A biscuit is a flour-based baked and shaped food product. In most countries biscuits are typically hard, flat, and unleavened. They are usually sweet and may be made with sugar, chocolate, icing, jam, ginger, or cinnamon. They can also be savoury, 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.

A sweet biscuit and two savoury cracker biscuits
Biscuits of Ghana

In most of North America, nearly all hard sweet biscuits are called "cookies", while the term "biscuit" is used for a soft, leavened quick bread similar to a less sweet version of a scone.

Variations in meaning of biscuit

Three biscuits (cookies) at right and a North American bread "biscuit" at left. The three biscuits are crunchy, and smaller, drier and sweeter than the American "biscuit", which is soft and flaky like a scone.
  • In most of the world outside North America, a "biscuit" is a small baked product that would be called either a "cookie" or a "cracker" in the United States and sometimes in Canada. "Biscuits" in the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man, and Ireland are usually hard and may be savoury or sweet, such as chocolate biscuits, digestives, hobnobs, ginger nuts, rich tea, shortbread, bourbons, and custard creams. The term "cookie" typically refers to only one type of biscuit (the sweeter baked dough typically containing chocolate chips or raisins); however, it may also locally refer to specific types of biscuits or breads.[1]
  • In the United States and some parts of Canada, a "biscuit" is a quick bread, somewhat similar to a scone, and usually unsweetened. Biscuits may be referred to as either "baking powder biscuits"[2] or "buttermilk biscuits" if buttermilk is used rather than milk as a liquid. A Southern regional variation using the term "beaten biscuit" (or in New England "sea biscuit") is closer to hardtack than soft dough biscuits.[3]
  • In Canada, the term "biscuit" can simultaneously refer to what is commonly identified as a biscuit in either the United Kingdom or the United States. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary describes each word in reference to the other; "biscuit" can mean "Brit. a cookie", whilst "cookie" can mean "N. Amer. a small sweet biscuit". "Tea biscuit" is also a standard Canadianism for the "North American" biscuit.[4]


The modern-day difference in the English language regarding the word "biscuit" is remarked on by British cookery writer Elizabeth David in English Bread and Yeast Cookery, in the chapter "Yeast Buns and Small Tea Cakes" and section "Soft Biscuits". She writes,

It is interesting that these soft biscuits (such as scones) are common to Scotland and Guernsey, and that the term biscuit as applied to a soft product was retained in these places, and in America, whereas in England it has completely died out.[5]

Dutch speculaas biscuit in various shapes: ship, farmhouse, elephant, horse.

The Old French word bescuit is derived from the Latin words bis (twice) and coquere, coctus (to cook, cooked), and, hence, means "twice-cooked".[6][n 1] This is because biscuits were originally cooked in a twofold process: first baked, and then dried out in a slow oven.[7] This term was then adapted into English in the 14th century during the Middle Ages, in the Middle English word bisquite, to represent a hard, twice-baked product[8] (see the German Zwieback). The Dutch language from around 1703 had adopted the word koekje ("little cake") to have a similar meaning for a similar hard, baked product.[9] The difference between the secondary Dutch word and that of Latin origin is that, whereas the koekje is a cake that rises during baking, the biscuit, which has no raising agent, in general does not (see gingerbread/ginger biscuit), except for the expansion of heated air during baking. Another cognate Dutch form is beschuit, which is a circular and brittle grain product usually covered by savoury or sweet toppings and eaten at breakfast.

When continental Europeans began to emigrate to colonial North America, the two words and their "same but different" meanings began to clash. The words cookie or cracker became the words of choice to mean a hard, baked product. Further confusion has been added by the adoption of the word biscuit for a small leavened bread popular in the United States. According to the American English dictionary Merriam-Webster, a cookie is a "small flat or slightly raised cake".[9] A biscuit is "any of various hard or crisp dry baked product" similar to the American English terms cracker or cookie,[8] or "a small quick bread made from dough that has been rolled out and cut or dropped from a spoon".[8]

In a number of other European languages, terms derived from the Latin bis coctus refer instead to yet another baked product, similar to the sponge cake; e.g. Spanish bizcocho, German Biskuit, Russian бисквит (biskvit), Polish biszkopt.

