For centuries, hardtack has been a staple survival food for soldiers, explorers, sailors and many others. In fact, historical records show variations of hardtack being used as long ago as the Egyptians and Romans. Also known as sea biscuits, sea bread, dog biscuits, and a host of other names, hardtack is a dense, brick-like mixture of flour, water and salt. There are many additives and other ingredients you can add to hardtack, but making traditional hardtack is a good place to start.
What is Hardtack?
Known by many names, the term hardtack itself comes from the British slang “tack” for food. Literally meaning “hard food”, the name perfectly warns a person what to prepare for before eating it. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the British Royal Navy began mass-producing hardtack to supply its sailors with their daily ration of a pound of hardtack. Nearly every port in the world had savvy businessmen making hardtack near the docks to resupply ships.
In the 19th century, hardtack was a main source of food for gold prospectors in the California Gold Rush, as well as the Union and Confederate soldiers in the American Civil War. In the same way that Canadian pioneers, the Metis people and voyageurs packed smoked game meat or pemmican the lightweight hardtack was perfect travel food.
Although hardtack became less popular after the invention of refrigeration and canning, it’s still used today as part of some country’s military rations around the world.
Making a Traditional Hardtack Recipe
Wondering how to make hardtack? You most likely already have the necessary ingredients to make a traditional hardtack recipe: four to five cups of flour, one cup of water and two teaspoons of salt. Once you’ve gotten your ingredients together, follow these simple steps.
How to Make Hardtack
- Slowly mix the flour into the water in a large mixing bowl. The mixture will get very thick, so use a wooden spoon to mix rather than a whisk.
- Once the mixture becomes too thick to mix, don’t add any more flour.
- Knead the dough to make the sure it’s as mixed as possible.
- Using a rolling pin flatten the dough to ½ inch thick.
- Cut the dough into squares a bit bigger than a cracker.
- Poke holes in the dough squares with a skewer or similar utensil in three rows of four.
- Bake the dough on a cookie sheet at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes per side.
- Remove from oven and let cool.
- Leave it out for a few days to harden some more.
In some modern-day recipes, people add butter, sugar, honey, or spices to improve the taste. However, by adding any extra ingredients, you’ll decrease the shelf-life of your hardtack, so choose wisely.
More Traditional Hardtack Recipe Links
National Park Service Hardtack Recipe
Skilled Survival Long Term Survival Bread
American Table Civil War Hardtack Recipe
Primal Survival How to Make Hardtack the Traditional and Modern Way
If you make traditional hardtack without any additives, it can last decades without going bad. It must be stored in a cool and dark space, ideally in an airtight container or vacuum seal. Moisture is the nemesis of storing any dried preservative, so make sure it stays bone dry. The airtight container will keep out any larvae or pests.
Weevils in the wheat grain have been associated with ruining batches of hardtack, so make sure you check your flour before beginning. In the past, sailors and soldiers would submerge their hardtack in water or coffee, and see if any larvae floated to the top. If so, they would simply skim it off the top and continue eating. You should definitely double check your flour.
There are a few different ways to eat hardtack. Don’t just bite into it, there’s a reason one of its nicknames is “molar breakers”. A popular way to soften the hardtack is by submerging it in a glass of milk, coffee or water for about 15 minutes, and then fried in butter. You can also mash it up and mix with water to create a hardtack meal, kind of like a disappointing porridge. Alternatively, hardtack pairs well with a hearty soup or stew.