Making Hardtack Biscuits
Hardtack has been a staple long-term storage food for over 1,000 years. Known by many names, and made in untold numbers of combinations of grains and flours, the purpose of Hardtack (or sea biscuits) is to provide grain nutrition in a form that is shelf-stable for long periods of time with a minimal opportunity for spoilage when stored properly.
I first ran into hardtack in 3rd grade in California. I had a very creative teacher who taught us basic US History with hands-on activities, including making hardtack and hasty pudding. As a child, I was not overly impressed with the taste of hardtack after we made it. It was nearly impossible to eat just as a “cake” of floury-dough, being nearly as hard as a brick, and I remember being overwhelmingly disappointed in our efforts. It was only the next day, when Teacher brought in hardtack for breakfast that she has soaked overnight in milk and topped with honey that I “got it” – this hard food could be eaten as is if you have the teeth of a shark, or could be a basic pantry supply to use in many other dishes. At the time, all of this was just a history lesson. I wonder what Teacher would think today, knowing that after all these years I’m making hardtack as a staple survival food.
Hardtack is indeed the perfect homemade survival food. It is cheap; it is easy to make; it is shelf-stable; it has an extremely long shelf life (samples of Civil War-era hardtack are in museums today); it can be made in small batches or large; it can be used in an emergency as an important nutritional support and to provide calories (about 160 per biscuit), and it is extremely versatile. For the prepper on a budget, it HAS to be one of your first go-to foods to start stockpiling.
My recipe for hardtack is darned simple:
4 cups of flour – all-purpose generic is fine.
1 cup of water, and “a little” (as needed to get the right dough consistency)
1-2 tablespoons of iodized salt, depending on preference. I split the difference and use 1 ½.
The above will net you about twelve 3×3 (traditional size) hardtack pieces if you can roll your dough in a perfect rectangle or square. Me? Not at all able to do so, ergo I shoot for 9 perfectly square 3×3 pieces, a few “almost” 3×3 pieces, and then an unknown number of pieces of trim and extra edges. Don’t throw the trim away – it will be useful.
If you want to make 2-3 dozen or more 3×3 hardtack pieces, just straight double or triple the recipe. It’s always 4/1/1 or 4/1/2 ratio (flour to water to salt).
You’ll also need an oven (though in an emergency it can be made in a pan over a fire, but the storage life is not as good as hardtack made in a temperature regulated oven); a mixing bowl; a couple of measuring cups; a tablespoon; a “rolling pin” (more on that later); a mixing spoon; a spatula and a cookie sheet and a “hole poker” (and, more on that later). Basically, all the stuff you already have in the kitchen.
Step 1: Assemble your ingredients. Remember that discount flour is just as good as name-brand flour for this dish. I know people have used whole wheat flour with great success, however higher-oil grains tend to have a shorter shelf life, so I’d stick to regular wheat flour for the survival pantry and long-term storage.
Step 2: (optional) Preheat your oven to 250 degrees F. Since hardtack is more dehydrated and barely browned than it is “cooked” in a traditional sense, preheating is not necessary. I preheat as soon as I start mixing up my dough, then chunk the pan in when I have it ready, whether the oven is at 250 degrees (and I think it always has been).
Step 3: Start with a little water in the bottom of the bowl. Whether you hand-mix (which I did today), use a mixer with a dough hook or use the dough mix option on your bread maker, it makes getting the dough ball started SO much easier. I do this on almost all my breads, by the way. Note: this is a tough dough. I’d reconsider use of the bread maker and hand mix it if I were you.
Step 4: Add the flour – all four cups – all at once
Step 5: Choose your method – hand mix, or mixer with dough hook/bread machine. I don’t have a mixer with a dough hook and don’t want to destroy my bread machine, so I use the dough hooks provided by God himself – my two hands, and add a good spoon. As you mix, add the water a bit at a time and mix it in thoroughly.
Step 6: When I start to see, the dough get crumbly I add the iodized salt. I recommend that you use salt, though it is not necessary, but it adds another layer of preservative and helps bind the dough. For survival use, I prefer iodized salt. Iodine is a necessary nutrient that may be hard to come by long term when left to your own devices.
