How To Make Hardtack

hardtack biscuits

Hardtack is an ancient recipe, but it’s just as viable today as it was back when sailors brought it along for long sea voyages. Here’s how to make hardtack, as well as some more information on variations.

How To Make Hardtack

Making hardtack is easy, even if you’re a total amateur in the kitchen. In fact, this recipe is a great way to introduce kids to cooking and tie into what they’re learning about sailors and history.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups of white flour (~256 grams)
  • 1 cup of water (~240 mL)
  • 2 teaspoons salt (~11 grams) (optional)
flour for hardtack
Photo by Vlad Kutepov on Unsplash

Step One: Preheat The Oven

Preheat a large oven to 375 degrees F (or 191 C). While you can use a small toaster oven if needed, it’s better to have more space so the water has more room to evaporate later in this process. Using too small of an oven could result in steaming the hardtack, which can ruin its properties.

Step Two: Add The Flour To A Bowl

Pour all of your flour into a large mixing bowl. You can use a medium-sized bowl if needed, but having a little extra room is better here.

Make sure you’re using all-purpose white flour if possible. Although flours are made for many purposes, generic all-purpose flour is the best choice for making hardtack. This is the closest to the older recipes because it mixes different types of wheat together into a consistent form.

Similarly, do not use self-rising flour. This will create something closer to a biscuit than hardtack, and it won’t last as long.

Avoid non-wheat forms of flour because these won’t last anywhere near as long.

Photo by Imani on Unsplash
Photo by Imani on Unsplash

Step Three: Slowly Add The Water

Mix in all of your water, a little bit at a time. Do not add all of the water at once. Instead, thoroughly mix and knead the dough each time you add water, maintaining a consistent texture the whole time. This allows the first of the chemical reactions we want to occur.

Photo by Nadya Spetnitskaya on Unsplash
Photo by Nadya Spetnitskaya on Unsplash

Step Four: Start Kneading

Once you’re done mixing the water in, it’s time to start kneading the dough. Use your hands for this instead of an electric mixer or a wooden spoon. This makes it easier to keep an eye on the texture of the dough as you knead.

Keep kneading until the dough is roughly the same consistency as play dough and has a uniform consistency throughout.

If needed, you can sprinkle a little flour on your kneading surface to prevent sticking. This is also the right time to add your salt if you want to do that, but salt isn’t necessary for making proper hardtack.

Step Five: Roll Out Your Dough

After kneading the dough, roll it out until it’s a quarter of an inch (0.64 cm) thick. Like the previous step, this is a good time to sprinkle down just a bit of dough to help prevent sticking.

Proper rolling pins are the best choice for this, but you can use any similar object in a pinch. The important thing is to keep the surface as even and flat as possible so your hardtack cooks evenly. Use a ruler to measure the thickness regularly and fold it back together to roll out again if you make it too thin.

Step Six: Cut The Dough

Technically, you don’t have to cut the dough, but most people prefer to have reasonably small pieces of hardtack instead of one giant chunk.

The most traditional shape is a 3×3 inch (7.6 cm) square, but you can also use cookie cutters for more interesting shapes if you prefer. It’s okay if the pieces around the outside aren’t the same size; you can cook those, too, so don’t throw them out.

Step Seven: Pierce The Crackers

Forks work best for this, but you can use any thin piercing tool you want. The important thing is that the holes are roughly evenly spaced and go in straight lines across each cracker. This will make it easier to break apart later.

This is one of the most important steps of making hardtack. Having more holes in this part of the process will release more moisture later, which means each cracker will last even longer.

Make sure each of your holes goes completely through the cracker. If you don’t pierce all the way through, it won’t cook as well. Inspect the backsides visually to be sure each hole went deep enough.

Step Eight: Put The Hardtack On A Baking Sheet

Use a flat baking sheet for this, rather than one with ridges or holes in it. Make sure each cracker isn’t touching any of the others. That won’t stop it from baking, but it will cause them to stick together in one giant cracker and we’re trying to avoid that.

Do not add grease or any type of baking spray to the baking sheet. Any liquid on the sheet will go into the hardtack, reducing its lifespan and defeating the purpose of making it. Don’t worry about the hardtack sticking to the pan because it will still be easy to get off even if you don’t use oil.

Step Nine: Bake For 30 Minutes On Each Side

Your hardtack should have an even brown color on each side after this baking period. If the coloring looks too irregular, you may have done something wrong during the process.

Flip each cracker over after the first 30 minutes and bake the other side for the same amount of time. They should be quite hard when you’re done baking them.

Step Ten: Cool The Crackers

Cool each of your crackers on a standard cooling rack for several hours. They should be completely room temperature, and being exposed to the air at this point isn’t a significant problem. When done correctly, hardtack remains fresh for a long time indeed.

