Of Biscuits and Cookies

An exploration of the names of some favorite snacks

American biscuit (left) and the British biscuit (right)

by Daksha L.

My mom is from a commonwealth country so she calls what some people in the US might call a cookie, a biscuit. I was confused on what should be called a cookie or a biscuit so I did some research and here is what I think is the difference.

In the UK, a biscuit is something you might have with tea. It is hard, crunchy, and usually unleavened. In the US, a biscuit is something you might have with chicken for dinner. The origin of the word biscuit is from Latin bis coctus meaning twice baked which explains the crunchy texture of a British biscuit. An American biscuit is a small soft bread and is more like a British scone than a British biscuit. Some of my personal favorite “British biscuits” are: Tim Tams (though they are technically Australian), Bourbon biscuits (see photo above), Glucose biscuits (from India), and Digestive biscuits.

The word cookie comes from the Dutch koekje (pronounced kookya), which means little cake. Early Dutch settlers in America probably introduced the word cookie to American English. Though it doesn’t look like they had much of an influence on the UK.

British biscuits were not always something to savor with tea. They were a staple! Early biscuits were bland and had little pinpricks in the surface, which allowed the steam to escape, leaving the biscuit flat and hard. These biscuits had to be able to keep for longer because sailors needed a reliable imperishable source of food on their long journeys. But in 1865 a company called Peek Freans made a slightly sweet biscuit called the Pearl. The Pearl didn’t have pinpricks so the dough was allowed to rise and gave it a softer crumbly texture. Peek Freans began to experiment with flavors. They began to make more and more decadent biscuits. They added cocoa to the dough and invented the Bourbon biscuit, which was enormously popular.

To conclude:

An American Cookie is similar to a British Biscuit (crunchy, breaks with a snap).

An American biscuit (leavened, small bread) is similar to a British scone (leavened, small bread).