Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Biscuit Break

According to Theodore Garrett in The Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery (London: 1890s), every cook has their very own  built-in biscuit-break.

This is a mini-posting to answer a question put by Elise Fleming as to what I meant by a 'biscuit break' in my last article Some Regency Biscuits. Well, a 'break' or 'brake' was a piece of equipment used by bakers for kneading bread and biscuit dough in large quantities. They seem to have been utilised by professional bakers since at least the fifteenth century and probably earlier. They consisted of a 'brake-staff' or long pole, usually attached to the wall with a metal swivel. The 'breaksman' or 'brakesman' simply worked the pole up and down over the dough by using the brake-staff like a one man see-saw. 

George Dodd, in Volume V of his extraordinary series British Manufacturers (London: 1808-1881) tells us that in making ships biscuit,  

'The dough was‥taken from the trough and put on a wooden platform called the break. On this platform worked a roller, called the break⁓staff.‥ One end‥was loosely attached by a kind of staple to the wall, and the breakman, riding or sitting on the other end, worked the roller to and fro over the dough, by an uncouth jumping or shuffling movement'.
This 'uncouth jumping or shuffling', also known as 'riding the brake'  is illustrated perfectly in the following engraving, a detail from the decorative title page of John Penketheman's Artachthos (London: 1638- reprinted 1748).

Pentketheman's book is a guide to the assize of bread. His frontispiece illustrates what he calls the 'thirteen arts' of the baker's trade, braking being the fifth. Here is a scan of the frontispiece from my own very nice copy and the explanatory verse which accompanies it. 

Biscuit brakes of this kind were still being used in the early twentieth century, though many of the larger-scale bakers had been turning to mechanised roller breaks from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards. The use of a break produced a very, very fine textured dough, ideal for the uniform result wanted with biscuits, particularly those that were to be printed with a design.

These two diagrams are from Frederick Vine, Biscuits for Bakers (London: nd 1900s).

A mid-nineteenth century roller biscuit break.

My own improvised biscuit break, loosely based on a design in Theodore Garrett's The Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery (London: 1890s). Garrett's design is at the top.


  1. Hi Ivan

    Simply fascinating. I know just how much work goes into creating a blog of this quality, not to say beauty. And I learn something new everytime. We have both editions of Artachthos at Guildhall Library so it it great to see the frontispiece put to such good use.
    Best wishes
    Peter Ross

  2. Ivan, Apparently they still use something similar in China to make noodles. I guess it does the opposite of kneading, it perhaps breaks the gluten chain to get a more tender and soft dough? Whatever it does, riding it sure looks like fun! Ken

    1. Hi Ken,
      I hope to see you soon in London at the Anglo-American Conference. I have heard that breaks are also still in use in the Middle-East to make bread dough. Modern bakers throughout Europe still use roller breaks for making all sorts of bread doughs. But the most remarkable survival of the technology is in your country in Kentucky and other southern states where roller breaks and other aggresive implements, including axe handles, are used to make 'beaten biscuit' - see below.

      best regards


  3. Ivan, was the biscuit break ever used for sweetened biscuits in England?

    I ask as we have "beaten biscuits" in the south in the United States that are unsweetened, sliced, and served with ham inside; they are prepared at home in a similar manner by being beaten with an object like a rolling pin. I have not come across the technique used for cookies (sweet biscuits) in my reading of cookbooks from the USA.

    Susan Betz, Morgan Hill, California

    1. Hi Susan,

      Sorry to be so late in answering your comment. Yes. A lot of sweet biscuits were made by professional biscuit bakers using the break. The best source for information on this is Frederick Vine's Biscuits for Bakers (nd. early 1900s). As well as such hard biscuits as Captain Biscuits, Cabin Biscuits, Abernethy Biscuits, which were all prepared using a break, he gives us recipes for scores of sweet ones, in which the dough was also 'broken', such as Exeter Biscuits, Garabaldi Biscuits, Regatta Biscuits etc. to name just a few. I have always found it fascinating that the roller break and other utensils are used to make beaten biscuits in the Southern States. In England the biscuit break has long been extinct. I find it remarkable that it is still used in a domestic context in some of the old colonial states. What a survival!

  4. That roller break looks exactly like a sheeter to me - when I worked in a bakery for a short period in the early seventies, it was called a break or brake but it was used for making puff pastry and for rolling out shortcrust pastry for making tarts etc. and not biscuits as far as I can remember. I don't recall the bakery's shops selling biscuits.

