A Guide to Hard Tack
Hardtack is a dried survival food with an extremely long shelf life, making it ideal for long term storage. Hardtack, also known as Ship's Biscuits, Tooth Dullers, Pilot Bread and even Worm Castles is a traditional survival ration that was widely used by explorers, prospectors, the military and the navy. In one form or another, hardtack has been around since pre-Egyptian times or even earlier.
Hardtack is, very simply, a dry, unleavened bread that is extremely easy to make and store. Traditionally, hardtack would have been made of just two or three ingredients ; flour, salt and water. Sometimes, just water and flour were used. From these ingredients, a dough would be formed and then rolled flat into squares. The squares would then be pierced with a clean nail or similar. The holes produced by the nail would help the hardtack to cook evenly as well as helping to release moisture and prevent "billowing" during cooking. The results would then be baked for 30 minutes for half an hour, flipped over and then baked on the other side to achieve an even bake. This process was sometimes repeated 2-4 times, to ensure that all moisture was driven out. The more times the hardtack is baked, the longer the "shelf-life". There are some examples dating from the 18th and 19th centuries that are still edible!
Here is a traditional recipe for hardtack:
1) 360 grams of plain white flour.
2) 10 grams of salt (optional, see below).
3) 1 cup of water (how much water you need depends on the absorbency properties of the flour you are using).
4) You will also need a mixing bowl, grease proof paper, a large sharp knife and a large, clean household nail or a chopstick.
1) Preheat oven to 375oF/ gas mark 3/ 190oC
2) Mix the flour and the salt in the bowl.
3) Slowly add the water, a few drops at a time, whilst continuously mixing, until you form a dough that does not stick to your hands. If it does stick to your hand (i.e. there is too much water in the dough), add small amounts of flour to compensate. This is why it is important to initially add the water a few drops at a time.
4) Once the dough has reached the correct consistency, roll it out into a square or rectangle, that is between a 1/4 and a 1/2 of an inch thick. Any thicker will make the hardtack incredibly tough and impossible to eat, without a long soaking or cooking.
5) Divide and cut the dough into 9 equal squares. (Any shape will work but traditionally, squares were the way to go).
6) Using your large household nail, chopstick or similar, make evenly spaced holes in the dough squares (please see picture). A four by four or five by five grid pattern works well.
7) Place the squares onto the grease proof paper sheet on a baking tray.
8) Bake for half an hour, turn over and bake for another half an hour. The outside should have gained some colour by this point. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Let them rest for a day or two (at which point they should be rock hard!). Place the finished biscuits into an air tight container (glass jars with rubber o-rings work well). Stored in a cool, dry environment, these should last for years (between 2 and 20+).
9) As mentioned above, the baking process can be repeated several times to eradicate all traces of moisture, which will significantly increase the product's shelf life. We recommend at least two hours in the oven for real piece of mind.
How to eat Hard Tack
The real art of hard tack comes with its eating. In its natural state, the biscuits are incredibly tough and can not really be eaten as is (although they can be gummed and sucked and eventually chewed, if you can initially break a piece off ). Traditionally, they would have been dunked in coffee, added to stews as a thickener, boiled and then fried in drippings or with lardons. Yes, it can act as a stand alone emergency but to get the most out of it, experiment with adding it to other food. Ultimately, it is a very stable source of carbohydrate.
In more recent times, other hard tack recipes have become more popular, with the addition of various ingredients such as fats, fruits, sugars and more. Please note however, the addition of such ingredients will dramatically decrease the shelf life of your hard tack. For a true survival ration, stick to the original recipe.
Good luck and bon appetit.
Photo By Paul A. Cziko, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22172272