What is Hardtack?
If you are not a die-hard survivalist (or a history buff), you might not have ever heard of hardtack. So, what is hardtack? Hardtack is an old school survival bread/biscuit that you can make easily at home. It has extremely long shelf life and can be used as sustenance to stay alive in a survival situation.
Hardtack is rich with basic nutrients that allow you to survive when there is nothing else to eat. I’m talking about carbohydrates, protein, and fiber (depending on whether you use high protein/fiber flour or not). These biscuits are traditionally extremely hard and stored with moisture-absorbing materials to prevent any possible spoilage.
Basically, hardtack comes with an extreme shelf life. Just like with canned foods and other preserved foods, hardtack can last for years and years in storage, which makes hardtack biscuits ideal for a bunker, a hideaway, or in an outdoorsman’s survival kit.
Because hardtack is made from salt, flour, and water, it is extremely basic and easy to make. It will store for decades so long as you do it properly. Another great thing about hardtack is that it does well even in extreme weather. Whether it is freezing cold or unrelentingly hot, you can rely on hardtack for sustenance provided that you protect ti from moisture.
It should be noted that while traditional hardtack is made from simple ingredients that give it such a dramatic longevity, there are additional ingredients that can add more nutrients, more flavor, and more of a texture. However, additional ingredients will inevitably decrease the shelf life of your final hardtack.
Why Do I Need Hardtack?
Hardtack is a survivalist favorite because it is super cheap to make, requiring very basic ingredients, and it has an incredibly long shelf life, much longer than normal biscuits or granola bars from the grocery store. Hardtack is also incredibly easy to prepare at home and hard to mess up.
Hardtack biscuits can be stored easily and transported much better than canned foods because they are so light. Imagine going off into the wilderness with a duffel bag full of canned beans. It’s just impractical to rely only on canned goods for survival food, particularly if you’re on the move. The weight of the extra metal you’re carrying around makes it basically impossible. With hardtack, you get a nutritious biscuit that is ultralight and relatively compact, which means that you can carry a lot of it without issue.
What I’m trying to say is that hardtack will last a lot longer than canned food in the sense that you can carry and store more of it in a smaller space – so you’ll finish eating your supply of canned food long before you finish the hardtack. Given the same amount of space and the same weigh constraints, you’ll get a lot more calories out of Hardtack than out of canned goods. Hardtack also does not require any special preparation to eat. While there are ways to eat hardtack that make it tastier, you do also have the option to eat them without any preparation. You don’t need a can opener and you don’t need a fire.
We will warn you though, Hardtack isn’t particularly tasty. It’s very much food as sustenance. Don’t expect your hardtack to taste good.
What is the History of Hardtack?
Hardtack is old. Like, really old. Unleavened bread has been used for survival for thousands of years. The earliest known pieces of unleavened bread were found by archaeologists and deemed to be at least 6,000 years old (those probably weren’t edible). Apparently, ancient civilizations would cook grains into hard breads that were a lot like hardtack to keep them alive when there was a poor harvest or a complete failure of crops. In a way, hardtack was a way of storing and preserving grains in way where they wouldn’t spoil.
Hardtack as we know it today became famous during the Golden Age of Sailing, back when intrepid explorers from England, France, Spain, and many other European nations were mapping the world.
Because it took so long to cross the ocean, sailors didn’t have much of a choice in the way of supplies of food. They couldn’t exactly take beef, chicken, or even vegetables with them – at least not in large quantities – as there was no way to store them properly at sea for months at a time. The solution was hardtack. This the reason why hardtack is also sometimes known as “ship’s biscuit” or “sea biscuit” (yes, the famous horse was essentially named after hardtack).
Obviously, sailors from the 13th century had no refrigerators and they had no canned goods of any kind. They had hardtack. This dense survival food (essentially an unrisen hard bread), made from flour, salt, and water, was fantastic at keeping sailors alive and fed on their vessels while they explored the world. It was inexpensive, basically indestructible, and ended up being almost the entirety of the most sailors’ rations. It’s worth noting that sailors would often get scurvy due to a lack of vitamin C (which was resolved with the addition of limes into a sailors diet).
Hardtack isn’t exactly full of vitamins – it’s mostly carbs, and if made with the right kind of flour, contains some fiber and some protein. Hardtack was (and is) calories for survival’s sake, and although it can be the majority of your rations, it shouldn’t be the only thing you eat.
Hardtack continued to be used into the Industrial Age – as it was extremely popular in the American Civil War. In fact, if you’re already familiar with hardtack, it’s probably for this reason – you might have learned about it as a part of learning about the Civil War in school. Hardtack was very useful for soldiers who spent long periods in harsh conditions with almost no food at hand. Even into the early 1900’s, hardtack was used on voyages, expeditions, and in any situation where survival was at stake.
How Effective is Hardtack?
Considering the history of hardtack, it is safe to say that these “ship biscuits” are pretty effective for survival. That being said, there are obvious shortcomings when it comes to eating nothing but hard biscuits made of white flour, water and salt.
