Saturday, January 19, 2013

Biscuits, US Army, Part I: 1896-1949

Evolution of the US Army Biscuit

     The US and UK, according to George Bernard Shaw, are "two countries divided by a common language", biscuits included. The Oxford Dictionary defines the British biscuit as “a small baked unleavened cake, typically crisp, flat, and sweet”; the North American version is “a small, soft round cake like a scone.”
     The biscuit occupies an important place in American culinary history. It is said to have originated in the Southern US and quickly spread to the rest of the United States by the late 1800’s. In the settlement of the American West during the 19th century, food was often described as “the four B’s”: biscuits, beans, bacon, and beef (often in the form of salted beef). As these foods were either dried or salt-cured, they required no specialized conditions for preservation other than to be kept dry. They could remain edible for long periods of time, were inexpensive and commonly available: perfect for military subsistence.
     In the early part of the 20th Century and through World War I, bread came in three basic forms in the US Army: soft bread, hard bread (the official name for hardtack) and baking powder breads. After 1910 the baking powder bread was primarily in the form of biscuits, as the recipes for baking powder field bread were dropped. In 1935 the military specification for hard bread was canceled.
   Army manuals in the early part of the 20th century recommended serving biscuits for breakfast or supper, often with “sugar sirup” or fruit jam.

US Army biscuits of three wars.
(left to right): Spanish-American War (1896 recipe), WWI (1910 recipe), WWII (1944 recipe).
Note how the increased fat content results in a flakier texture in the later recipes.
The 1896 and 1910 versions were cut open, but I was able to simply pull apart the 1944 biscuit.
Techiques for Making Good Biscuits

     “They Say That in the Army”, a traditional US Army marching cadence that dates back to at least World War II, lampoons many aspects of Army life, including pay, training, coffee, food, and living conditions. Even the Army biscuit doesn’t escape unscathed:
“They say that in the Army, the biscuits are mighty fine;
    One rolled right off the table and killed a friend of mine.”

    Proper technique is critical to insure that your biscuits are fluffy melt-in-your-mouth delicacies, and not a pile of unpalatable and possibly deadly “hockey pucks”. Here are some tips for making good, possibly great, biscuits:
      1. Dry ingredients (flour, salt, baking powder, fat) should be mixed thoroughly. However, during and after the addition of the liquid(s) ingredients, do not over-mix or handle the dough excessively. This is the most common cause of tough biscuits. Use a “light” hand while mixing and rolling the dough. With each successive batch of biscuits that you make, try to handle the dough a little bit less until you have a feel for the right amount of mixing.
2    2. When cutting biscuit dough, use a floured biscuit cutter. Do not twist the cutter. Cut straight down and lift straight up. Twisting the cutter can seal the edges of the biscuit and inhibit rising while baking.
3    3. Sift the dry ingredients together, using a fine sieve. Sifting introduces air into the dry ingredients, helping to make a fluffier baked product. It also screens out any clumps of ingredients.
4    4. If cooking biscuits over an open fire, I recommend a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid. Heat the pan over medium heat and grease with oil or fat. Carefully add the biscuits, cover with the lid and place over coals, adding more coals on top. If cooking in a pan without a lid, turn the biscuits over halfway through cooking or when they have browned on the bottom.
Baking-Powder Biscuits, Camp Cookery Version, US Army, 1896
    The 1896 recipe for biscuits was lean and unrefined, well adapted to cooking for an army stationed in isolated posts or constantly on the move. It is somewhat dense compared to later versions of the Army biscuit, but it is still quite good and definitely preferable to hardtack.
     The US Army’s Manual for Army Cooks 1896 edition notes the issue of “baking powder, for troops in the field, when necessary, to enable them to bake their own bread.” The biscuit recipe of the “Camp Cookery” section was well adapted for cooking in the field: the ingredients were measured by volume, it used cold water for the liquid, and for the fat content a relatively small amount of bacon fat rendered from the previous day’s cooking.
     In the field the dough was broken into pieces or spooned into the pan. As this recipe produces a fairly sticky batter, flour your hands well if you are breaking apart the biscuit dough by hand. As per the original recipe, please note that all of the ingredients in this recipe are measured by volume.

Yield: 4 servings of 2 biscuits each

U.S.                             Metric                          Ingredients
13 fl oz                        385 ml                         flour
1½ tsp                         8 ml                             baking powder
¼ tsp                           1.5 ml                          salt
1½ tsp                         8 ml                             cold clear bacon fat
5½ to 6 fl oz                165-180 ml                  cold water (do not use warm water)

1.      Mix together the flour, baking powder and salt and stir thoroughly.
2.      Add the bacon fat and stir again (a wire whisk works well for this)
3.      Add the water and stir to a smooth but not stiff batter. Mix it as little as possible and do not knead it.
4.      Roll or break into equal-sized biscuits; or, best, drop from a large spoon into well-greased pans.
5.      Place the pans in a preheated 400-450°F (205-230°C) oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes.

