How to Make Civil War Era Hardtack

Hardtack is a type of cracker made from flour, dried beef or pork and seasonings. It has been around since the days of civil war in the United States. This recipe makes an easy to carry snack that you can use as an emergency ration when you are out camping too long without supplies.

Hardtack is a type of dry biscuit that was used as food by soldiers during the American Civil War. The recipe for hardtack can be found online, and it is easy to make. Read more in detail here: hardtack recipe.

Hardtack. 

Doesn’t seem very tasty, does it? Despite this, it has left an indelible stamp on the world’s food history, supporting and propelling explorers and armies for many generations between the 16th and 19th centuries.  

Hardtack is a hard (extremely hard; in fact, it’s typically rock-like), dry, unleavened dish that’s most similar to a thick cracker. It’s created using a parched rolled dough that’s baked for a long period to eke out every last drop of moisture while also stiffening the final result. Hardtack is practically impenetrable due to this procedure. There’s nothing in it that could go wrong. 

It’s easy to prepare, since all you need is flour, water, and salt. It’s small, light, and almost unbreakable, able to survive rough handling (such as in a ship’s hold or in a soldier’s haversack), as well as extreme temperature variations. Finally, and maybe most crucially, it is eternal. Civil War artifacts may still be found in museums, and they are technically edible (you can watch a guy eat one from 1863 here).  

All of this combines to make hardtack the ideal — if unappealing — survival meal. 

As a result, some people still make it as an emergency ration to have on hand in their homes. While current chemicals and flavorings are often used, they actually shorten the shelf life of the product. Why bother with taste when you’re not aiming for it in that situation? Many people keep to the original formula and preserve hardtack for years, and that’s exactly what I’ll teach you how to do. 

It’s great to do merely to have a tangible flavor of history; you can eat exactly what troops and ocean-going explorers ate hundreds of years ago. That’s quite great.  

But, before we get to the recipe, let’s have a look at the history. 

Hardtack’s Brief History 

Hardtack and silverware from the civil war.

A piece of hardtack, a butter knife, fork, and spoon from a Union soldier’s Civil War mess kit.

While dry unleavened bread products have existed for almost as long as civilisation, hardtack as we know it acquired popularity in the 1500s when Europeans crossed the Atlantic to explore the New World. Cabin bread, sea biscuits, ship biscuits, and more names were used at the time. (It was also known as dog biscuits, molar breakers, sheet iron, and teeth dullers behind the cook’s back.) Hardtack was a mainstay of the Royal Navy until the mid-nineteenth century, and it was typically made in quantity months before consumption. 

The manufacturing of hardtack for both maritime journeys and lengthy overland travels expanded as the discovery and colonization of the American continent progressed. It was notably helpful on the epic wagon trains to the West, when gold and silver were discovered in California and subsequently the Rocky Mountain area. Few rations would be able to withstand such long voyages. 

 

Of fact, the majority of people’s perceptions of hardtack are based on the Civil War. It fed both blue and gray troops, supporting them on lengthy marches and campaigns using biscuits that had been stored since the Mexican-American War in the mid-1840s in some instances. Because fresh meals were plainly scarce, hardtack was an ever-present friend in the camps, as one soldier ruefully recalled:

We live on the edge these days, eating pig, hardtack, and coffee for morning and, of course, coffee, hardtack, and pork for evening. After that, we enjoy a cup of coffee, ham, and fried hardtack for dinner. 

Later in the conflict, when both the North and the South’s supplies deteriorated, it was normal for troops to go for days on just a few 33″ pieces of hardtack and a cup of coffee – frequently together. Indeed, the biscuits were frequently so hard that they had to be dipped in liquid — water, broth, and particularly coffee — or smashed up with a rock or the butt of a pistol and boiled in fat to produce a mash. 

Hardtack wasn’t employed much after the Civil War, when America was focused on Reconstruction (rather than exploration) and reducing the size of the army. Although Theodore Roosevelt said that the humid, damp Cuban atmosphere frequently left the crackers moldy, it was briefly seen again during the Spanish-American War at the end of the nineteenth century. As preservation technologies improved and the military concentrated on giving its personnel with more appetizing consumables than what amounted to baked flour, hardtack went out of favor. (Of course, many WWII troops might say that Spam wasn’t such a huge improvement!) 

