The Origin Story Behind Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

Love them or hate them, oatmeal raisin cookies are one of the most common cookie varieties out there. Packed with soft oats, sweet raisins, and — of course — plenty of butter and sugar, these cookies are available at most any bakery worth its salt. The first-known written recipe for oatmeal raisin cookies appeared in the very late 1800s, documented by American cookery expert Fannie Merritt Farmer, and it was published in her 1896 "Boston Cooking School Book." But the origin story began long before then, all the way back in England. 

Oats were first cultivated in the Middle East and surrounding Mediterranean areas around 2,000 B.C., where they thrived in moist conditions and were quickly taken to as a cereal grain alternative to wheat. Over time, they were used for many things, like beer making and, of course, baking. Oatcakes are the most likely and earliest predecessor to oatmeal raisin cookies. They were essentially oat-based flatbreads that soldiers toted around as a hearty, easy-to-transport, energy-boosting snack.

Oatcakes were even the first cookie recipe to appear on the Quaker Oats package, with the recipe calling for nothing more than eggs, butter, and oats. Then, at some point in the 1800s, the English transformed the oat cake into a sweeter companion, which much more closely aligns with modern oatmeal cookies. To understand the difference between England's and America's take on oatmeal cookies, it's important to know that these countries have very different definitions of cookies, both then and now.

From bread to biscuit to cookie

In England, an oatmeal cookie is actually called a biscuit, and it's not exactly a cookie as most Americans would think of it. They're typically very dry and crumbly, often served alongside and dipped in tea — a modern example would be a Hobnob oat biscuit.

Although oats (and likely oat biscuits) made their way to North America in the 1600s, oatmeal cookies didn't come around until a few hundred years later. These cookies are pretty uniquely American, and they have that delectable chewy texture that is typical of modern oatmeal raisin cookies. In addition to a chewier texture — and the use of flour, butter, eggs, and molasses — these cookies also called for raisins. Many older British and American desserts, such as classic figgy pudding and spotted dick, called for preserved fruit, either sundried or candied, as it meant you could enjoy many fruits year-round, not just when they were in season, and add sweetness without raw sugar or honey.

Although oatmeal raisin cookies are broadly considered a dessert, just like the most-famous chocolate chip cookie, they were first perceived as a health food, much like original oatcakes. And while oatmeal raisin cookies are pretty even with other cookies in many regards, they are actually much more nutrient-dense, so early adopters of the oatmeal raisin cookies weren't completely off the mark. Plus, the typical oatmeal raisin cookie recipes we enjoy now are still pretty similar to Fannie Merritt Farmer's original recipe!