Survival Food 101: Hardtack

By on January 17, 2013
home made hardtack

Pilot bread, ship’s biscuit, shipbiscuit, sea biscuit, sea bread , “dog biscuits”, “tooth dullers”, “sheet iron”, “worm castles” or “molar breakers”.

Hardtack has had many different names throughout the years but its importance has never changed.

Hardtack has actually been around since the time of Egyptian Pharaohs, but if you have heard of it,  you probably know it better from the Civil War period.

During the war, squares of hardtack were shipped to both the Union and Confederate armies, making a staple part of a soldier’s rations.

Typically made 6 months beforehand, it was as hard as a rock when it actually got to the troops.

To soften it, they usually soaked it in water or coffee. Not only would this soften it enough for eating, but any insect larvae in the bread would float to the top, allowing the soldiers to skim them out.

Soldiers and sailors the world over have used hardtack as a way to stave off hunger.  It was one of the main sources of food used when Christopher Columbus set sail and eventually landed in America.

It is such a basic item that I am amazed that no one I know under the age of 50 understands its importance, let alone  how to make it.

Hardtack is simple, it has three basic ingredients and takes roughly a 1/2 hour of cook time to prepare.

This is one of the most cost effective long term survival foods that you can make.

It just isn’t very carb friendly…

Check out the recipe below:

You can make hardtack almost identical to what sailors, troops, and pioneers have been eating (minus the weevils!) by following this simple recipe:

4-5 cups of flour

2 cups of water

3 tsp. of salt

Mix the flour, water and salt together, and make sure the mixture is fairly dry.

Then roll it out to about 1/2 inch thickness, and shape it into a rectangle. Cut it into 3×3 inch squares, and poke holes in both sides. Place on an un-greased cookie or baking sheet, and cook for 30 minutes per side at 375˚

As far as cooking goes, your done!

the next step is just to walk away.

You’ll want to let it dry and harden for a few days.

When it has roughly the consistency of a brick, it’s fully cured. Then simply store it in an airtight container or bucket.

To prepare for eating, soak it in water or milk for about 15 minutes, and then fry in a buttered skillet. You can eat it with cheese, soup or just plain with a dash of salt.

This basic hardtack should keep for years as long as it is kept in an airtight container.

If it ever gets soft I would recommend tossing it and making a new batch.

Do you have any suggestions for hardtack or recipes for other lost or forgotten survival foods?

Leave them in the comments below.

 



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'Above Average' Joe

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63 Comments

  1. Allen

    Can you use whole wheat flour or will that make them spoil sooner?

    • Ferdo

      Whole wheat really gets hard! But it has a nutty bite. I like a little more salt…

    • richard1941

      I made some out of whole wheat flour. It is just as awful as the batch I made out of white flour.

  2. Betty

    For an airtight container, I am going to use my FoodSaver unit. I can enclose small batches and will not have to unseal the larger bucket suggested, which would let in air and moisture.

  3. Karen

    Is it ok to make hardtack using whole grain or multigrain flour? Or does it have to be plain white flour?

    • Frank

      It is my understanding, from my past reading, that white flour was a 19th century invention. It was a modification that took the wheat germ and bran out of the flour and give the flour a long shelf life. When you mill a grain and break the germ out of the grain- the oil in the germ starts to oxidize, so you want to use a whole grain flour shortly after milling. White flour worked great in a flour barrel for pioneer crossing the country. In Russia white flour bread was a bit more cost consuming to make, they put the flour in a cloth and beat the white flour out leaving behind the bran and wheat germ which you can now feed to the pigs. Point is- this exotic white flour bread was eaten by the rich (they could afford it) and the peasants ate the whole wheat bread. Take some rats and feed one group white flour and the other a diet of whole wheat, after a couple of weeks I think you will have reservations of living on white flour. I really doubt Columbus crossed the ocean with white flour hardtack. I will not venture to guess what whole wheat or a whole grain hardtack would last on the shelf. I would think if it were really dry and packed in nitrogen or a vacuum, you could store it a long time.
      If you do have gluten problems and have a grain hand mill, I’ll bet you can make your hardtack out of millet.

      • Frank

        I’m a little surprised at how much I forget in my old age, now with a little memory recall let me add that if you buy whole wheat flour in the stores it will have the wheat germ remove- they want a long shelf life and once wheat is ground the germ will start to turn rancid. Store bought whole wheat should work ok for long term storage of hardtack.
        When I bought my mill one of the things I had to consider was if I wanted a stone mill(makes it easy to seperate out the germ because of the way it is ground) or steel grinding surfaces that grinds in such a way that the germ is much harder to seperate the germ out. At the time I was only interested in making bread. I was only going to grind enough at a time for a loaf of bread. The germ is where all the flavor is and fresh ground wheat used to make bread is much richer in taste.

