The Secret to These Tender, Flaky 'Digestive' Biscuits is in the Spelt


These tender and flaky spelt cookies walk the line between sweet and savory. [Photograph: Jennifer Latham]

If we moderns are obsessed with eating, then our Victorian ancestors were just as obsessed with digestion: Memoirs of a Stomach, a first-person narrative about the travails of a digestive system, was the Omnivore's Dilemma of its time.

One holdover from those times is the humble little cookie known as the digestive biscuit. Or, to the English who legendarily eat them at a rate of 52 per second*, they're simply known as the "digestive."

* Proof of this statistic is forthcoming; in the meantime, you'll just have to believe us.

The first time I ever had a digestive biscuit was after a three-day road trip along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia. I had been working the wine harvest, picking grapes at the crack of dawn and stomping them until the middle of the night, and had taken a few days off to swim and bodysurf along a legendary stretch of ocean. Afterward, I was sweaty, salty, sunburned, and completely wiped out, so I stopped at a little general store for a coffee. While I was waiting, I spotted a baggie labeled "spelt digestive biscuits." I'm slightly obsessed with spelt, so I snagged them and ate them with the coffee.


The biscuit was the perfect balance of sweet and salty, with a flaky texture that was just hearty enough to bring me back to life. I saved the package with the ingredients and vowed to recreate the cookie when I got home. It took a few tries as I played with different kinds of sugar and tested out various ways to incorporate the oats, but I eventually nailed it, and this recipe is the result.

Spelt, a grain in the same genus as wheat (yes, it has gluten), is worth a closer look. It has been cultivated since the Bronze Age, sustained Roman soldiers on marches, and was buried in Egyptian tombs. But, along with countless other ancient grains, spelt fell out of use with the widespread adoption of hard red winter wheat as a commodity crop after the industrial revolution.


But spelt is a grain that shouldn't always take a back seat to wheat, since it makes baked goods that are tender and crisp. (Some people think it also makes a more digestible baked good, but unfortunately this has not been well-researched and is mostly based on anecdotal evidence.) A whole-wheat cookie often becomes tough, dry, and sandy, but a whole-spelt cookie is oh-so flaky and tender.

I love to use spelt for cookies and tart shells. It's a little trickier to use for something like bread (but not impossible!) since the lower amount of glutenin means it isn't quite strong enough to build up to a delicate, airy crumb.

As for the other ingredients, I used dark muscovado sugar here for a molasses-y flavor. For those wondering about substitutions, I've tried it with light golden muscovado sugar and it just wasn't the same, so it's best to stick with the dark stuff.


The final cookie is a great all-purpose treat that walks that fine line between savory and sweet—it could just as easily be served with jam, dipped in chocolate, or set on a plate of cheese. I've taken to making them on the weekends and stashing them in my purse a a light snack, because, as I know firsthand, it's the perfect pick-me-up after a long, tiring day.

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