America’s Biscuit History - Biscuits: Sweet and Savory Southern Recipes for the All-American Kitchen (2015)

Biscuits: Sweet and Savory Southern Recipes for the All-American Kitchen (2015)

America’s Biscuit History


In 1606, the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery sailed from England with 144 men and boys from The Virginia Company of London with the New World as their destination. When they landed at Jamestown, Virginia, in spring 1607, they brought ashore items that were the precursor to modern American biscuits: hard tack biscuits (also called ships’ biscuits), pigs, and cattle. Hard tack biscuits bear little resemblance to their progeny, the Southern iconic biscuit. They were durable, thin, hard, and tasteless. Made with flour and water, and sometimes salt, they could practically last forever if kept dry, making them a practical food source for long journeys.

My stated intention is not to minimize the hardships these early settlers faced or suggest that anybody during that time gave any consideration to transforming hard tack into a light fluffy biscuit. The history of our country’s beginnings is fascinating. The entire timeline, from the establishment of the first permanent English colony at Jamestown in 1607, to our fight for independence, is filled with events and people deserving of the utmost respect and praise. The purpose of this narrative is simply to illustrate the history and transformation of American biscuits.

Once Jamestown was settled and the inhabitants planted crops, they discovered the warm climate of Virginia was suitable for growing a variety of wheat that made baked goods more tender. It was also discovered that the addition of lard from pigs and buttermilk from cows resulted in bread that could be made quickly, negating the need for yeast, which wasn’t always available and required a long process to activate.

In the 1830s, bakers began adding sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) to dough to produce bubbles that were entrapped in the dough, creating a light bread. It was soon discovered that sodium bicarbonate in the presence of a light acid, produced even lighter bread. However, an exact ratio of sodium bicarbonate to acid, difficult to reproduce in kitchens, was necessary for consistent results. Biscuit bakers unable to obtain sodium bicarbonate initiated the practice of beaten biscuits. The biscuit dough was beaten with a hard object for about twenty to thirty minutes until the dough blistered and popped, signaling trapped air. This process resulted in softer, albeit flat, biscuits that resembled a soft cracker.


In 1856, German-trained Harvard chemist Eben Horsford received a patent for a powder that was a combination of sodium bicarbonate and a mild acid in the form of cream of tartar. Horsford along with his partner, George Wilson, created Rumsford Chemical Works to produce the necessary chemicals and proportions for calcium acid phosphate to replace cream of tartar, which was imported from Italy and France. Eventually, the product was packaged as Horsford’s Bread Preparation, but the chemicals had to be stored separately to prevent a chemical reaction: the creation of water. With the addition of cornstarch to absorb the moisture, the chemicals could be stored together and were packaged as Rumsford Baking Powder. The invention of baking powder revolutionized baking, including biscuits. Baking powder negated the need for the laborious task of beating biscuits and produced a quick alternative to yeast bread. Recipes for baking powder biscuits have been found in most American cookbooks for the past 150 years. With the invention of baking powder, cooks could expect a high rise from biscuits. The flat biscuit gave rise to a preference for light, high, and fluffy biscuits.

Today, the modern American biscuit enjoys national popularity. Until recently, the biscuit wasn’t given too much consideration outside of the southern United States. However, they’ve been a utility staple of Southern kitchens for more than four hundred years, used for sopping syrup and gravy, housing slices of ham, and as an ingredient in Southern dressings and stuffing. The recent popularity of biscuits in the Northeast has led to biscuit shops, some of which had to close down to retool and reorganize because they couldn’t keep up with demand. All this attention has Southerners scratching their heads. We’re not surprised that the rest of the country has fallen in love with biscuits; we simply wonder why it took four hundred years for that to happen.