Biscuits used to be rations for soldiers and sailors. The word literally comes from the French “bis” plus “cuit”: “bis” meaning twice, and “cuit” meaning cooked. The item was cooked, sliced and then cooked again, to remove as much moisture as possible to make it more spoilage resistant. You ended up with a hard, dry piece of bread that you had to gnaw on, but that would travel well.
In England and in France, Biscuit is still used in this general sense when they use it instead of the word “cookie”, as is used in America.
In America, Biscuit has generally come to mean a small, bread-like “cakes” risen with Baking Powder or Baking Soda. Sometimes these are called “Baking Powder Biscuits” or “Baking Soda Biscuits.” The dough is mixed just enough to blend all the ingredients, but not enough to develop any gluten. The dough is rolled out about 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick and cut into pieces, and cooked for about 15 minutes. When cutting the dough, try to use as sharp a blade or cutter as possible, as a blunt one will end up sealing the edges thus affecting rising.
Non-raised, unsweetened Biscuits in America tend to be referred to more as “Crackers.”
Biscuits as we know them today emerged in the mid 1800s, when the technology to mass produce them became available.
The first company to factory-produce biscuits may have been Huntley & Palmers. The company started making biscuits by hand in the back of a bakery in 1822. In 1846, they opened in Reading, Berkshire, England, their first factory capable of mass producing biscuits. By 1898, the biscuit production complex covered 24 acres and employed around 5,000 people. By 1903, the company offered 400 different varieties of biscuits.
Some say the word biscuit comes from the Latin, “bis coctus”. It may equally well have done so as from the French, because in ancient English bread laws, written in Latin of course, bread items such as early Simnel cakes were referred to as “bis coctus”. Bakers were allowed in the laws to charge more for such items, because of the extra work involved.
Majumdar, Simon. Britain’s still bonkers about biscuits. Word of Mouth Blog. Manchester: The Guardian. 27 August 2009. Retrieved January 2010 from http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2009/aug/27/biscuits-britain-favourite