  5. Yes. Calling a roller break a 'sheeter' was common from the middle of the twentieth century onwards. They were, and still are used for other tasks other than making sheets of paste for cutting or stamping into biscuits. Biscuits of this kind were rarely made by bakers after the 1st World War as the great industrial biscuit makers dominated the trade.

  6. Hi,

    The machine appears to have been regularly used in France in the 15th and 16th century where it was known as a "brie", or "broke" or "broyoire". Some consider that that first name (brie) gave the word brioche (brioche), literally, "that which comes from the brie". Some recipes of the following centuries mention the brie, but very rarely and it seems to have been much more rarely used in France than in England. The only representations I could find of a brie come from two engravings from the late 18th century depicting "vermicelliers" (pasta-makers) one is from the Diderot Encyclopédie and the other from the lesser known 1771 Description des arts et métiers by Malouin.

  7. William Falconer’s A New Universal Dictonary of Marine, ca. 1815 explains victualling-office’s process of manufacturing sea biscuits:

    BISCUIT, Sea, is a sort of bread much dried, to make it keep for the use of the navy, and is good for a whole year after it is baked.
    The process of biscuit-making for the navy is simple and ingenious, and is nearly as follows: A large lump of dough, consisting merely of flower and water, is mixed up together, and placed exactly in the centre of a raised platform, where a man sits upon a machine, called a horse, and literally rides up and down throughout its whole circular direction, till the dough is equally indented, and this is repeated till the dough is sufficiently kneaded.
    In this state it is handed over to a second workman, who, with a large knife, puts it in a proper state for the use of those bakers who more immediately attend the oven. They are five in number; and their different departments are well calculated for expedition and exactness.
    The first man on the farthest side of a large table moulds the dough, till it has the appearance of muffins, and which he does two together, with each hand; and then delivers them over to the man on the other side of the table, who stamps them on both sides with
    a mark, and throws them on a smaller table, where stands the third workman, whose business is merely to separate the different pieces into two, and place them under the hand of him who supplies the oven, whose work of throwing or chucking the biscuits on the peel must be performed with the greatest exactness and regularity. The fifth arranges them in the oven, and is so expert, that though the different biscuits are thrown to him at the rate of seventy in a minute, the peel is always disengaged in time to receive them separately.
    So much critical exactness and neat activity occur in the exercise of this layout, that it is difficult to decide whether the palm of excellence is due to the moulder, the maker, the splitter, the chucker, or the depositor; all of them, like the wheels of a machine, seeming to be actuated by the same principle. The business is to deposit in the oven seventy biscuits in a minute; and this is accomplished with the regularity of a clock; the clack of the peel, during its motion in the oven, operating like the pendulum. The biscuits thus baked are kept in repositories, which receive warmth from being placed in drying lofts over the ovens, till they are sufficiently dry to be packed into bags, without danger of getting mouldy; and when in such a state, they are then packed into bags,of an hundred weight each, and removed into store-houses for immediate use.

    At Deptford the bake house belonging to the victualling-office has twelve ovens; each of which bakes twenty shoots daily; the quantity of flour used for each shoot is two bushels, or 112 pounds; which baked, produce 102 pounds of biscuit. Ten pounds are regularly allowed on each shoot for shrinkage, &c. The allowance of biscuit in the navy is, one pound for each man per day; so that, at Deptford alone, they can furnish bread, daily, for 24,480 men, independent of Portsmouth and Plymouth.

    1. Thanks. Great text on biscuit making - it is rare to hear the brake being called a horse! Thanks Ivan

  8. Is there a copyright on figure 3?

  9. Dear Ivan,
    Followed you on TV and Radio for years and only just come across your blog! Two questions:

    In the Dodd extract above:
    'The dough was‥taken from the trough and put on a wooden platform called the break. On this platform worked a roller, called the break⁓staff.

    I note they call the brake a roller. Bearing in mind the inaccuracies of getting illustrators to work accurately for you, do you think some brakes might have had the cross section of a rolling pin. If the loose shackle allowed the brake to revolve, may it have sometimes used to roll in a quadrant ? I understand heavy biscuit doughs would have needed a flat brake but just a thought.

    Why are the bottoms of most Dough Troughs/Bins so low? Working in them for long must have been back breaking. Does it perhaps lend credence that Troughs were perhaps stirred with a paddle into claggy mess with the starter and allowed to do its own thing for 12/24 hours. The actual kneading happening on top? YouTube of modern French Bakers show them working in higher bottomed troughs. Cheers, Nigel