In modern Italian usage, the term biscotto is used to refer to any type of hard twice-baked biscuit, and not only to the cantuccini as in English-speaking countries.


Biscuits for travel

Ship's biscuit display in Kronborg, Denmark, c.1852

The need for nutritious, easy-to-store, easy-to-carry, and long-lasting foods on long journeys, in particular 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 millet bread called dhourra cake while the Romans had a biscuit called buccellum.[10] 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 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.[11] To soften hardtack for eating, it was often dunked in brine, coffee, or some other liquid or cooked into a skillet meal.

The collection Sayings of the Desert Fathers mentions that Anthony the Great (who lived in the 4th century AD) ate biscuits and the text implies that it was a popular food among monks of the time and region.[12]

At the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the daily allowance on board a Royal Navy ship was one pound of biscuit plus one gallon of beer. Samuel Pepys in 1667 first regularised naval victualling with varied and nutritious rations. Royal Navy hardtack during Queen Victoria's reign was made by machine at the Royal Clarence Victualling Yard at Gosport, Hampshire, stamped with the Queen's mark and the number of the oven in which they were baked. When machinery was introduced into the process the dough was thoroughly mixed and rolled into sheets about 2 yards (1.8 m) long and 1 yard (0.9 m) wide which were stamped in one stroke into about sixty hexagonal-shaped biscuits. This left the sheets sufficiently coherent to be placed in the oven in one piece and when baked they were easy to separate. The hexagonal shape rather than traditional circular biscuits meant a saving in material and was easier to pack.[13] Biscuits remained an important part of the Royal Navy sailor's diet until the introduction of canned foods. Canned meat was first marketed in 1814; preserved beef in tins was officially added to Royal Navy rations in 1847.[10]

Confectionery biscuits

Early biscuits were hard, dry, and unsweetened. They were most often cooked after bread, in a cooling bakers' oven; they were a cheap form of sustenance for the poor.

By the 7th century AD, 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.[3] 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. He left Nicopolis Pompeii, of Lesser Armenia to live in Bondaroy, France, near the town of Pithiviers. He stayed there for seven years and taught French priests and Christians how to cook gingerbread.[14][15][16] This was originally a dense, treaclely (molasses-based) spice cake or bread. As it was so expensive to make, early ginger biscuits were a cheap form of using up the leftover bread mix.

Huntley & Palmers biscuit tin. Formed in Reading, Berkshire in 1822, the biscuit company became one of the world's first global brands.[17]

With the combination of knowledge spreading from Al-Andalus, and then the Crusades and subsequent spread of the spice trade to Europe, the cooking techniques and ingredients of Arabia spread into Northern Europe.[3] By mediaeval times, biscuits were made from a sweetened, spiced paste of breadcrumbs and then baked (e.g., gingerbread), or from cooked bread enriched with sugar and spices and then baked again.[18] 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.[10]

The milk chocolate coated side of a McVitie's chocolate digestive. It is routinely ranked the UK’s favourite snack.[19][20][21]

As the making and quality of bread had been controlled to this point, so were the skills of biscuit-making through the craft guilds.[3] As the supply of sugar began, and the refinement and supply of flour increased, so did the ability to sample more leisurely foodstuffs, including sweet biscuits. Early references from the Vadstena monastery show how the Swedish nuns were baking gingerbread to ease digestion in 1444.[22] The first documented trade of gingerbread biscuits dates to the 16th century, where they were sold in monastery pharmacies and town square farmers markets. Gingerbread became widely available in the 18th century. 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.[23]

Chocolate and biscuits became products for the masses, thanks to the Industrial Revolution and the consumers it created. By the mid-19th century, sweet biscuits were an affordable indulgence and business was booming. Manufacturers such as Huntley & Palmers in Reading, Carr's of Carlisle and McVitie's in Edinburgh transformed from small family-run businesses into state-of-the-art operations.

