The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Hard Tack

agres's picture

Hard Tack

"Hardtack" or "Sea Biscuit" or "Pilot Bread" was a standard food for sailors, soldiers, and travelers.  It had to be nutritious, compact, durable enough to withstand bumps during transport,  with minimum spoilage even over an extended period. Flavor and texture were secondary.

Modern recipes call for "flour",  water, and salt. (That IS what was in the old recipes.) However, these new recipes date from after fast steam boats, fast trains, and more importantly massive changes in agriculture,  flour milling, and baking circa 1870. 

After 1870, agriculture produced pure cultivars of grain, roller milled into white flour, mixed into doughs in mechanical mixers, and baked in mechanical ovens.   Prior to ~1870 grain was produced in "land races" which resulted in a variety of grains mixed together, that was stone ground into "flour". Thus, "flour" from 1850 was very different from the flour of 1890. Dough in 1850 (and prior) was likely mixed by hand (or foot) in wooden troughs - where it picked up a sourdough start - whether mentioned in the recipe or not.

Thus, my recipe for hardtack is a mix of soft wheat, red wheat, barley, spelt, oats, rye and malted grain; all stone ground to flour.  I dissolve an active sourdough starter in water, and mix a very soft dough. I mix in salt, and let sit on the kitchen counter overnight.  I use a food scoop to place small balls of the dough on oiled parchment paper on a bake sheet, and use a wet bench knife to spread out to 1/8" inch thick. I cover with an inverted bake sheet, and allow to rise until double in thickness.  I use my wet bench knife to cut in squares, and a wet fork to prick. Bake 375F convection until dry.   Dip in coffee or grog or soup if you actually intend to eat it. 

Modern hardtack made from white flour, keeps much better.  However, you would not want to try and live on hardtack made from white flour during a long sea voyage.


tafkas's picture

Yes, but can you suggest a source for weevils for those of us who don't want to wait?

gary.turner's picture

Weevils, of course, are an important source of protein. Unlike landlubbers who would choose the lesser, a seaman would prefer the greater of two weevils. :grin:


tafkas's picture

With a nice fat rat it would be a middie's dream meal.  Good to know there's another sailing buff out there!



TomK's picture

Thanks for the hardtack info! Yet another sailing buff & lifelong sailor here, I grew up on the C. S. Forester books  among others. I seem to have swallowed the anchor now though.

I think if you just buy and keep your flour in paper bags youll get plenty of weevils in your house, surely they’d find the barrel of hardtack within a few months. 

Tap, Tap, Tap, crunch!