Maryland Beaten Biscuits

An Eastern Shore Tradition

Category: Production

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”.

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.