Polly Russell in the Financial Times, 2018.[24]

British biscuit companies vied to dominate the market with new products and eye-catching packaging.[24] The decorative biscuit tin, invented by Huntley & Palmers in 1831, saw British biscuits exported around the world.[24] In 1900 Huntley & Palmers biscuits were sold in 172 countries, and their global reach was reflected in their advertising.[25] Competition and innovation among British firms saw 49 patent applications for biscuit-making equipment, tins, dough-cutting machines and ornamental moulds between 1897 and 1900.[24] In 1891, Cadbury filed a patent for a chocolate-coated biscuit.[24] Along with local farm produce of meat and cheese, many regions of the world have their own distinct style of biscuit due to the historic prominence of this form of food.

Introduction in South Asia

1891 advertisement in London for Peek Freans, a brand exported to Asia

Biscuits and loaves were introduced in Bengal during the British colonial period and became popular within the Sylheti Muslim community. However, the middle-class Hindus of Cachar and Sylhet were very suspicious of biscuits and breads as they believed they were baked by Muslims. On one occasion, a few Hindus in Cachar caught an Englishman eating biscuits with tea, which caused an uproar. The information reached the Hindus of Sylhet and a small rebellion occurred. In response to this, companies started to advertise their bread as "machine-made" and "untouched by (Muslim) hand" to tell Hindus that the breads were "safe for consumption". This incident is mentioned in Bipin Chandra Pal's autobiography and he mentions how culinary habits of Hindus gradually changed and biscuits and loaves eventually became increasingly popular.[26]

Biscuits today in the Commonwealth of Nations and Europe

Biscuit rose de Reims

Most modern biscuits can trace their origins back to either the hardtack ship's biscuit or the creative art of the baker:

  • Ship's biscuit derived: Digestive, rich tea, hobnobs
  • Baker's art: Biscuit rose de Reims

Biscuits today can be savoury (crackers) or sweet. Most are small, at around 5 cm (2.0 in) in diameter, and flat. Sandwich-style biscuits consist of two biscuits sandwiching a layer of "creme" or icing, such as the custard cream, or a layer of jam (as in the biscuits that are known as "Jammie Dodgers" in the United Kingdom).

Dunking a biscuit

Sweet biscuits are commonly eaten as a snack food, and are, in general, made with wheat flour or oats, and sweetened with sugar or honey. Varieties may contain chocolate, fruit, jam, nuts, ginger, or even be used to sandwich other fillings.

The digestive biscuit and rich tea have a strong identity in British culture as the traditional accompaniment to a cup of tea and are regularly eaten as such.[27] Some tea drinkers dunk biscuits in tea, allowing them to absorb liquid and soften slightly before consumption.[28] Chocolate digestives, rich tea, and Hobnobs were ranked the UK's top three favourite dunking biscuits in 2009.[28] In a non-dunking poll the Chocolate Hobnob was ranked first with custard creams coming third.[29][30]

A dark chocolate Tim Tam, a biscuit created in Australia in 1964

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. Many savoury biscuits also 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.[31] Savoury biscuits sold in supermarkets are sometimes associated with a certain geographical area, such as Scottish oatcakes or Cornish wafer biscuits.

In general, the British, Australians, South Africans, New Zealanders, Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Singaporeans, Nigerians, Kenyans, and Irish use the British meaning of "biscuit" for the sweet biscuit. The terms biscuit and cookie are used interchangeably, depending on the region and the speaker, with biscuits usually referring to hard, sweet biscuits (such as digestives, Nice, Bourbon creams, etc.) and cookies for soft baked goods (i.e. chocolate chip cookies). In Canada, biscuit is now used less frequently, usually with imported brands of biscuits or in the Maritimes; however, the Canadian Christie Biscuits referred to crackers. The British meaning 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. See, for example, Shakespeare's use of "Twice-sod simplicity! Bis coctus!" in Love's Labour's Lost. (David Crystal; Ben Crystal (eds.). "Love's Labour's Lost". Shakespeare's Words. Penguin Books. Archived from the original on 15 March 2017. Retrieved 15 April 2016.)