        • Lynette

          Thanks for the great information, Frank! I learned a lot and wanted to pass on something that might interest you. The wheat that is grown today is NOTHING like the wheat from 50-60 yrs ago. Check out this website… http://www.growseed.org/einkorn.html and the book “Wheat Belly” by Dr. William Davis. It has a TERRIBLE cover, bad title and horrible cover/jacket write-up. His marketing people should be fired. BUT, the contents read like an historical science book on wheat. Glance over it while standing in the aisle. EXECELLENT! I have bought Einkorn wheat flour and a bag of SEED from the above website. Amazing experience. Highly Recommended!

          • Frank

            Yes I was aware of that, I understand that 2000 years ago in the Mediterranean area you could be in one valley where they grew one strain of wheat- cross the mountains and find them growing a totally different one in the next valley. So, there could have been a thousand different varieties, kind of like the corn varieties in Mexico.
            That is why it is maybe a good idea to own a mill so you can turn to and learn to using spelt, kamute, rye, buckwheat and barley. You might find teff interesting to look into, I order mine from a place on the internet – I think it is in Idaho.
            As opposed to hardtack- some of these grains or seeds like teff, amaranth, quinoa, rice, buckwheat and maybe even oats will store a long time. So why not fall back on them, all you need is water, a pot, and a fire.

        • MJ

          Love your articles!

          One question re hard tack… I thought levening of some sort was necessary to actually allow digestion of flour over time… Is this belief untrue? If not, are you saying that leavening reduces the shelf-life of hard tack?

          • Joe

            Joe

            Hi MJ, from what I understand (and if anyone else knows otherwise please tell me) the leavening creates more air pockets and a thinner “crust” which makes it much easier for the hard tack to become moist and turn from survival food to a hotel for bacteria. As far as you question about digestion… hopefully some one else may be able to answer that for us.

          • Frank

            I think you will find that the way to best store hard tack is to make sure that it is moisture free maybe well dried in the oven and sealing it in a good zip lock bags. While I do not know how readily mold and bacteria will attack white flour made hardtack I suspect you will have no problem with insects. You may recall from your history that durning the siege of Leningrad that people were tearing wallpaper off the wall and licking the flour paste off the back to survive. I’m sure it gave them some calories even though it was empty clories and I’m sure that even at that time that wall paper had been on there a long time. Think about this for a moment– You may remember perhaps having a box of corn starch on the shelf and maybe it has been up their for years? Nothing will touch it, the insects will avoid it and mold avoided it too. Now, it has been at least four decades since I have bought a sack of white flour, but, as I recall you can do the same thing with a sack of flour. So, if insects are not able to live off white flour why could you expect that you might if that was all you had? Mold would be my chief concern but but maybe it isn’t, you could best handle that by just keeping it dry. If you put a sack of unground wheat berries on that shelf, I might expect weevils to get into it. That is why wheat stored in grain elevators will have had something like highlife added to remove the oxygen.
            The term “worm castle” — I think you will find that that came into use when they were making hardtack out of whole wheat flour, not white flour. If you leaven it, it is no longer hardtack, it’s going to fluff up like bread. I guess if you wanted to, you could cut your bread into cubes and toast them like croutons then seal them up. That will just take more storage space which defeats the main attribute for resorting to hardtack.
            Hope that helps.

          • Frank

            I do not recall anyone implying that leavening of bread was needed to help digestion. As I recall unleaven bread plays a part in the Jewish religion, someone of that faith could address that for you. I do recall reading, many years ago, of the use of salt in bread having a play in aiding digestion. I think all we suggested was the flaw of depending on white bread or the use of white flour alone because of the lack of nutrition. (bran and wheat germ removed)

          • richard1941

            Leavening? Read the bible, book of Exodus. Matzoh is the same basic idea as hardtack, but is much easier to chew. It has long shelf life, is digestible, and easy to make. For the next time the Egyptian Army is after you.

      • Michael

        You confused me….So for long term keeping of hard tack. What type of flour do you recommend?

  4. Tessa

    I’ve made this for the kids when camping. It is very bland and dry. I’ve teased them that they would never make it on a colony ship!
    The first one they try is plain; the second one has swirls of color in them made by adding food coloring to part of the dough and then kneading it in. I also add lots and lots of cinnamon to give it some flavor. It has health benefits and makes the hardtack edible. I raise bees so of course they get to drizzle homegrown honey all over it. It goes from a horrible tasting punishment to a delicious treat! :-)

    • J Wilson

      Tessa… I would suppose that long months on reduced calories would change the “bland and dry” description to “tolerable.”