Step 7: Don’t stop too soon! If you put in the recipe-specified 1 cup of water and it still looks dry and crumbly like this, not forming itself into a semi-sticky dough ball, add a bit more water, a spoon or so at a time. This is how my dough looked today with the full cup of water, and it was not near enough. It took several more tablespoons (6-8 I think) to get it out of the crumbly stage and into a dough ball.
Step 8: Here’s the dough ball the way it should look like. Remember this is not a yeast dough. It is a yeast-free (except for natural airborne yeasts) so it will not stretch like, rise like, nor smell like, a yeast dough.
Step 9: When you get the right consistency of your dough ball, turn it out of the bowl in a substantially floured work surface.
Step 10: At this point, we’re going to roll the dough out into your perfect square or rectangle, 1/3-inch-thick, to cut into the individual biscuits. You’ll do this with your perfect rolling pin.
Or, not. My perfect rolling pin is in my perfect camper parked in another state.
Hmmm. What to do…what to do. Wait. Wasn’t there a bottle with a little wine left in the bottom that is nice and smooth (the bottle, and the wine), with a good weight, that I could use in a pinch? YES! There it is! The smidge of wine was discarded, and I wrapped the bottle with plastic wrap since I couldn’t get the labels off without a jackhammer. I floured the plastic and voila! Rolling pin. Sort of.
In any event, use your rolling pin, or a glass, or a wine bottle, or whatever you have that will work, and roll the dough out into a perfect rectangle. I can’t. Ever. So, mine gets rolled out until it is 1/3” thick, and into a reasonable shape.
Step 11: Hardtack is traditionally made into 3×3” square pieces, each pierced exactly 16 times. Does it have to be? Probably not. But our ancestors made it this way, and I can’t help but think that there’s a reason. Being spatially challenged, I must use a ruler (or, improvising again, grabbing my scrapbooking Circuit mat that is printed with an inch measuring grid) to get a start on it, then I just eyeball it from there. I cut them in strips top to bottom first, and cheat in a little or out a little as needed to get the best amount of biscuits out of the dough that I rolled. Again, keep the scraps right where they are.
Step 12: Each biscuit is punctured 16 times. This serves several purposes. It allows the biscuit to cook thoroughly (moisture is our enemy when we’re trying to store long-term), and it keeps the biscuit flat and prevents splitting. In school when we made our first hardtack, we pierced the biscuits with a fork, and they did fine as I remember. But most people who make hardtack and are very successful with it continue with the 16 holes per 3×3” biscuit.
Step 13: It is easiest for me to press the biscuit holes in a line across all the biscuits, then do the next line, etc.
Step 14: There are hardtack (and cracker) dies/cookie cutter type things which do the cutting of the biscuit and piercing all at one time. I’ve seen them. I don’t have one. I have a LOT of spare Allen wrenches. Every time I get furniture that must be put together, or a lawn mower, or whatever, it comes with Allen wrenches. Miraculously, most of them are sized so that they are perfect to make holes exactly the size I need for my hardtack. Again, voila.
Step 15: Put the biscuits on a cookie sheet (or if you are making a lot, on multiple cookie sheets). The sheets should be ungreased. If you pick up a biscuit and it is “tacky”, pat a little flour on it to keep it from sticking. I put the “perfect” biscuits together, then the “less perfect”, then I put the pierced scraps on the other side of the sheet. These scraps are important to save as ingredients. They can be smashed up to a dusty powder and used as gravy thickening, or to thicken a soup into a stew. This is important in a survival situation to vary the meals yet using the same ingredients, helping to avoid meal fatigue.
Step 16: Pop the pan in the 250-degree F oven for two hours.
Step 17: After two hours, take the pan out and turn all the biscuits and pieces over. Return to oven. Cook two more hours.
Step 18: Remove from oven and cool the pieces directly on a cooling rack or on the oven rack removed from the oven. You don’t want to cool them on the pan or on a solid surface, as moisture will likely build up on the bottom sides of the pieces.
When they are cool, you have time-tested, survival hardtack biscuits, ready to store until needed. They should be stored in air-tight containers or plastic baggies. For 25+ year viability, store them in vacuum packed bags which are then packed in buckets or containers, preferably with oxygen absorbers.