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I'm reading through some old (early 1900's) cookbooks and something that keeps coming up is beating dough "until it blisters" - here's an example.

VIRGINIA BEATEN BISCUIT. One quart flour. One teaspoonful of salt. One tablespoon of lard. Work lard lightly into the flour and salt, mix with iced water and then beat dough with rolling pin until it blisters. Cut into biscuits and bake in quick oven.

It's clearly not referring to the kinds of blisters you get on sourdough or pizza after baking it, for example. This is during the beating process.

My thoughts are either this refers to the dough kind of ripping apart when you knead it (sign of adequate hydration?) or maybe something to do with the bits of shortening in it. Any thoughts?

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Per this historical post from Old Mill: “These [cold water biscuits] were made before leavening agents were available to make them rise. You would knead the dough until it was elastic, then beat it with a rolling pin, paddle, or large flat hammer. As you beat it, the dough would start to get pockets of air in it, which would look like blisters that would begin to pop and snap, and that’s when you knew the dough was ready.”

The author goes on to discuss their own attempts at this technique, and recommends folding the dough as it is beaten to facilitate the forming of air bubbles.

The specific recipe being referenced is from “A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen”. Per the above blog post, this book is believed to be the first published cookbook authored by a Black woman in the United States and is dated 1866.

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    Interesting, by the early 1900s baking powder was widely available, so this technique must be older than that.
    – GdD
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 11:18
  • I’ve updated my answer to include this, but the recipe referenced is from 1866. I also found a recipe from 1864 in a publication called [The Country Gentleman][1] which uses the technique in a “salt-rising bread” for when you don’t have sufficient yeast. [1]: books.google.com/… Commented May 26, 2023 at 13:04
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    Cool stuff! Baking powder existed back then but it was still pretty new. I can only imagine the texture of those biscuits!
    – GdD
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 14:16
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    They're likely making something similar to hardtack. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hardtack
    – D Duck
    Commented May 27, 2023 at 13:19
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The definition of biscuit has changed. I think that this recipe is for making a biscuit similar to hardtack See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hardtack

Here is an image of civil war vintage hardtack - where you can clearly see the "blisters."

enter image description here

"Civil War hardtack," 1865, fran038, Tennessee Virtual Archive, https://teva.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15138coll6/id/5943, accessed 2023-05-27.

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    If you mechanically beat hardtack until the gluten strands are mostly broken, and then cookie-cut it into circles, you will essentially have a beaten biscuit (or Maryland biscuit). But it's a pretty significant difference.
    – fectin
    Commented May 27, 2023 at 15:13
  • A good point about how the usage has changed (biscuit is dry things, because they were cooked a second time to dry them out), but you would typically cook hard tack in a slow oven (low heat) to dry it out for storage as it’s only cooked once, whereas this recipe mentions a ‘quick oven’, so high heat.
    – Joe
    Commented May 27, 2023 at 15:19
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    @joe the wiki page says that hardtack is baked twice and could be baked 4 times for long voyages.
    – D Duck
    Commented May 27, 2023 at 18:47
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The recipe you mention is for a very specific type of "biscuit", not the same as what is understood to be a biscuit in the US today, but neither is it like a UK biscuit (US cookie). "Beaten biscuits" have a crispier, flakier, drier texture than modern US biscuits, without any leavening agent added, and are produced by beating the dough with a rolling pin or mallet for a very long time (over an hour, often up to 2-3 hours!), folding the dough regularly to help trap air. These bubbles of trapped air are the "blisters" referred to.

https://www.cooksinfo.com/beaten-biscuits

http://www.esva.net/ghotes/food/ghotes54.htm

https://www.hollyhillandco.com/stories-recipes/beaten-biscuit

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