      I like the idea of adding some dry spices for flavor. I suppose one’s imagination is near unlimited (cinnamon, garlic, et al.) many of which will enhance the healthy characteristics of the bread.

      Thank you for contributing.

  5. Hiram

    About 12 years ago I cooked my first batch using essentially the same recipe as above.

    The next day I put the Tack in a 140 degree oven and let it bake for another 5 hours. It was brick hard.

    I put the cooled Tack in 1 gallon ziplock bag and put the bags on the shelf in one of the guest bedrooms closets.

    At 1 month, 3 month, 6 month, 1 year, 2 year, & 3 years I took one out and ate it.

    At 6 years, I gave some to the son of a friend of mine. He did re-enacting. He said it was perfect. So I gave him what I had left of the first batch with the “It’s 6 years old warning”.

    He took it to the next re-enactment and EVERYONE said it was perfect.

    No one had any ill effects. Can’t speak as to nutrition but it will store for an very long time.

  6. Frank

    In this recipe you leave it to be assumed that they would have used white flour. I think you will find that at the time, whole wheat flour was the standard. I think you will find that whole wheat might have provided a little better nutritional value. Another question, regarding the orgin of our historical hardtack, it may have been made from rye or barley flour. So, is there any superior nutritional value to some specific flour? Maybe, but I don’t know. That might be important if you have to survive long term on the stuff.

  7. rickcow

    If you add salt, the hardtack will mold because the salt makes it hydroscopic. leave the salt out and it will last longer. You need to add salt (and other spices) to your bug out bag to make life more enjoyable. Also, the biscuits were usually baked a second time. The object is to drive all the water out leaving only the flour held together by gluten that was generated during the mixing/kneeding process.

  8. tabor

    A gluten-sensitive person would need a gluten-free version of this. Anyone have such a recipe?

    • J Wilson

      Per the post from rickcow, gluten is what holds the hardtack together. I, therefore, do not believe you can produce gluten-free hardtack.

    • richard1941

      Today I noticed some sliced ham on sale at Trader Joe’s. It was promoted as “gluten free”.

  9. Roy Bellew

    Would mixing in a little ground cinnamon hurt anything? Might add a little flavor.

  10. Nonie

    Very interesting. I have never heard of hardtack before. Will have to try it. Not sure if I am brave enough to eat one after a few years but nice to know that it is possible.

  11. Janet

    Those of us in the re-enactment genre still use hardtack. If it comes down to survival, I’m sure everyone will overlook the texture and hard nature and eat it. The cinnamon is a great idea and adds nutrient value.

  12. Adrin

    Have you looked at oat cakes? The Scottish tradition is used almost like our bread, and has a better shelf life too, although not quite like hardtack.

    • charlie

      What can you tell us about the storage life for Scottish Oat cakes ?

    • J Wilson

      Please provide a recipe. This sounds very interesting!

  13. MI Patriot

    I made a batch of hard tack. If you do Civil War re-enacting you know what it is. A friend of mine suggested using to replace the Kevlar plates in a bullet proof vest or flak jacket. My hard tack is indeed hard, very, very hard. I think it could also be used as a hammer or a weapon if needed. Mine has no salt in it either. Right now I just have it in a zip lock bag.

  14. Bill

    I may be giveing away my age, but when I was young I would go to the
    store and buy hardtack. It was the thickness of a cracker, and I would
    put butter on and eat it that way.

  15. I would recmmend instead of regular table salt,use hymalaian pink salt or now grey salt,each contain high mineral content

  16. Chuck

    As an interesting nutritional note, the last emperor of the Tokugawa dynasty in Japan died from beri beri because he was so fond of white rice that is all he would eat. It was a common condition among the wealthy in Japan. The peasants didn’t suffer from it because they got brown rice if they got rice at all. Mostly they ate barley. In a survival situation where nutrition is crucial, hardtack made from whole wheat or some other grain might stave off a condition like beri beri. You need to be careful about scurvy also.

  17. Donna

    The hardtack was soaked in soup or broth.Some civil war soldiers in spring would cook it with wild bird eggs, or added with beans and wild onions.Most of it was thrown in for a thickener or added like crackers that would be in soups and stews, especially when the soup was watered down to spread among the troops.

