Maryland Beaten Biscuits

An Eastern Shore Tradition

Category: History

Beaten Biscuits: A History

June 11, 2018 by

The history of the Maryland beaten biscuit has largely been lost to time.  No information on their origins exists and what little is known is based on colloquial accounts passed down through local families.

Former U.S. Senator from Maryland Charles “Mac” Mathias was an avid consumer of beaten biscuits and found a fast friendship in the Orrell family in the period where they were the only remaining commercial bakery making biscuits.  Senator Mathias, on learning of the lack of an official  history asked Dick Orrell to prepare one based on the history he could dig up and the personal knowledge he had.  Mr. Orrell did just that and sent it to Senator Mathias who read it into the Congressional Record on October 13,  1973.  The following is the text from this reading:

Maryland Beaten Biscuits originated in Southern Maryland and the Eastern shore in the days of the Plantations and Manors.  Probably due to the lack of leavening, this method of making bread and setting it to rise was apparently the only way possible.  This could have been the outgrowth of the Indian method of beating corn for making food items.  The biscuits consist of lard, flour, salt, sugar, baking powder, and water.  Some recipes replace the water with either whole milk or skim milk.  Prior to cooking the biscuits, they have to be beaten in some manner.  From my research it appears that the ingredients were mixed together by hand and then place on a biscuit block to be beaten until the dough reached a point that the biscuit could be formed by hand into a smaller piece of smooth dough that eventually becomes the biscuit.  It is known that initial biscuit blocks were stumps from a hardwood tree, such as oak.  I have been told by my Grandparents that they were first used left in the ground after the tree was cut down.  Later the blocks were mounted on legs and became part of the kitchen.  The stumps were smoothed so that there would be no splintering and they became smoother through use since they were conditioned by the shortening used in the biscuits.  A servant of the manor beat the dough with a special ax used only for this purpose.  The ax could have been a bar of iron, a blacksmith hammer or a hardwood mallet.

Instead of beating the dough, someone recognized that a rolling machine might accomplish the same trick.  The machine worked well; it consisted of using a roller mounted on a slab of hard wood or marble.   To operate the machine, the roller was turned while feeding the dough so it was compressed between the roller and the slab.  This process worked the dough as well as beating and was less difficult to perform.  To determine when the dough was ready to be made into biscuits, the person beating or rolling merely listened to the snapping and cracking sounds of trapped air being released that emanated from the dough.

Each biscuit was and still is shaped by hand.  The dough is kneaded by the fingers in such a manner to make the biscuit smooth on all sides.  This process gives the outside of the biscuit a surface tension that it need to keep its shape while cooking.  We have explored various methods to accomplish this process by machine, but nothing yet has been devised that will allow the biscuit to be cooked and still maintain a smooth outer surface.  After being shaped, they are placed on a  cooking pan.  My Grandmother would use the ball of her hand to press the biscuit down and pick the tops with a fork.  Many people had regular picks made similar to the one we now use for the biscuits we make.

The biscuits are baked in a very hot oven until golden brown.  They were not normally eaten hot since they are basically a weekend bread and kept for Sundays and visitors.  After being cooked they were placed in a covered crock for future use.

The biscuit making process usually was done early on Saturday morning as were all the other preparations for Sunday.  When weekend visitors were at the Manor, they would be awakened by the pounding of the biscuit hammer and the aroma of the biscuits baking.

The primary use of the biscuits in past years was with chicken salad, country ham, homemade jellies, butter and preserves.  In recent days they are being used in other ways in addition to the ways of old, although now are many times eaten warm.  We also use them as a cocktail sandwich with country ham, cheese, fish, or anything that is used for light snacks such as melting cheese on the biscuits.  The biscuit is hard and crusty on the outside but soft and doughy on the inside.  To eat the biscuit, cut it in half and place what you intend to use with them on each half.  They are edible until becoming moldy which will only occur in environments of extreme heat coupled with high relative humidity.  They can be frozen and kept for long periods; heating for three to five minutes after removing from the freezer will bring the biscuits back to a fresh out of the oven state.  Under normal storage the biscuits become extremely hard but are still very much edible, in fact some people desire them in this condition.  After becoming hard, or what some consider stale, the biscuit has another use.  They can easily be ground into crumbs and used for breading purposes such as pork chops or used for thickening.  The crumbs also provide an excellent base for pancakes by adding eggs, baking powder, shortening and blending with milk..