Making 1896 US Army Biscuits
Ingredients for 1896 biscuits. This is a very simple recipe and  easily adaptable to camp cooking.
I have placed the mixed dough onto a sheet pan to illustrate the consistency.
It is a somewhat sticky dough, so don't expect your 1896 biscuits to look uniform and  picture-perfect.
The biscuit dough has been spooned into a greased pan.
Note that this is not a cast iron pan; it is made from stamped steel
 and does not require pre-heating before placing in the oven.
If using a cast iron pan, preheat before CAREFULLY placing the dough into it.
The finished biscuits.
Baking-Powder Biscuits, Garrison Version, US Army, 1896
     In the garrison version of the 1896 biscuit, cold water can be used, but milk was “preferable”. The dough is rolled and cut, unlike the field version. Meat drippings or lard are the preferred fats in this version. 

Yield: 4 servings of 2 biscuits each

U.S.                             Metric                        Ingredients
13 fl oz                        385 ml                         flour
2 tsp                            8 ml                             baking powder
¼ tsp                           2 ml                             salt
1½ tsp                         6 ml                             dripping or lard
6-7 fl oz                       240-295 ml                 cold water (or milk), enough to make a soft dough

1.      Put flour into a deep dish; add the baking powder and salt
2.      Rub in the dripping or lard.
3.      Put in enough cold water or milk to make soft dough. Handle as little as possible.
4.      Roll quickly into a sheet three-quarters of an inch thick.
5.      Cut into circular cakes, with a floured biscuit cutter, or an empty can; roll the dough that is left into a sheet, and re-cut.
6.      Lay the biscuits thus cut into a well-greased baking pan close together and bake five or six minutes in a quick oven (400°-450°F/205-230°C) until they are browned.

Biscuits, US Army, 1910
   In the aftermath of the Spanish American War the US Army transitioned from being a small frontier force to one responsible for an ever-expanding global mission. The expansion and modernization of the US Army and its logistics is reflected in the cooking manuals of 1910 and afterwards. Outdated recipes such as pemmican “made of the lean portions of venison, buffalo, beef, etc.”* were deleted, and the section on Camp Cookery was dropped. All biscuit ingredients were now scaled by weight, a small amount of sugar was added, and the fat content more than doubled. This version of the biscuit remained in use until 1935.

*The inclusion of buffalo was likely an oversight or wishful thinking, as by 1896 the American bison was nearly extinct.

Yield: 4 servings (8 biscuits)

U.S.                             Metric                          Ingredients
10.7 oz                                    305 g                           flour
1.3 oz                           38 g                            fat (lard preferred)
0.13 oz/1 tsp                4 g                              sugar
0.13 oz/¾ tsp                4 g                              salt
.7 oz/2 tsp                    28 g                             baking powder
6.75 fl oz                     200 ml                         cold water or milk

1.      Sift the flour, salt and baking powder together and mix well.
2.      Work the fat into the mixture.
3.      Add the water and mix into a soft dough. Do not over-mix.
4.      Roll out about one-half inch thick.
5.      Cut out with a biscuit cutter and place in a baking pan, about ½-inch apart.
6.      Bake in a 400°F (205°C) oven for about 10 minutes. 
Baking Powder Biscuits, US Army, 1935
     This version of the biscuit first appeared in print in 1935, and in subsequent versions until superseded in 1944. The 1935 biscuit again saw an increase in the fat content. Milk (either canned evaporated milk or powdered skim milk) completely replaced the water referred to in previous recipes.
Yield: 8 biscuits (4 servings)

U.S.                             Metric                          Ingredients
10½ oz                        300 g                           flour
0.12 oz/1 tsp                3.5 g                            salt
0.44 oz/1 tbsp             20 ml/12.5 g                baking powder
2.5 oz                          75 g                             fat (lard or lard substitute)

1.6 oz                          45 g                             powdered skim milk
4.8 oz water                140 ml                         water
3.5 oz/4 fl oz               25 g/75 ml                   canned evaporated milk
4 fl oz water                110 ml                         water

NOTE:  If using fresh milk, add approximately 6½ fl oz/190 ml.

1.      Sift the flour, salt and baking powder together 3 times.
2.      Work the fat into the mixture.
3.      Make a well in the middle and add all the milk at once. This should make a soft dough, if not, add more milk.
4.      Turn out onto a lightly floured board and knead quickly for not more than 1 minute.
5.      Roll out about one-half the thickness desired in the baked biscuit.
6.      Cut out with a biscuit cutter and place in a baking pan, just touching each other.
7.      Bake in a 400-450°F (205-230°C) oven for about 12 minutes or until brown.

Cheese Biscuits
Ingredients as for baking powder biscuits with the addition of 2 oz/55 g finely chopped American cheese. Mix the same as for baking powder biscuits, except that the cheese is added with the milk and mixed in thoroughly.