  18. Andy

    Someone above mentioned that white flour will be bug-free. I used to work in a bakery, as not mcuh more than a laborer. One of my least favored jobs was to spread the white flour out on a stone countertop and sift through it for beetles. I never saw any mold or anything like that, but beetles (unknown what type) will easily live in white flour!!!

    • Joe

      Joe

      Hi Andy,
      I agree with you about the bugs, I did some research the first time I found them. Most likely they are a grain weevil. The sad truth is they are already in most of our flour, the eggs are small and usually survive the milling process. If the flour is left hanging around too long they will hatch. Luckily they are harmless to humans and I suppose if you can get past the idea of eating them… it’s just a little added protein to your carbohydrates.

      From what I’ve heard, the easiest way to do away with them is to store your flour in the freezer for a few days to kill the eggs.

      • J Wilson

        Indeed. I was once stationed overseas and many of the flour-based products were near the end of their shelf life… which often meant we found weevils.

        When I started putting the flour-based products in the freezer, that problem was all but eliminated.

  19. Sara

    If you want to keep biscuits from going soft, put a teaspoon of uncooked rice in the bottom of the container, then cover with a small piece of paper towel.
    This absorbs excess moisture and the biscuits stay hard and crunchy!
    Can’t see why this wouldn’t work for hardtack as well!

  20. Purple Cow

    do u have to cure them before eating?

  21. richard1941

    Aboutargo is a Greek delicacy that my grandpa used to serve at parties he threw for the sefardic community. (Grandpa was from Salonika, grandma from Ismir.) Arabs call it “boutarakh”. Same stuff, just as good!

    Remove the light bulb from your oven and replace it with a 100 watt incandescent bulb. Place three coffee cups in a large glass casserole dish, and place the dish in the oven. Carefully fill the dish with water. Then place a small grill on top of the three cups.

    Obtain roe organs from mullet. Wash them off in water, pat them dry with paper towel, and sprinkle generously with coarse “kosher” salt on both sides. Place them on the grill.

    Turn on the oven light and prop the oven door open about an inch. After about four days, it is done. You know it is ready when it is hard all over.

    Preserve the dried product by dipping in parafin wax. It keeps forever. WARNING: do not taste this preparation, or it will not survive to make it into your survival kit.

    Due to cultural diffusion from Turkey to Japan, I saw some of this at a Japanese sushi bar! One piece would cost a hundred buck$!

    Why eat hardtack when you can have something that is better than caviar?

    Next: smoked salmon jerky….

  22. richard1941

    Smoked salmon jerky. This is really good. I first encountered it at the Lonsdale Quay fish market, North Vancouver, BC. Every year would be the same conversation:

    “What is that?”

    “That is smnoked salmon jerky.”

    “Is it any good?”

    “Here, try a sample and see if you like it.”

    “Yes, it is good. I will take it.”

    “How much do you want, sir?”

    “I want ALL of it.”

    “Oh, an American, eh?”

    Eventually I taught myself to make something almost as good.

    Replace the light in your oven with a 100 watt incandescent bulb and turn it on. Place three coffee cups in a large pan or casserole dish and put in the oven. Place a grill from a small BBQ on the cups. Put some water in the casserole dish. (This is a defense against the little black Argentine ants that have relocated to southern California.)

    Get salmon filet. The fish from Costco is best because it has the skin and fat layer removed. Otherwise, you have to remove it yourself. Cut into strips less than 1″ wide. Place in a glass casserole dish. Cover with soy sauce and add a tablespoon of liquid smoke. Cover the dish with saran wrap (clingfilm in the UK) and put it in the refrigerator. After soaking for 24 hours, take it out and turn all of the strips over so that all sides of all pieces get exposed to the soy sauce/smoke solution. After another 24 hours, put the fish on the ant-protected grill in the oven, and let it dry for about 4 days.

    WARNING: do not sample this! If you sample it, none of it will get to your survival pack, as it is really, really good!

    Pat the oil off of the fish sticks with a paper towel and preserve by dunking in liquid paraffin wax. It will still be delicious long after you are not. Why eat hardtack when you can have something that is as good as caviar?

    . . . Richard

  23. Lucifer

    It is possible, as a way to insure that the hardtack is completely dry, to bake it for an additional 1/2 hour on each side after the initial two bakings. I have not yet tried this personally, but I plan to with part of my next batch as it may cause the hardtack to crumble and/or burn.
    }{

  24. sharon esquilla

    frank: along these lines of thinking, do you have a recipe for jerky good for long term storage. All the recipes I’ve seen say to freeze if not used in 10 days, and then for only up to 3 months.

