Hardtack (also known as pilot bread, ship’s biscuit, shipbiscuit, sea biscuit, sea bread or pejoratively as dog biscuits, tooth dullers, sheet ironor molar breakers.) The name hardtack has its origins from the British sailor slang for food, i.e. “tack”. And since the cracker is as hard as a rock, its name became hard tack (i.e. hard food.)
So what exactly is this cracker that is as hard as a rock?
Hardtack is a very simple recipe. It is a thick cracker made from flour, water and occasionally salt to add some flavor. It is mixed and cooked at an even temperature until it is completely dried. This recipe was very inexpensive to produce and was reasonably nutritious and very light weight – making it a very useful food source for a variety of soldiers, sailer’s and explorers. This cooking/drying process allowed hardtack to be safely stored for years with no deterioration. As long as it didn’t get damp, it would be as good as the day it was made many years in the future. This made it ideal as a food for the armies of the Civil War as it could be produced and there was no rush to get it to the soldiers as there was no worry about spoilage.
While hardtack was universally cheered as an ideal food source for the soldiers of the Civil War, it was not without its detractors.
For many soldiers, they complained that the hardtack was not very filling and that it was so hard that it was almost impossible to eat.
To help alleviate these issues, soldiers were creative in their consumption of hardtack. Some broke it up and mixed it with coffee to soften it. Others used it in soups as a thickener. And when available, they would soak the crumbs in water, mix in a bit of meat juice and fat and make a disk known as skillygalee or cush. Others toasted them and spread butter or sugar on them when such luxuries were available.
But there was an even bigger problem than soldier’s challenges feeling full eating hardtack. That problem was being sure it was edible. Often the hardtack would arrive moldy or wet. This could occur if it was boxed up too soon after baking or if it got wet during travel. And sometimes these defects could attract maggots and weevils. That meant that as little as the soldiers really cared for hardtack, they were quite happy when a shipment arrived in good condition as it did make life in the field a bit easier.
Given all the challenges faced by hardtack eaters in the 18th and 19th century, one would expect it to be a food that is no longer in demand.
But that is not true. It is still being used even today as a survival food and as a staple food in Alaska. In fact, the biggest producer of hardtack is Interbake Foods of Richmond Virginia where it is sold under the “Sailor Boy” label – with 98% of its production going to Alaska where it is sold in many local and chain stores. Most of the rest of the production goes to people who build food storage programs and are looking for a long lasting survival food.
Want to make your own hardtack? It is quite easy.
* 2 cups of flour
* ½ to ¾ cup water
* 6 pinches of salt
1. Mix all the ingredients into a dough and roll out to a thickness of 1/2 inch. Cut into three inch squares and pierce several times with a fork
2. Bake in a preheated oven at 400°F (205°C) for one hour.
3. Remove from oven, flip the crackers and return to the oven for another half hour.
4. Let sit in a dry place for a day to ensure that all moisture is removed.
When done, they will be very hard and when you break one in half, it will be dry all the way through. When they reach this state, they are ready for long term storage in a dry location.
Are you a fan of the Civil War? Are you looking for great histories and regimental documents related to it? You need to check out the Civil War collection at The Historical Archive.
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