Cookies, Biscuits, and Scones

Last week, Pretty Boy and I invited some friends over to watch the replay of the Pro National motocross race at Muddy Creek Raceway in Tennessee.  Given that the race would be in Tennessee, we thought it would be appropriate to make some traditional food from the American South!  Memphis-style BBQ pork ribs were the first thing on the list.  And black-eyed peas for vegetarian protein.  Pecan pie because pie’s my thing.  But then the thing I got most excited about making: biscuits and sausage gravy!  Our menu ended up being:

And Cher and her family and our friends added:

  • Fried chicken
  • Roast pumpkin and macadamia nut arugula salad
  • Mixed fresh fruit plate with dried figs and dates
  • Chocolate
  • Vanilla ice cream

The meal was awesome.  Most of the things that Pretty Boy and I made were dishes that they don’t have anything close to here.  Like the pork ribs, which were by far the biggest hit.  People couldn’t stop gushing over how good they were and how they’d never had anything like them (Pretty Boy confirms they were pretty good if just basic, straightforward ribs).  The BBQ sauce, biscuits and gravy, spoonbread, and pecan pie were also very different, and all well received.  It was really fun introducing our friends to food they’d never had before, especially when the foods seem so common place to us.  Pretty Boy really loved the biscuits and gravy and had leftovers for breakfast the next two days.  My favorites were the toasted macadamia nuts from the salad and the dried figs.

The reason I was most excited about the biscuits and gravy is there is some confusion about what an American biscuit is and I wanted to do my part in clarifying this confusion.  Because, you see, in America, there are cookies, biscuits, and scones, and in Australia, there are also cookies, biscuits, and scones.  And they’re different.  The common ‘translation’ of terms from Aussie English to American English is American cookies are analogous to Aussie biscuits, Aussie cookies are the same as Aussie biscuits, American biscuits are like scones, and a scone in universal, though pronounced differently (we say scone with an ‘o’ like in ‘own’ while Aussies say scone with an ‘o’ like ‘on’).

While this simplified explanation is adequate for a very cursory discussion, I feel like there are many nuances that it overlooks because no one in America would say that a biscuit from KFC is like a scone.  In the US, there are cookies, and then there are biscuits that fall under the cookie heading, there are biscuits that definitely do not fall under the cookie heading, and then there are scones.  And the last two are not the same.

Regarding the US definition of cookies, I think the cursory explanation that a US cookie is an Aussie biscuit is pretty accurate.  A US cookie is a really broad category that encompasses a wide range of textures, cooking methods, sizes, and place on the sweet-savory spectrum.  But generally a cookie is baked, sweet, and prominently relies on butter and flour.

There are biscuits that fall under the cookie heading in the US, but they are much less common than other types of cookies and aren’t exclusively referred to as biscuits.  Biscuit cookies are generally thinner, made from rolled and cut dough (as opposed to drop dough), and have a harder and crumblier texture (as opposed to the soft and chewy cookie texture).  Most biscuit cookies that I can think of are some variant of a shortbread biscuit, and I personally would use the terms ‘shortbread’ and ‘biscuit’ interchangeably when talking about cookies, which makes some sense since I think they both came together from the UK.

Aussies use ‘biscuit’ as a blanket term for a broad category like Americans use ‘cookie.’  They will know what we mean when we say cookie, but I think biscuit is the preferred term.

So what about biscuits that are not cookies?  The Aussies at our dinner looked at the biscuits I made and said they looked just like scones.  And they did.  In fact, the culinary techniques for making biscuits and scones are quite similar, but they’re just not the same.  I think it isn’t so much the execution but the cultural place biscuits and scones hold that really distinguishes them in the US.  Even Martha agrees.

For Americans, scones are usually sweet (though occasionally savory) and almost always come with something mixed into them (raisins or other fruit or cheese and herbs, etc.).  They are eaten for breakfast or brunch and are found in the bakery case at a cafe or coffee shop.  They have a slightly crumbly, fluffy texture and are generally, but not exclusively, triangular shaped.  My favorite scone recipe has rhubarb in it, and I’ve served it for brunch on a number of occasions.

Biscuits, on the other hand, are classified as a savory meal component (regardless of how much sugar actually goes into them).  They don’t come with any added fruit chunks.  Maybe some cheese, but not often.  Biscuits are round (I think always…) and eaten like bread rolls out of a bread basket as an accompaniment to a lunch or dinner meal.  They are crumbly, but not as crumbly as scones, and have layers—a good biscuit will split horizontally in half along the layers.  And the addition of honey butter does not negate the biscuit’s savory classification.

Biscuits are eaten for breakfast with gravy or as part of a biscuit breakfast sandwich, but thinking about it now, biscuits and gravy and biscuit breakfast sandwiches both sound like inventions designed to use up leftovers from the previous day’s dinner, which, if true, would reinforce the cultural distinction in the US between breakfast/brunch scones and lunch/dinner biscuits.

I haven’t seen anything in Australia that is both sold as a biscuit and looks anything like an American biscuit.  I even checked the Australian KFC menu – no biscuits!  If it’s called a biscuit, it’s a cookie.  If it looks like a biscuit, it’s a scone.  Interestingly (or confusingly) enough, our local grocery store sells round plain scones that are smaller than biscuits but otherwise as close to American biscuits as I’ve found.  But the Australians I’ve talked to about biscuits vs. scones all agree that scones are generally exclusively eaten at breakfast or morning tea as a sweet with cream and jam.

I know these distinctions are mostly semantics and that there are exceptions and crossover and inter-related influences everywhere, but I felt a little uneasy every time I heard someone say an American biscuit is just a scone.  Yeah, what American’s call a biscuit is kind of like a scone, and definitely closer to a scone than to a cookie, but the biscuit has its own little corner of American food culture complete separate from the scone.  And I think Pretty Boy and I did a pretty good job of sharing that particular bit of American food culture with our new Australian friends!

One response to “Cookies, Biscuits, and Scones

  1. Genny Croskey

    Hi–Your menu is making me hungry. My favorite biscuits are the Red Lobster ones. I make them once in awhile. So glad the slaw worked out for you. I have Grandma Katies recipe for her 24-hr. Cabbage Slaw recipe. If you want it, I’ll send it to you. It’s very good and can be made ahead of time. The scones that I’ve eaten were rather tasteless. Thanks for your explanation about scones, biscuits and cookies. Love, Grandma

    On Fri, Jul 11, 2014 at 12:56 AM, Pretty Pies by Lindsey wrote:

    > Original Pretty Pie posted: “Last week, Pretty Boy and I invited some > friends over to watch the replay of the Pro National motocross race at > Muddy Creek Raceway in Tennessee. Given that the race would be in > Tennessee, we thought it would be appropriate to make some traditional food > “

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