A beaten biscuit is a flour-based food that originated in the southern United States. This type of biscuit was popular in the 19th century and does not contain any leavening agents, such as baking soda or baking powder. Making beaten biscuits is very labor intensive and requires a lot of time. The texture of a beaten biscuit is often compared to a cracker and has very little in common with modern biscuits, which tend to be fluffy and soft.
The main ingredients of a beaten biscuit are flour, salt, lard, and either milk or water. The dough is formed and then beaten with a utensil, such as a rolling pin. This type of biscuit received its name because a person had to beat the dough with all of his or her strength during preparation. Traditional recipes call for the dough to be worked anywhere from 15 minutes to one hour.
In the 19th century when these biscuits were popular, leavening agents like baking soda and baking powder were not available. Folding and continually beating the biscuit dough caused it to become smooth and added air to aid the dough in rising slightly while baking. The result was a crispy biscuit that is similar to a cracker in texture. A perfectly baked beaten biscuit was a pale brown color on the outside and white on the inside.
Beaten biscuits have a place as a status symbol in the Old South of the past. This is because only aristocratic Southern families could afford to keep the slaves that were used as servants to prepare beaten biscuits. Serving this food was therefore a way to show that a family was wealthy and prosperous.
By the late 19th century, a machine called a biscuit brake was introduced to reduce the amount of manual labor required to make a beaten biscuit. The machine was operated by hand and consisted of metal rollers that would knead the dough when cranked. A biscuit brake is now a sought-after antique among some collectors.
Traditionally, beaten biscuits were served with slices of ham, spread with butter or marmalade, or used to sop up sauces and gravies. If properly stored, a beaten biscuit could last without spoiling for several months. During their heyday, serving beaten biscuits to company was considered a necessary part of Southern hospitality.
As the 19th century came to a close, the popularity of the beaten biscuit waned as biscuit recipes using leavening agents became more preferred dinner table fare. Many recipes for beaten biscuits are still available, but are rarely made today. Beaten biscuits may still be found in a few restaurants in the southern U.S. and in bakeries that serve traditional food from that region.