A biscuit is a hard baked sweet or savoury product like a small, flat cake, which in North America may be called a "cookie" or "cracker". The term biscuit also applies to sandwich-type biscuits, where a layer of 'cream' or icing is sandwiched between two biscuits. In the UK, a "cookie" is only usually used as part of the name of a specific type of softer, chewier biscuit e.g. the "chocolate chip cookie".
The British usage of the word biscuit was defined in the defence of a tax judgement found in favour of McVitie's and their product Jaffa Cakes which Her Majesty's Customs and Excise claimed was a biscuit and was therefore liable to value added tax - chocolate covered biscuits are liable to VAT, whilst chocolate covered cakes are not. The successful defence rested on the fact that "biscuits go soft when stale, whereas cakes go hard when stale".
In Britain, the digestive biscuit has a strong cultural identity as the traditional accompaniment to a cup of tea, and is regularly eaten as such. Many tea drinkers "dunk" their biscuits in tea, allowing them to absorb liquid and soften slightly before consumption.
Although there are many regional varieties, both sweet and savoury, "biscuit" is generally used to describe the sweet version. Sweet biscuits are commonly eaten as a snack and may contain chocolate, fruit, jam, nuts or even be used to sandwich other fillings. Savoury biscuits (such as cream crackers, water biscuits or crisp breads) are plainer and commonly eaten with cheese following a meal.
Generally, Australians, New Zealanders and the Irish use the British meaning of "biscuit" (colloquially referred to as bickie or biccie or bikkie) for the sweet biscuit. Two famous Australasian biscuit varieties are the ANZAC biscuit and the Tim Tam.
Despite the difference, this sense is at the root of the name of the United States' most prominent maker of cookies and crackers, the National Biscuit Company (now called Nabisco).
In American English, a "biscuit" is a small form of bread made with baking powder or baking soda as a leavening agent rather than yeast. (Biscuits, soda breads, and corn bread, among others, are sometimes referred to collectively as "quick breads" to indicate that they do not need time to rise before baking.)
Biscuits are extremely soft on the inside and similar to scones or more closely to the bannock from the Shetland Isles. In the United States, there is a growing tendency to refer to sweet variations as "scone" and to the savory as a "biscuit", though there are exceptions for both (such as the cheese scone). A sweet biscuit served with a topping of fruit and juice is called shortcake. In Canada, both sweet and savory are referred to as "biscuits", "baking powder biscuits" or "tea biscuits", although "scone" is also starting to be used.
Biscuits are a common feature of Southern U.S. cuisine and are often made with buttermilk. They are traditionally served as a side dish with a meal, especially in the morning. As a breakfast item they are often eaten with butter and a sweet condiment such as molasses, light sugarcane syrup, sorghum syrup, honey, or fruit jam or jelly. With other meals they are usually eaten with butter or gravy instead of sweet condiments. However, biscuits and gravy (biscuits covered in country gravy) are usually served for breakfast, sometimes as the main course.
American biscuits can be prepared for baking in several ways. The dough can be rolled out flat and cut into rounds, which expand when baked into flaky-layered cylinders. If extra liquid is added, the dough's texture changes to resemble stiff pancake batter so that small spoonfuls can be dropped into the baking sheet to produce "drop biscuits", which are more amorphous in texture and shape. Large drop biscuits, because of their size and rough exterior texture, are sometimes referred to as "cat head biscuits". Pre-shaped ready-to-bake biscuits can also be purchased in supermarkets, in the form of small refrigerated cylinders of dough.
Biscuits are now ubiquitous throughout the U.S. and feature prominently in many fast food breakfast sandwiches. The biscuit sandwich burst onto the scene primarily through the Hardee's chain of restaurants as an answer to the McDonald's Egg McMuffin. Along with the traditional country ham, Hardee's added sausage, cheese, eggs, steak, and even chicken to the breakfast bread. Breakfast biscuits are much bigger than ham biscuits, most as big or bigger than a typical fast food hamburger. In addition, biscuits are commonly found as a side dish at fried chicken restaurants such as Kentucky Fried Chicken, Church's Chicken, Chicken Express, Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits, and Bojangles' Famous Chicken n' Biscuits.