Much of the above information stated has been obtained through extensive research of Eastern Shore History and direct experience and quotations from my ancestors who have been on the Eastern Shore for many years.  The exact origin and specific knowledge of the person or group that started making the Maryland Beaten Biscuit is not known to me.  I do know that the biscuits are an old Maryland food since my recollection and the information from my ancestors dates to the beginning of the 18th Century which makes the Maryland Beaten Biscuit a par of the Eastern Shore heritage.  We, the Orrell family, are continuing to make the biscuits in the old way and are proud of our product.  We hope that the information presented herein helps you enjoy the Maryland Beaten Biscuit as much as we do with the knowledge that you perhaps are eating an original American bread.  Thank you for taking the time to visit our bakery and having enjoyed our biscuits.

Prepared and Written by,

Dick Orrell

Orrell’s Maryland Beaten Biscuits

The Evolution of Beating Biscuits

June 6, 2018 by

If you don’t know by now, the “beaten” in beaten biscuits is literal. You can read our FAQ page for more details, but the short explanation is that the biscuit dough must be beaten with some sort of blunt instrument for 30 minutes (for family) to 45 minutes (for company) to incorporate air into the dough prior to forming the individual biscuits. While there is no definitive tool to use to beat the dough, traditionally baseball bats, big sticks and the back side of axes were common. In the Orrell family the tool of choice has been a 5 pound blacksmiths hammer for the last 80+ years.

Beating Biscuits
Herman Orrell, Jr. demonstrating beating biscuits with the Orrell family hammer and biscuit block (table).

Now, unless you are the Hulk, you are thinking right now, “That is sure a lot of work!”, which it most certainly is.  During the industrial revolution someone decided that there must be a better way and the “roller” was born.  This fairly simple device consists of a cylinder with large teeth and a crank handle attached to a table or other flat surface.  The dough was passed between the roller and table, causing indentations to be made in the dough, similar to the beating process.  The dough is then folded over and the process repeated.

Ruth Orrell demonstrating an older model biscuit roller.

While still manually operated, this method of beating is much easier on the arms.  Eventually people added electric motors to the roller taking all of the manual labor out of the process.  At Orrell’s Maryland Beaten Biscuit Company we used a custom-made stainless steel roller manufactured by Olin Tull in 1948.

Biscuit Roller
Betsy Orrell posing with the Orrell’s 1948 biscuit roller in about 1973.

Run by an electric motor, this machine will make up to a 40 lb batch of dough, enough to make 30 dozen biscuits.  This same machine was used to beat all biscuits the company produced until it was closed down and is still kept in working order today.

The biscuit roller being used in production in the Orrell family business.

As you can see, the history of the beaten biscuit not only includes culinary innovation, but mechanical innovation as well.  But through all of this, one thing has not changed; the time.  No matter the method you use, it takes 30 to 45 minutes to beat the dough.  As they say, “Good things come to those who wait”.

Women of Talbot County Presentation

May 19, 2018 by

A special thanks to the Talbot County Historical Society for recognizing Ruth Orrell as one of 14 influential women of Talbot County, MD.

Betsy Skinner, Ruth Orrell’s granddaughter gave a delightful informative talk on her grandmother’s life as an educator,…

Posted by Talbot Historical Society on Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Individual Touch

May 19, 2018 by

Each part of the country has its own take on the beaten biscuit with a slightly different way of beating the dough or a tweak to the recipe. But the characteristic that makes the Maryland beaten biscuit unique is its shape. Maryland beaten biscuits have a small spherical shape that has led more than one person to call them “golf balls”.

The biscuits are “made out” by forming a smooth sheet of dough then squeezing it out into the iconic round shape. But you probably didn’t know that this shape does more than just make the biscuits look appealing.

In the 1970’s Dick Orrell, son of Ruth Orrell, attempted to devise a way have the biscuits mechanically formed. He took the problem to several of his aeronautical engineer friends who provided possible solutions, but to no avail. No matter what they tried, the final product did not have the smooth appearance or thin flaky crust with a doughy center that was needed for a proper biscuit. The only way to achieve a perfect biscuit was to make it out by hand. So, for more than 80 years the Orrell’s Maryland Beaten Biscuit Company employed a team of women who formed every one of the millions of biscuits by hand with care.

Here are some pictures of the “biscuit ladies” through the years.

Maryland Traditions – Orrell’s Maryland Beaten Biscuits

October 22, 2016 by

The Maryland State Arts Council produced this video in 2011 to record the history of this Eastern Shore tradition.  The video features Dick Orrell, son of the founder of Orrell’s Maryland Beaten Biscuits, Ruth Orrell.  He explains the history of the business and how they are made.