How do we define a biscuit?
The word 'biscuit' means different things to different people. In America, the word describes a chemically leavened (baking powder) bread-type product, the nearest equivalent in New Zealand being a scone. Products known as biscuits here, and in the United Kingdom, are called 'cookies and crackers' in the USA.
In France, Switzerland and Italy, a great quantity of simple, plain biscuits are made by large manufacturers. Many varieties are also made by bakers. Biscuits which require more work and a degree of decoration are referred to as 'Petit Fours Secs'. Others include 'Tea Fancies', which if made small would be referred to in France as 'Les Petits Gateaux Sec' or in the UK as 'Fancy Biscuits'.
Biscuits differ from other baked cereal products such as bread and cakes by having a low moisture content. Bread typically has 35 - 45% moisture, cake, 15 - 30%, and biscuits, 1 - 5% moisture. This low moisture content ensures that biscuits are generally free from microbiological spoilage and have a long shelf life if they are protected from absorbing moisture from damp surroundings or atmosphere. Biscuits have relatively high energy density compared with other baked goods.
Current Western nutritional fashion criticises the consumption of biscuits because of their high calorie content. Many travellers and explorers over the centuries have been grateful to the biscuit for this property. Biscuits also form a significant component of many emergency food supplies.
Biscuits and biscuit-like products have been made and eaten by man for many hundreds if not thousands of years. The word 'biscuit' is is derived from the Latin 'bis coctus' or the Old French 'bescoit' (Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1988), meaning twice cooked. Up until the 18th Century, biscuits were always first baked in a hot oven and were then transferred to a cooler oven to complete the drying out process. Today pretzels are baked this way.
Now, any small baked confection could be termed a biscuit and even goods like macaroons are referred to as macaroon biscuits. Names such as "cookie" have become popular during the past ten years. Although "cookie" is derived from the Dutch 'Koekje' meaning biscuit and the Oxford dictionary refers to "cookie" as a plain bun, or a small sweet biscuit. "Cookie" has become the popular descriptive name for anything from an average size biscuit sold in packets of ten or more, to the very large round biscuit available as a single piece.
Another type of biscuit is a cracker. It is a thin, dry biscuit, probably named because of the familiar cracking noise it makes when eaten.
The main ingredients used for biscuit manufacture are wheat flour, fat and sugar. Water, which is present in flour at about 14% by weight of sample (that is 14% of the flour is water), is also required at the dough mixing stage, along with other ingredients such as sugar syrups, but these are largely removed during the baking process. Water does, however, play an important role in biscuit making.
Most biscuits are made with soft or weak flour. Strong flours, which are ideal for yeast raised products such as bread, tend to bind up the mixture and not allow the oven spread which is desirable in most biscuit types. Check the labels on flour when you are buying it. Ensure that you get the type best suited to what you want to make.
Because many biscuits are made with minimum liquid, a soft-grained sugar should be used (castor or brown). Where little or no moistening agent is used (note that eggs are considered liquids), pulverised sugar which is coarser than icing sugar is recommended. Sugar needs to dissolve in a biscuit mixture to avoid dark specks of caramelised sugar appearing on the surface during baking.
If syrup or treacle is used, it should be warmed or cooled down to match the consistency of the other ingredients to ensure that it will mix in easily. Be careful to weigh/measure aerating materials such as baking powder or bicarbonate of soda accurately.
The exact definition of biscuit varies depending on what part of the world you are in. In American English a 'biscuit' is a small form of bread made with baking powder as a leavening agent rather than yeast. In other forms of English, including Europe and NZ a biscuit is a hard baked product like a small flat cake which in North America might be called a 'cookie'.