Hard tack: What it is and how it is used

Hardtack, which is also known as ship biscuit, pilot bread, or army bread, is a thick dough made of flour, water, and salt. It was traditionally baked between two and four times so that it became extremely hard and completely dry.

Before the days of refrigeration, anyone going on a long journey needed to take along non-perishable food supplies, and hardtack was the answer. It was cheap to make, easy to carry, and virtually indestructible. It could withstand rough handling without breaking, did not rot when subjected to extremes of temperature and humidity, and would last indefinitely.

For hundreds of years hardtack was a staple of military and naval rations. The basic fare for sailors on long ocean voyages during the European age of exploration was hardtack and salt meat. Unfortunately, the hardtack often became infested with weevils, which the sailors would have to knock out before eating the biscuit.  Another downside was that hardtack was completely lacking in vitamins, and sailors existing entirely on such a diet inevitably suffered from scurvy.

In the United States, hardtack was a cheap and convenient provisioning item for both Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War. The keeping qualities of hard tack is demonstrated by the fact that some or the hard tack used for Civil War military provisions had actually been in storage since the end of the Mexican-American War twenty years earlier. Unfortunately, the hardtack crackers were often riddled with weevils and maggots, earning them the name of worm castles.

Hardtack was also a staple of gold prospectors during the 1849 California gold rush.

If you would like to try hardtack for yourself (without the weevils) it is easy to make at home. Simply mix 5 cups of flour with 1½ teaspoons of salt and approximately 1 cup of water, or just enough water to produce workable dough. Knead the dough until it holds together, and then use a rolling pin to roll into a 3/8 inch thick sheet. Cut the rolled out sheet into 3 inch squares, poke lots of holes on both sides with a fork, and bake in a 225 degree oven for about two hours, or until completely dry.

The hardtack will need to be soaked in liquid to soften before it is used. Civil War soldiers used to break it up and drop it into their coffee. Whole crackers can be softened by soaking them overnight, or they can be broken up and mixed with hot water, and then formed into pancakes. Either way, they can be fried in butter or bacon grease, or used them as an ingredient in soup or stew.

Surprisingly, hardtack is still used today. It is a perfect non-perishable item for disaster ration packs, and is always included with the survival gear that Alaskan light aircraft are required to carry by law. Alaskans also eat it with soup or stew, and in Newfoundland and Labrador it is used along with salt cod in a traditional dish called fish and brewis. Other people who use hardtack include Civil War re-enactors, survivalists, campers and backpackers.