Hardtack (or hard tack) is a flat hard biscuit made from flour, water (often saltwater) that was used as a staple food where fresh and perishable foods won’t survive. Also known as “pilot bread,” “pilot biscuit,” “ship’s biscuit” or “ship biscuit,” “sea biscuit,” and “sea bread,” hardtack is most closely associated with sailors on long sea voyages in the days of sail, and with soldiers on campaign.
Traditional Recipe for Hardtack
6 parts flour
1 part water
1 Tbsp salt (optional)
Mix ingredients together in a large bowl and knead with your hands, adding extra flour as necessary so the mixture won’t stick to your fingers. Roll out 1/2-inch thick and cut into 3-inch squares.
Poke holes in each square with a fork or a skewer — four rows of four holes each is a traditional pattern — and place on a ungreased flat pan that is dusted with flour.
Bake in a pre-heated slow oven (300°F) for 30 minutes, turn, then bake another 30 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave the hardtack biscuits in the oven overnight until cool and completely dry.
Hard tack was sometimes baked twice, even four times, to dry it very thoroughly for long storage, and in the process it could become as hard as rock. No wonder that nicknames for hardtack include “tooth dullers”, “sheet iron” or “molar breakers”!
In 1887, John Davis Billings, who had served in the Army of the Potomac, wrote and published a memoir of his Civil War experiences. The title he chose, Hardtack and Coffee, suggests that the unpalatable military rations left a lasting impression on the young soldier. In this excerpt, Billings describes hardtack and how it was used by Civil War soldiers:
I will speak of the rations more in detail, beginning with the hard bread, or, to use the name by which it was known in the Army of the Potomac, Hardtack. What was hardtack? It was a plain flour-and-water biscuit. Two which I have in my possession as mementos measure three and one-eighth by two and seven-eighths inches, and are nearly half an inch thick. Although these biscuits were furnished to organizations by weight, they were dealt out to the men by number, nine constituting a ration in some regiments, and ten in others; but there were usually enough for those who wanted more, as some men would not draw them. While hardtack was nutritious, yet a hungry man could eat his ten in a short time and still be hungry.
… [T]here must have been at least a score of ways adopted to make this simple flour tile more edible. Of course, many of them were eaten just as they were received — hardtack plain; then I have already spoken of their being crumbed in coffee, giving the “hardtack and coffee.” Probably more were eaten in this way than in any other, for they thus frequently furnished the soldier his breakfast and supper. But there were other and more appetizing ways of preparing them….
Some of these crumbed them in soups for want of other thickening. For this purpose they served very well. Some crumbed them in cold water, then fried the crumbs in the juice and fat of meat. A dish akin to this one, which was said to “make the hair curl,” and certainly was indigestible enough to satisfy the cravings of the most ambitious dyspeptic, was prepared by soaking hardtack in cold water, then frying them brown in pork fat, salting to taste. Another name for this dish was “skillygalee.” Some liked them toasted, either to crumb in coffee, or, if a sutler was at hand whom they could patronize, to butter. The toasting generally took place from the end of a split stick, and if perchance they dropped out of it into the camp-fire, and were not recovered quickly enough to prevent them from getting pretty well charred, they were not thrown away on that account, being then thought good for weak bowels.
Then they worked into milk-toast made of condensed milk at seventy-five cents a can; but only a recruit with a big bounty, or an old vet the child of wealthy parents, or a re-enlisted man did much in that way. A few who succeeded by hook or by crook in saving up a portion of their sugar ration spread it upon hardtack. The hodge-podge of lobscouse also contained this edible among its divers other ingredients; and so in various ways the ingenuity of the men was taxed to make this plainest and commonest yet most serviceable of army food to do duty in every conceivable combination.
~ John Davis Billings, Hardtack and coffee, or, The unwritten story of army life (1887)
Photo: D. Farr. “19th Century civil war hardtack, as reproduced faithfully by a civil war re-enactor. To the left, army hard tack. To the right, Navy hard tack. Both would never be seen just laying around. They would either be in a barrel, a haversack, or human hand.” Wikipedia Commons 2007-01-23.