  25. I found the hardtack recipe very interesting. I will definitely give it a try. Does any one have a recipe for curing meat for long term storage? As an example salt pork. Jay

  26. This has been fun!!! I’m going to mix up a batch and store — never
    know when you’ll need it. I’m 71 years old and use organic, whole
    grains/flour for the most part. Have a garden in my front yard —
    grew up with the natural way in the great state of North Dakota. Here
    in Arkansas I’ve continued with this philosophy. Having hard tack to
    take on hiking trips, to have for emergencies, and just “for fun” is to
    be one of my next projects. With three granddaughters, I can use this
    as a teaching opportunity. Thank you everyone for your comments/
    questions — have totally enjoyed all.

    • richard1941

      I hope you have good dental insurance. Soaking for 15 minutes just doesn’t do it. Soak it for 2 hours in a cup of hot water with a chicken bullion cube, and you might avoid a broken tooth.

      Oh, yeah, after baking it, I let mine cure in the oven overnight at about 160 degF. I used whole wheat inorganic flour.

      Because of the broken tooth, I have converted to Jewish matzoh. It keeps just as well, has the same basic nutrient value, and is a lot easier to eat.

  27. oncla Beau

    Wheat flour was different. Now we have cake flour, whole wheat, white flour, etc. During the 1860s and earlier probably they ground a “cracker” flour. That is what the hardtack was made from. Don’t ask how it was different, I don’t know. But Bent’s made pilot bisquit and hard tack, really good.
    beau

  28. Fred Beduhn

    Google “Bannock” and “Pemmican” for survival food also! Good stuff!

    • Hipockets

      The hard tack recipie almost sounds like Fry Bread,just
      minus a couple things and it is fried instead of baked.
      I’d say freeze it in vacuum sealed bags.Much tastier and’
      I doubt we’ll have to worry about something lasting years’

      • 'Above Average' Joe

        'Above Average' Joe

        Hey Hipockets,

        One of the recipes I looked up talked about how you would soak the hardtack in milk or water and then put it in a hot skillet with butter to fry it up. I don’t know if that’s the same as what you’re talking about but it sure sounds delicious to me! :)

  29. Old Soldier

    When I was young and in great shape being an airborne trooper, I really liked to hike and rough it in the forest. I stumbled onto a form of hard tack called Logan Bread. Originated in Canada I believe and several formulas exist. It is stern stuff, stores for eons of time and is far more nutritious than regular pilot bread or hard tack. I have not made a batch for years but your recommendation for hard tack has stirred memories. Will look up my notes and make a batch

    • Michael

      Recipe PLEASE !

  30. richard1941

    Once again, hardtack is HARD. Nothing can wreck your survivalist holiday like a broken tooth. Make sure your dental insurance is in order, and be very careful when you try to eat hardtack.

    That makes me wonder: what happens if you make pill sized pieces that you swaller whole and rehydrate with your digestive juices? Wash it down with beer or broth from a bullion cube.

    Also, I am looking for a way to imprint “CSA” and “USA” into my biscuits.

  31. johnw

    I like to make my hardtack using whole wheat gram flour it just seems to last a little longer and tast a little better when served with pine needle tea the recipes are as follows.
    Hardtack
    3 cups gram flour
    1 heaping TBS salt
    enouph water to make a stiff dough follow pretty much any other hardtack recipe for the rest. I still have some from 5 years ago that tastes great.
    pine needle tea
    2 cupd fresh pine needles and green branch tips steep for 5 min in boiling water.
    sorry I rambled on so long I tend to do that.

  32. Mike kenendy

    How about using flour fortified with insects! Up the food value considerable! http://worldento.com/

    • Michael

      sounds like a good idea

  33. scrambo

    It was made with buckwheat flour not bleached flour. It also was made with molasses…I have toyed with my recipe and just like yours but ad molasses and a tad of ginger….

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  35. Brandon

    I wonder if honey could be added, seeing as honey doesn’t spoil?

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  38. Susannah

    In addition to hard tack I would suggest people look into making pemmican which would have more fat, protein and nutrients which in a situation requiring strenuous physical activity for prolonged periods would be more beneficial. I’m not sure how well it keeps but there’s tons of info online about it. And if you don’t want to have to worry about toting something around with you or how long it keeps you can eat tree bark. Its the inner layer of tree bark, the cambium. Relatively nutritious, there were native american tribes who survived long cold winters by eating tree bark. Just a word of caution while pine trees(among many others) are fine certain trees such as yew are poisonous. Know the trees in your area and the dangers any of them might pose.

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