I’ll be spending the next two weeks traveling across battlefields and wandering through museums. This will my second time going to Virginia and I’m so stoked! There’s so much I’m doing, I don’t even know where to start explaining! Overland Campaign, Emerging Civil War Symposium, Gettysburg, Harper’s Ferry, Blue Ridge Mountains, Seven Days’ Battle, Civil War medical museums, and LOTS of coffee!
But you know what I need to have with my coffee? Some nice, genuine, tooth-cracking HARDTACK! I’m going to make it a tradition that whenever I take big trips like this, whether it’s to Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, or wherever my travels take me, I’m going to bring along some hardtack. My first attempt a year ago upon my first expedition to Virginia didn’t go all that well. I didn’t cook them thoroughly enough and they turned out rather chewy, as opposed to crunchy. BUT, I’ve taken my time and perfected the art… sort of.
If you’ve ever been interested in learning about hardtack (or, hard crackers as they were sometimes called), I suggest you start by making some yourself. Here’s how!
The ingredients are simple and just about everyone has them in their kitchen at home.
5 cups of flour (all purpose is fine)
½ teaspoon of salt
Approximately ½ – 1 cup of water
Before you get going, preheat your oven to about 400. Other recipes say to bake this stuff for hours on 200, but if you’re in a rush and still want a good piece of hardtack, 400 will work. Judge how much time you want to spend waiting.
You’re going to start by combining everything in a mixing bowl. The goal is to make a nice, thick, non-sticky batch of dough. I had to continue to add water to my mix to get all the flour to congeal.
Dust a smooth surface with flour and roll out your dough. For ease, also dust the rolling pin or whatever you’re using to press that ball into a nice, flat shape. You’re aiming for about a 1/3 inch thickness, or maybe a little less. The thickness of the dough will determine how long it’ll take for your hardtack to completely dry out.
After you’ve done that, get a little creative and make a stencil. Hardtack was typically square, so I fashioned up something that was around 2 inches square. Again, how big these pieces are will determine how quickly they will cook. Use a scouring tool like a pizza cutter to cut out your pieces.
Next, you’ll need to make the holes for ventilation. I used the pointy end of a chopstick. The first time I made hardtack, I did toothpicks and I think those holes were too small. Think of the holes in a regular saltine cracker. It doesn’t really matter what pattern your do. Mine varied. As long as there’s enough across the whole surface of the hardtack for the moisture to escape while baking.
Prepare a pan with cooking spray. I used tin foil because I always use tinfoil for my baking/cooking, but that’s just a preference. It won’t change how the hardtack comes out. Take each piece and space them across the pan. Put in the oven and bake for about 30-45 minutes. I baked mine for 40 and they were a little brown around the edges. You’ll know they’re done when they’re hard and have a bit of a hollow sound when you tap on them.
Take them out and set them on a cooling rack.
Hardtack is not a luxury food. It was some sort of basic carbs for the soldiers and sailors to supplement their meal. While it had little to no moisture left after baking, shipments were still prone to weevils and other critters getting into the batches. There are many stories between the blue and the gray about hardtack cracking teeth or being hard enough to use as ammunition. I heard one tale about how soldiers who were running out of ammunition would fire hardtack at the enemy (or throw it) and then when they came back to charge the field, they picked up their hardtack, ate it, and kept going. This might be an exaggeration, but it makes the point to the stability and resiliency of the drab rations. It was originally the staple food of sailors, since it could last for weeks and weeks on end. When you’re out to sea, you may never know when you’ll come to port next to resupply.
Other names for hardtack include: Hard crackers, Molar breakers, Pilot bread, Sea biscuit, Sea bread, Sheet iron, Ship’s biscuit, Tooth dullers, and my personal favorite, worm castles. Soldiers often dipped their hardtack in their coffee to soften it and give it a bit of flavor, which is what I’ll be doing.
Below is a video of the recipe I used in case you’d prefer to what that. Below it is a humorous parody centered around hard crackers. See you on the battlefield!