry exterior and a soft, crumbly interior. They are usually made with baking powder or baking soda as a chemical leavening agent rather than yeast, and may be called baking powder biscuits to differentiate them from other types. Like other forms of bread, they are often served with butter or other condiments, flavored with other ingredients, or combined with other types of food to make sandwiches or other dishes.
The term “biscuit” comes to English from the French biscuit (bis-qui), which itself has a Latin root: panis biscotus refers to bread twice-cooked.
The Romans certainly had a form of biscuit, what we’d now call a rusk and, as the name suggests, it was essentially bread which was re-baked to make it crisp. It kept for longer than plain bread, and was useful for travellers and soldiers’ rations.
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 health.
Hard biscuits soften as they age. To solve this problem, early bakers attempted to create the hardest biscuit possible. Because it is so hard and dry, if properly stored and transported, navies’ hardtack will survive rough handling and high temperature. Baked hard, it can be kept without spoiling for years as long as it is kept dry. For long voyages, hardtack was baked four times, rather than the more common two. To soften hardtack for eating, it was often dunked in brine, coffee, or some other liquid or cooked into a skillet meal.
By the 7th century, cooks of the Persian empire had learnt from their forebears the techniques 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, in French, pain d’épices, meaning “spice bread”, brought to Europe in 992 by the Armenian monk Grégoire de Nicopolis,
The first biscuit recipe came to Britain in an Italian alchemy-cum-medical handbook. The instructions on how to make these “tasty morsels” could be found alongside plague remedies, tips on curing “the stinch of toes” and “how to find gold with salamanders”. The biscuits were hard sponge fingers flavoured with musk or aniseed and eaten at the end of a meal to sweeten the breath and suppress vapours rising from the stomach.
At funerals, it was once common to place a biscuit on a corpse, which a mourner would eat before the burial to take on the sins of the departed. In Ireland, this ritual was adapted: each guest was handed a glass of wine and a biscuit across the coffin as they filed past to pay their respects.
The ship’s biscuit was an important part of the sailor’s sea diet before the introduction of canned foods. Long journeys at sea meant food needed to be able to survive the journey. One solution to this was the ship’s biscuit – also known as hard tack. There are references to Richard I (the Lionheart) setting out from England in 1190 with his ships suitably stored with ‘biskit of muslin’ (mixed cornmeal made of barley, rye and bean flour). Ships at the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588 had a theoretical daily allowance of 1 lb (0.45 kg) of biscuit, but it was Samuel Pepys who first regularised Navy ‘victualling’ (the provision of food supplies) and worked out the first comprehensive table of rations.
Biscuits started to change in the 17th century. Prior to then, sugar had been very expensive, eaten only by the very rich, and imported from the near east. The types of biscuits grew, and many more people started to consume them, on many different occasions.
The Industrial Revolution in Britain sparked the formation of businesses in various industries, and the British biscuit firms of McVitie’s, Carr’s, Huntley & Palmers, and Crawfords were all established by 1850.
By the 19th century, biscuits were everywhere. They were easy to make at home, and there was a type for every occasion. The middle and upper classes, who sat down to meals of several courses, ate them for dessert, which also consisted of ice cream, fruit and nuts.
Biscuit tins are utilitarian or decorative containers used to package and sell biscuits (such as those served during tea) and some confectionery. Invented by Huntley & Palmers in 1831, they are commonly found in households in Great Britain, Ireland, and Commonwealth countries, but also on continental Europe and French Canada. Popularity in the United States and English Canada spread later in the 20th century. Over 60% of UK households own a biscuit tin.