Eat Like An Explorer – Making Hardtack or Ship’s Biscuits

We glamorise the life of an explorer, but it was largely a miserable existence. If the expedition was a success the leader got some glory and could regale its fascinating tales to an intrigued, paying audience. But as for the remainder of the crew; they mostly got the opportunity to repeat the wretched experience on another expedition. With the prospects of survival being wafer thin, not many people turned exploration into a career.

Nevertheless, despite a grim life explorers didn’t seem to complain too much. In fact the only thing that frequently caused complaint was the food.

Expedition food needed to be very energy dense. If it was being hauled it also had to be lightweight. But most importantly it needed to be non-perishable, even in harsh environments. Not many suitable foods were amenable to extended preservation, typically via salting or dehydration. So explorers found themselves eating a very limited and unappetising diet for potentially up to 5 years.

Few food items escaped complaint, but there was one that literally took the biscuit – hardtack. When it was in good condition it was almost impossible to eat. But invariably improper storage caused it to be spoiled by mould or have an army of weevils move in and call it home.

weevils on flour grains
Weevils love hardtack. You might get hundreds in every bite.

And hardtack wasn’t just for explorers. There’s hardly a military campaign outside of the last hundred years where some kind of hardtack didn’t feed the marching armies.

What Exactly Is Hardtack?

Well, tack means cheap, inferior food and hard means erm… hard. Basically hardtack it is an unleavened bread that is devoid of moisture. That is the secret to its immense shelf life.

In some respects it is not dissimilar to damper or bannock bread. However these are cooked with a hard crust and a soft interior. You may also compare it with a cracker, but crackers are made with fats and although very dry are still somewhat soft. Most likely you will, as many did, compare it to a brick, but bricks are made from clay and hardtack is made with flour.

Sailors usually called it ship’s biscuits. It’s a term that actually predates hardtack and to the uninformed gives it a deceptive air of culinary appeal.

modern chocolate covered ship biscuits
Fancy a ship’s biscuit? Unfortunately they weren’t this good.

Anyway, enough of this history lesson – let’s make some hardtack and see what all the whinging was about.

Hardtack Ingredients

packet of rock salt, bag of plain flour and a glass of water

250g Plain flour – For true authenticity go with wholemeal. But no cheating with self-raising. It may be more palatable but the leavened hardtack ends up twice as big. Space is at a premium you know!

5g Salt – Didn’t make the final product notably salty to me. Perhaps I should have added more?

150g / 150ml Water – I used clean, but you can use dirty if you really want to hammer the authenticity line home.

The above ingredients will make enough to cover a 12″ pizza tray. It’s plenty for a taste test. You can easily scale up if you’re contemplating a long term cache for when real disaster strikes.

Making Your Hardtack

Place the three ingredients into a bowl and mix until you have formed a firm dough.

Roll out the dough to a thickness of about 5mm and cut the dough into squares. I used a pizza cutter. Re-roll off-cuts to make more squares or embrace a bit of irregularity into your hardtack.

hardtack dough rolled out and cut into irregular rectangles with a pizza cutter

If you have OCD you can use a cookie cutter or something. I made a second batch and used a small plastic tub as a cutter and they look pretty good.

hardtack dough rolled out and cut into rectangles with a plastic tub

You now need to place some holes into your hardtack to assist with drying out the centre. I used a toothpick. Give it a good wiggle not just a pinprick. Flip them over and poke the hole from the back to ensure it goes all the way through. It’s a bit tedious, but unless you have a mini lawn aerator what can you do?

hardtack biscuits on pizza tray and ready for baking in oven

Place your hardtack onto a baking tray (well pizza tray for me) and its ready for the oven

I baked mine for 45 minutes at 180oC. But do whatever it takes so they look golden brown. We’re not on MasterChef here.

Hardtack – Take 2

The word biscuit (bisket) is French for baked twice. Your hardtack has only been baked once and almost certainly is not crisp in the centre. So once cool it needs a further baking to fully dry out. It was customary to do this on the following day. Sometimes hardtack was baked up to 4 times to ensure all traces of moisture had been eliminated.

Remember the second bake is not to cook the hardtack, but to simply dry it out further. So you will need a longer bake at a lower temperature. I went down to 120oC for a couple of hours and then left it for several more elevated above my woodheater.

hardtack drying on a pizza tray placed above a wood heater.

The final product

Once completely dry the hardtack will be very hard and disappointingly difficult to eat. Many stories exist regaling the inventive methods people used to break it up and consume it.

a mug of hot coco and several hardtack biscuits

The most popular methods were to dip your hardtack into a hot drink, crumble it into broths or fry it in fat. I’m going with some Scout friendly Milo. Still quite authentic as many explorers frequently had a meal of coco and hardtack. Even after dunking in the hot Milo for over a minute it wasn’t very soft – simply tough and chewy.

How did you get on?

How was your hardtack? Try putting some in an air tight container and try it out next year or when the zombie apocalypse strikes. There is hardtack in a museum and it’s nearly 200 hundred years old.

3 replies on “Eat Like An Explorer – Making Hardtack or Ship’s Biscuits”

Wow these were hard!! We made ours to remind us of the explorers night sky – stars. Not broken teeth…….yet

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