Hardtack physically kept men alive for hundreds of years, through world-spanning ocean expeditions, extensive overland treks, and military conflicts, while being often mocked and sarcastically referenced. 

Let’s have a look at how to create it now. Whether you’re prepping as a group for survival or simply to experience what it’s like, I assure you’ll have a good time. 

How to Make Hardtack in the Civil War Era 

There is no universally accepted flour-to-water ratio (or salt either). Unless it’s manufactured in a factory, this is a “recipe” that changes every time it’s made. Can you picture tough Civil War troops or pioneers measuring precisely exact amounts? Obviously not. They’d add a little water into a bowl of flour until it was just moist enough to bake. 

That being said, here’s a recipe that should yield roughly 15 crackers as a starting point. 

Ingredients

  • 2.5 cups flour (or 315 grams if using a scale, however accuracy isn’t necessary here) 
  • 1/2 cup water (some older recipes call for much less; I used slightly over 1/2 cup) 
  • 1 teaspoon of salt (optional, but was certainly added when available to the folks cooking it) 

1. Combine flour and salt in a mixing bowl.

Step 1: Mix flour and salt.

2. Begin by adding little quantities of water. Knead. 

Step 2: Begin adding water in small amounts. Knead.

It’s only now that things are beginning to fall into place.

 

Mix add approximately 1/4 cup water at a time, kneading and kneading as you go, until the dough comes together. If it’s still too sticky after all the water has been used, add a spoonful of flour at a time. 

Mixing of dough in a bowl.

Dough on baking mat.

It’s a bit simpler to continue kneading the dough on the counter/baking mat in the end.

Kneak dough on the baking mat.

3. Form the dough into a ball.

Rolled dough with rolling pin.

Roll out the dough with a rolling pin until it’s approximately 1/2″ thick or less. 

4. Make “crackers” out of the slices.

Turned dough into crackers.

Cut the dough into squares with a knife (or a dough cutter if you have one). As previously stated, they were 33″ in diameter during the Civil War. 

5. Place the crackers on the dock.

Poking holes in crackers.

Simply put, this entails poking holes in them, which you do for a variety of reasons: 1) it helps them bake more uniformly, 2) it provides areas for moisture to escape (which is beneficial in this situation), and 3) it makes it simpler to break them apart once they’ve been cooked. A dough docker may be purchased, but any object with a sharp end, such as a skewer, kabob stick, or even a fork, would suffice.

Crackers with holes.

6. Bake. 

Crackers in the oven.

Remove from the oven as soon as the edges begin to brown. At 28 minutes, I took mine out.

The majority of the bread I make is baked at a high temperature. When it comes to hardtack, though, you should go low and slow. Bake for 30 minutes at 375 degrees, or until the top starts to brown. At the very end, keep an eye on it. 

7. Remove from heat and let aside to cool fully. 

After baking, let it aside for several hours to allow it to cool fully and absorb any remaining liquid. If you keep it in a dry location, you may leave it out for days. 

8. Indulge! 

Dip your hardtack in coffee or break it into bits and serve in broth to create a soup to really feel it like a soldier. You’ll note that it’s not really appetizing, but it’ll get the job done if you’re in a need. 

9. Keep everything in one place. Consume once more. 

Using tupperware or sealed bags, store in an airtight container. Make a big quantity and vacuum seal it in bags if you’re planning for an emergency. If you’re simply having a good time, put it in tupperware for a few weeks or months and try it again! 

Half backed crackers in a plate.

Using tupperware or sealed bags, store in an airtight container. Make a big quantity and vacuum seal it in bags if you’re planning for an emergency. If you’re simply having a good time, put it in tupperware for a few weeks or months and try it again!

Sources 

The following two novels are a blast to read if you’re interested in Civil War history. The things troops did to improvise with food and drink, as well as other aspects of everyday living, are fascinating to read about. 

Dorothy Denneen Volo and James M. Volo’s Civil War America: A Day in the Life 

William Davis’ A Taste for War: The Culinary History of the Blue and Gray

 

 

Hardtack is a type of cracker or biscuit that was made during the American Civil War. In particular, it was made from flour and water. This recipe for hardtack is a modern version of the traditional recipe. Reference: civil war hardtack for sale.

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