Step Eleven: Store In Airtight Containers

However, while hardtack lasts well on its own, it lasts even longer if you store it in an airtight container. Make sure your container is completely dry before you put the hardtack in it, or it may get moist enough to start molding. Clear containers are much better than opaque ones.

Also, consider storing your hardtack in several small containers instead of one large one. This protects them even more from airflow and moisture, which will help maximize their overall lifespan.

Step Twelve: Store Away From Sunlight

Keep the hardtack away from direct sunlight and in a cool storage area. The back of most kitchen pantries is a good place but store them elsewhere if that part of your house gets warm.

Optionally, you can vacuum-seal the hardtack to make it last even longer, but even without that, you can expect your hardtack to last for years. If it molds, you exposed it to too much moisture at some point in the process. Throw the whole batch out and make a new one.

Variations On Hardtack

While flour, water, and optionally a little salt are the only things you need to make hardtack, you can modify the recipe in a few ways to improve the taste. Hardtack is exceptionally plain-tasting on its own, so consider these variations if you’re not planning to add jam or another topping to it.

Herbs And Spices

Spices are a great way to modify the flavor of hardtack, and you can use almost any combination that you want. Classic herbs like oregano, basil, and rosemary all work to improve hardtack, and spices with a punch like pepper can also help. Alternatively, add more salt.

Start with about one teaspoon (~5.5 grams) of seasoning per batch of hardtack, and add more in later batches if the final result is still too mild for you. Some people mix several herbs and spices together or make small batches to test the flavors and then expand the recipe they like most. All of these are viable approaches.

Coconut Oil

When deciding how to make hardtack, coconut oil is a fairly healthy way to add flavor and sweetness to your hardtack. This oil will also make it generally softer and easier to eat. You can add 1/4 cup (~85 grams; measure it like a solid ingredient, not a liquid) to the recipe above.

The obvious downside is that adding coconut oil drastically reduces the lifespan of hardtack, so don’t do this if you want to make it last for as long as possible.

Sorghum Flour

Sorghum flour is made with a lesser-known grain in the world, trailing rice, wheat, corn, and barley in overall popularity. You can substitute all of the white flour for this, although it won’t last as long.

You may have noticed that as a theme in adding most other ingredients, and the reason for that is simple. The hardtack recipe is all about longevity, not flavor. When made well it can last for years, and that’s vital for keeping sailors fed on long voyages where resupplies are uncertain.

Sorghum flour is naturally sweet, so this is a good way to add some flavor to hardtack without adding separate sweeteners.

Honey

The classic sweetener, honey is an easy way to add flavor to a batch of hardtack. One tablespoon (~21.5 grams) is enough for the recipe above, although just like coconut oil, this will shorten the lifespan of your hardtack from years to months.

Alternatively, you can just add honey when you’re eating the hardtack. This is a better choice if you want the sweetness of honey without sacrificing the longevity of traditional hardtack.

Can I Use Nut Flour As A Substitute?

You can try, but most nut flours are a poor substitute for traditional wheat flour when you’re deciding how to make hardtack.

The main problem here is the fat content in nut flours. For example, one ounce (about 28 grams) of almond flour contains about 14.2 grams of fat. That means half of it is fat, which in turn means a lot more moisture is naturally present.

Hardtack only works when you bake out as much moisture as possible, and that’s why the classic recipe is about 2:1 dry to wet ingredients. Adding more liquid hidden in the dry ingredients throws off this ratio and results in much softer crackers that will go bad far sooner.

However, if you suffer from gluten allergies or any similar problems, white flour substitutes may be your only option for creating practical hardtack. In these cases, it’s better to simply accept the shorter lifespans and experiment with ingredient ratios until you find something that suits you better.

Note that you can often reduce the amount of water in nut flour variations to keep the ratio closer to correct. Start with just a little water at a time and knead your dough until it reaches your preferred consistency.

Eating Hardtack

Hardtack’s name isn’t a joke. It’s incredibly hard after baking, and it’s entirely possible to chip your teeth while eating it. Making it easier to break apart is one of the reasons it’s good to have as many holes in your dough as possible.

There are a few different ways to eat hardtack. First, you can soften it in liquid-like milk or coffee, then fry it with some butter.

If you want to get creative, you can crush the hardtack into crumbs, then mix it with water and form a pancake-like mix that you can cook on the stove. For a dessert, you can mix the hardtack crumbs with hot water and brown sugar to create a basic bread pudding.

How Long Will Hardtack Last?

If made properly and stored well, hardtack can last almost indefinitely. The traditional recipe can create hardtack that will last for years, if not decades, making it a fantastic long-term storage option for emergencies. Baked hardtack can endure significant temperature changes over time, and it’s small enough to package individually if needed.

Most variations on the basic recipe above will not last anywhere near as long, so don’t rely on any recipe that adds liquid for truly long-term storage. Most herbs and spices don’t add a significant amount of liquid, though, so those should last as long as the traditional recipe.

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