Baking Powder Biscuits, US Army, 1944

     By World War II the US military biscuit was largely relegated to breakfast, the meal which it is most often associated with today. The biscuit is the perfect accompaniment, in my not-always-so humble opinion, to the Army’s once-ubiquitous creamed beef or creamed chipped beef (aka “SOS” when served on toast).
     In the 1944 version, shortening replaced the lard, a reflection of wartime economics. The dimensions (prior to baking) were now specified: ¾ inch (2 cm) thick and 2½ inches (6.5 cm) in diameter. Otherwise, this biscuit is nearly identical to the previous version. While the recipe itself listed only canned evaporated milk, dry skim milk was in widespread use and instructions for its use noted in the manual’s section on dehydrated foods. If using dry skim milk, substitute an equivalent amount (approximately 6 fluid ounces) of reconstituted milk for the evaporated milk and water. Add additional liquid if necessary to make a soft dough.

Yield: 8 biscuits (4 servings), each 2½ inch diameter

U.S.                             Metric                        Ingredients
10½ oz                        300 g                          flour
0.18 oz/1 tsp                5 g                             salt
0.4 oz/1 tbsp               15 ml/ g                       baking powder
2 oz                             55 g                            shortening
 2.5 oz/2¾ fl oz           80 ml                           evaporated milk
 3.2 fl oz                     95 ml                            water

1.      Sift the flour, salt and baking powder together.
2.      Add shortening; stir until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
3.      Mix milk and water. Add to dry ingredients, mixing only enough to combine dry and liquid ingredients.
4.      Place the dough onto a floured board and knead lightly.
5.      Roll ¾ inch thick.
6.      Cut dough into biscuits with a floured biscuit cutter. Place in a baking pan.
7.      Bake in a 450°F (230°C) for about 15 minutes.

Biscuits may be brushed with melted shortening or milk before baking.
If using fresh milk, substitute 8½ fl oz (250 ml) for the evaporated milk and water.

Sources, retrieved January 16, 2012
Holbrook, L.R., The Mess Sergeant’s Handbook, George Banta Publishing, Menasha, WI, 1916
Manual for Army Cooks 1896, War Department Document No. 18, U.S. GPO 1896
Manual for Army Cooks 1910, War Department Document No. 379, U.S. GPO, 1910
Manual for Army Cooks 1916, War Department Document No. 564, Military Publishing Company, 1916
War Department, TM 2100-152 The Army Cook, April 2, 1928, U.S. GPO, 1928
War Department, TM 2100-152 The Army Cook, December 31, 1935, U.S. GPO, 1935
War Department, TM 10-405, The Army Cook, June 9, 1941, U.S. GPO, 1941
War Department, TM 10-405 The Army Cook, April 24, 1942 (+Changes 1-3), U.S. GPO, 1942
War Department, TM 10-412, Army Recipes, August 15, 1944, U.S. GPO, 1944


  1. I will study this carefully because my recent attempts at making biscuits have fallen flat. The results were edible but not really what I'd hoped to achieve. My bannock turns out better. Apparently the details make all the difference and your hints should help. My experiments were made before I discovered your blog. Among other things, I believe I rolled out the dough too thin.

    I was in the army 65-68 and I have no recollection of biscuits at all in the army. Perhaps my memory is faulty but I do remember creamed chipped beef.

    1. I find it interesting that your bannock turned out well and the biscuits did not. Many moons ago, I finally diagnosed my own problem with biscuits in that I was overworking the dough. Once I cut the mixing, folding, and rolling to the bare minimum, the biscuits turned out fine.
      Your memory of Army biscuits is probably not faulty. My guess is that it had more to do with the mess halls where you were stationed. In my experience, many cooks are not comfortable with baking, and of course it's much easier to make toast for breakfast than biscuits. But I must have been luckier in my experience with Army biscuits, although not always. I remember one time that a couple of soldiers were playing baseball with biscuits in back of the mess hall, probably as more of a satirical protest on the quality of the biscuits. Needlesss to say, the cooks were not pleased.

    2. Thanks for the reply. The preparation of a stove-top bannock bread and oven biscuits are totally different, of course. But perhaps a different shortening may help, as well as not rolling the dough so thin. Then, too, one's own standards regarding the result also apply. I'll let you know how the next batches turn out, although it won't be for a couple of weeks.

  2. Gave these a try today, winging it pretty much on amounts of ingredients! (I'm a scientist-temporarily unemployed and estimated the densities) The timer went off and I removed one biscuit-it was excellent! I then turned off the oven with the biscuits inside and went back to work. An hour hour later...I pulled out...7 hockey pucks. They are still tasty...after nuking and adding butter. The wife and kid will not try these. Moral of the story-I'm not going to apply for a job as a cook! Will try again. Thanks for the recipe!