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Hardtack – The Ultimate Survival Food

What Is Hardtack?

Hardtack is essentially a hard cracker that is made from flour, salt, and water. It came about several centuries ago when proper food storage was scarce and the more durable a food was, the better. Even though it’s been around since the days of Egyptian Pharaohs, it’s more well known for its importance in the Civil War. Sailors and soldiers were the most known consumers of hardtack, as the hard biscuit-like food was cheap to make, easy to transport, and held up in almost any environment.

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The secret to hardtack’s long shelf life is the lack of moisture in the food itself. The first versions of hardtack were baked up to four separate times and then left to sit out for days to draw out every last bit of moisture. If they remained dry, they would keep indefinitely. There are still remnants of Civil War hardtack that are edible today!

History of Hardtack

Hardtack is best known for being part of the daily rations for soldiers during the Civil War. It was the main sustenance for Union soldiers, along with some sort of salted meat. Confederate soldiers consumed hardtack less frequently due to flour shortages in the south, but it is still considered a major player in the nourishment of Civil War soldiers. In fact, many of the rations that contained hardtack in the earlier days of the Civil War were leftovers from the Mexican-American War nearly 15 years earlier!

Little known to many, hardtack’s existence dates back even farther than the 1860s. Egyptian mariners called it dhourra cake, Roman legions called it buccellum, and the crusaders of King Richard I referred to it as Muslin bisket. The first mass production of hardtack took place in the 1660s and the prepared biscuits were given to soldiers in the Royal Navy.

Hardtack during the Civil War

As mentioned previously, hardtack was a regular ration for Union soldiers and an occasional ration for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. According to John Billings, a Union soldier in the 10th Massachusetts Volunteer Light Artillery Battery, soldiers received about 9 or 10 pieces of hardtack per day.

Hardtack was given to the men in one of three conditions: first, the hardtack may have been wet, in which case it was also moldy and unable to be eaten; second, the hardtack may have been infested with maggots or other insects, though this version was still consumed in most instances; and third, the hardtack was simply too hard to bite into.

Hardtack was so dry and hard that many soldiers broke their teeth trying to bite into it, so they would smash it with their fists or with the butt of their rifle to break it into pieces that were more easily consumed. The crushed pieces were often put into soups or stews or soaked in cold water and then fried in the fat of whatever meat was available. Some men would toast their hardtack, only to grind it up and make a sort of coffee out of it. If butter was available, hardtack was enjoyed happily with a smear of butter.

Hardtack for Sailors

Sailors, just like soldiers, were given hardtack as part of their daily rations during times of war or other long sea voyages. While the monotony of these crackers didn’t thrill the sailors, some claimed that hardtack could cure sea sickness and it did, in fact, give the sailors the calories and carbohydrates they needed to perform their jobs and survive on the open seas. Chowder was also a popular meal for sailors and it was actually invented as a way to soften the hardtack and give a more balanced meal to sailors.

Sailors were not immune from the common problems that came from hardtack that was not properly stored during initial production or transportation. Especially being at sea, hardtack for sailors often became wet and therefore moldy and inedible. Additionally, due to the infestation of insects in factories where hardtack was produced, soldiers were often forced to simply deal with the bugs in their rations. Some ships stored the hardtack in big barrels, and soldiers began placing dead fish on top to draw out the bugs as a way to make the hardtack more edible.

Other Names for Hardtack

Because of its popularity in the Civil War and other time periods, hardtack has acquired quite a few nicknames due to its interesting composition. Here are a few:

  • Sea Biscuit or Sea Bread – due to it being a ration for sailors
  • Ship’s Biscuit or Ship Biscuits
  • Pilot Bread
  • Cabin Bread
  • Molar Breakers or Tooth Dullers – due to its hardness
  • Worm Castles – due to the fact that worms and maggots were sometimes found in hardtack during the Civil War
  • ANZAC Wafers – ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps
  • Brewis – another name for bread soaked in a broth
  • Dog Biscuits
  • Sheet Iron
hardtack 1Paul A. Cziko

Hardtack as a Survival Food

While hardtack is lacking in the protein department, it’s a knock-out survival food (is a great companion to pemmican). It’s easy to make, easy to store, easy to transport, and it lasts nearly forever (it will probably outlive you—seriously). It’s also somewhat calorie dense (especially for a cracker) and is very versatile. You can eat it on its own, dip it in coffee or another beverage, use it in soups, grill it in some grease… the list goes on and on.

Why Is Hardtack Such a Great Survival Food?

There are several reasons why hardtack is an excellent survival food, but durability and ease of making and storing hardtack is at the top of the list for sure. Essentially, all the reasons that made hardtack a staple in times of war and during long sea voyages still hold true today. If you’re preparing for a long stint in the wilderness, want to be prepared if you get lost on a hike, or are prepping for a nuclear war or natural disaster, hardtack is as much a staple for you as it was for the soldiers and sailors of days gone by.

Here are the top reasons hardtack is a great survival food:

  • It will keep for years. Decades, even. Possibly centuries.
  • It is full of carbohydrates, which will keep your energy levels up.
  • It is easy to make and won’t take a lot of time to prepare.
  • It’s cheap—you can either buy a commercial version or make it yourself for next to nothing.
  • It is lightweight and won’t take up a lot of space.
  • It’s versatile—you can crumble it, cook it in grease, toast it, dip it, or eat it raw (just watch your teeth).

Hardtack Nutrition

Since hardtack is only made up of flour, water, and salt (which is optional), the nutrition facts are pretty simple. An average piece of hardtack has about 75-100 calories (all from the flour), about 16 grams of carbohydrates, and pretty much nothing else. Depending on the type of flour used to make hardtack, you might find a version that has 3-4 grams of protein per serving, as well as 1-3 grams of dietary fiber per serving. While hardtack is a great way to boost your energy during a hike or toss into some soup from time to time, it doesn’t have enough sustenance to it to keep you alive for weeks or months on end without the consumption of other foods.

We consider hardtack to be essential to a survival kit or prepper’s food storage arsenal, but on its own, it is not enough to survive on.

Hardtack Recipes

If you’re looking to make your own hardtack, the recipe is simple. Start with 3 cups of flour and add in approximately 2 teaspoons of salt. Stir that together and pour about 1 cup of water into it. You want a dough that won’t stick to your hands but isn’t too hard, either. You can add small amounts of flour or water until you get the right consistency.

Once the dough is ready, roll it out to about half an inch in thickness. Cut the dough into nine 3”x3” squares and poke 9 holes in each square. Place the pieces on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes. Flip the pieces over and bake for another 30 minutes. Once cooked, you’ll want to let the hardtack sit out for a few days so it can completely dry out.

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Hardtack Recipes for Kids

While the standard hardtack recipe above can be consumed by anyone, kids may not be willing to just gobble up a rock hard cracker. To encourage kids to consume hardtack, consider crumbling it into soup or stew, dipping it in a beverage, or breaking it apart and frying it with some grease.

Commercial Versions of Hardtack

If you’re on board with hardtack as a survival food but don’t want to spend the time cooking and storing it, you can buy a commercial version of hardtack. The most popular and accessible version of hardtack is called Sailor Boy Pilot Bread. It’s made in Virginia and while the bulk of it goes to Alaska where they still consume it regularly, you can buy hardtack commercially to add to your survival food stash.

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