  1. "cookie". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. In Scotland the usual name for a baker's plain bun; in U.S. usually a small flat sweet cake (a biscuit in U.K.), but locally a name for small cakes of various form with or without sweetening. Also S. Afr. and Canad.
  2. "Baking Powder Biscuits Source: U.S. Department of Defense". Theodora's Recipes[sic]. Retrieved 20 December 2013.
  3. Olver, Lynne (24 June 2012). "history notes—cookies, crackers & biscuits". The Food Timeline. Archived from the original on 4 August 2012. Retrieved 6 January 2021.
  4. Jet McCullough (2020) "The Great Canadian Baking Show and the 'Biscuit/Cookie' Question". Retrieved 2022-04-29. Queen's University
  5. Elizabeth David (1977) English Bread and Yeast Cookery, Penguin Books Ltd., London ISBN 0-7139-1026-7
  6. "Biscuit". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2009.
  7. "Biscuit". Archived from the original on 29 December 2004. Retrieved 14 January 2010.
  8. "Biscuit". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 14 January 2010.
  9. "Cookie". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 14 January 2010.
  10. "Ship's Biscuits – Royal Navy hardtack". National Museum of the Royal Navy. 2000. Archived from the original on 31 October 2009. Retrieved 14 January 2010.
  11. "Bisquet". Cyclopaedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Vol. I. Ephraim Chambers. 1728. p. 105. Retrieved 3 May 2013.
  12. page 23, paragraph 20: "At one time Abba Agathon had two disciples each leading the anchoretic life according to his own measure. One day he asked the first, 'How do you live in the cell?' He replied, 'I fast until the evening, then I eat two hard biscuits.' He said to him, 'Your way of life is good, not overburdened with too much asceticism.' Then he asked the other one, 'And you, how do you live?' He replied, 'I fast for two days, then I eat two hard biscuits.' The old man said, 'You work very hard by enduring two conflicts; it is a labour for someone to eat every day without greed; there are others who, wishing to fast for two days, are greedy afterwards; but you, after fasting for two days, are not greedy.'"
  13. The National Cyclopaedia of Useful Knowledge, Vol III, (1847), London, Charles Knight, p.354.
  14. "La Confrérie du Pain d'Epices". Archived from the original on 22 March 2010. Retrieved 4 November 2009.
  15. Le Pithiviers Archived 30 December 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  16. "Monastère orthodoxe des Saints Grégoire Armeanul et Martin le Seul". Archived from the original on 10 January 2014. Retrieved 10 August 2013.
  17. "A new neighbourhood in Reading: former biscuit factory to become 765-home district alongside the River Kennet". Evening Standard. Retrieved 19 August 2021.
  18. "Biscuits". Archived from the original on 3 May 2009. Retrieved 14 January 2010.
  19. "McVitie's chocolate digestives voted the most popular snack for people working from home". Wales Online. Retrieved 19 August 2021.
  20. "Britain's top 20 favourite types of biscuit ranked". Wales Online. Retrieved 22 August 2021. the Chocolate Digestive is the best biscuit in the whole of the United Kingdom with more than two thirds of Brits picking
  21. "Britain's top five biscuits revealed". YouGov. Retrieved 19 August 2021. YouGov Ratings data shows McVities, Cadbury's and Walkers products dominate the list of Britain's favourite biscuits
  22. Pepparkakans historia Archived 10 March 2010 at the Wayback Machine Annas Pepparkakor The history of gingerbread Archived 12 August 2010 at the Wayback Machine Annas Pepparkakor
  23. Alan Davidson (1999). Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press.
  24. "History Cook: the rise of the chocolate biscuit". Financial Times. Archived from the original on 10 December 2022. Retrieved 23 August 2021.
  25. "Huntley & Palmers Biscuits". Victoria & Albert Museum. Retrieved 21 August 2021.
  26. Ray, Utsa (5 January 2015). Culinary Culture in Colonial India. Cambridge University Press. p. 175.
  27. "Crunch time: why Britain loves a good biscuit". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 December 2014
  28. "Chocolate digestive is nation's favourite dunking biscuit". The Telegraph. 2 May 2009. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
  29. "What is the nation's favourite biscuit?" Archived 17 February 2015 at the Wayback Machine. Kernpack. 10 August 2019
  30. Favourite biscuits. The Express. Retrieved 13 March 2017
  31. "Cheese Biscuits Source: U.S. Department of Defense". Theodora's Recipies[sic]. Retrieved 20 December 2013.

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