Hardtack contains almost no protein. It is full of carbs, but it does not have much else in the nutritional department. There is a good reason why sailors continued to come down with scurvy even if they were eating hardtack and surviving. This food is effective as a means of survival – you don’t eat it for how healthy it is, you eat is because there’s nothing else to eat.
So, exactly how effective is hardtack? To keep your body alive, it is extremely effective. Hardtack will stay good forever, it can keep your energy up, you can make it easily at home, it costs next to nothing to produce, the biscuits are super lightweight and don’t take up a lot of space, and you can even crumble the biscuits and eat them in a variety of different ways.
Hardtack is one of the most effective survival foods today. There is a reason hardtack has made it through the centuries and is still a key ingredient to any survival situation.
You can increase the effectiveness of hardtack as a survival food by supplementing it with small amounts of other foods – foraged wild plants, meat from an animal that has been trapped, hunted, or fished. Basically, in a survival situation, you can think of hardtack as 80%-90% of your diet – with the other 10%-20% coming from other more nutritious sources. In other words, a good batch of hardtack can help you stretch whatever other supplies of survival food you already have by almost 10 times – but hardtack probably shouldn’t be the only thing in your diet unless you’re truly in very extreme circumstances where nothing else is available.
What is the Nutritional Value of Hardtack?
Considering hardtack only has three ingredients (flour, salt, water) and the amount of salt can vary, the nutritional value is pretty basic. You can expect to find roughly 75 to 100 calories in a single piece of hardtack, and almost all of those calories come from the flour. Of this, most of it is carbohydrates, and there’ll be some small amount of protein in there. But that is where a basic piece of hardtack ends for nutrition.
Even if you use a special type of flour (like whole wheat flour) that offers an additional few grams of protein and dietary fiber, you still can’t survive for weeks and months without any other food. Hardtack is great for keeping you alive and getting your body the calories it needs in a survival situation, but it is not a complete diet by any means.
Because of this, it is important to have an additional plan in a survival situation. Hardtack will get you by for a while, but it’s also advisable to have other foods to complement it – canned goods, dried fruit, preserved vegetables, and preserved meat are good places to start. By rationing your “good” food and eating mostly hardtack, you can dramatically increase your survival food supply from days to months.
How Should I Eat Hardtack?
Hardtack gets its name because of how hard it is. The hardness of these biscuits is no joke. Hardtack is so dry and so hard that it can be a nightmare to eat raw. Not only is it difficult to bite, but it is incredibly hard to chew. There is a good reason why some of the nicknames for hardtack are “tooth dullers,” molar breakers,” and “sheet iron.”
One of the biggest problems with eating hardtack hundreds of years ago was that it broke people’s teeth. Take someone already deprived of nutrients, add in the fact that nobody had proper toothpaste or dental hygiene, and then make them chew on rock-like biscuits every day. Naturally, hardtack did some dental damage.
To keep your teeth unbroken, there are some better ways of preparing hardtack for consumption. You definitely want to moisten the hard biscuit as much as possible. In fact, you probably want to moisten it to the point of it being baby food.
You can accomplish this in a few different ways. If you have water, crush your hardtack and sprinkle it into the water to make a porridge-like soup. If you have actual soup, even better. Do the same thing and add the crumbled hardtack to your soup. You can also fry hardtack with oil to create an edible pancake, you can soak your hardtack in beer to make it easier to eat and more palatable, or you can soak your hardtack in coffee, making for an all-around good breakfast.
As a final suggestion, you can treat your hardtack like toast and slather jam, syrup, or honey over it. This will make the hardtack sweet and actually borderline enjoyable to eat. However, you may have a tough time finding jam or honey in a survival situation.
Keep in mind – this isn’t a “gourmet” item. There’s a limit to how good hardtack will taste. It’s not going to taste like any other biscuit or cookie that you’ve had – it’s similar to those things, except it doesn’t include any of the “tasty” ingredients like butter, eggs, sugar, etc – because all those things lead to quicker spoilage. So be warned – even in the best of circumstances, hardtack probably won’t taste good.
How Long Does Hardtack Last?
The short answer is forever. Assuming that you keep your hardtack biscuits in the best possible environment for preservation, they will keep indefinitely. This is due to the lack of moisture. There is not a single drop of moisture inside a hardtack biscuit. If you keep them dry and well preserved, they can theoretically last an eternity.
The only thing that will take away from the shelf life of your hardtack biscuits is adding extra ingredients. If you want hardtack that tastes better or has more nutrients, then you will end up cutting the shelf life in a dramatic way. Adding sugar, butter, or even milk will significantly decrease how long your hardtack will last. It all comes down to how long you want it to be good for.
As a fun fact, the oldest known piece of surviving hardtack is currently placed in the Wentworth Museum in Florida. Supposedly, this historic hardtack was first baked in 1851 as a standard army ration.
Hardtack was extremely popular in the Civil War, and you can even find songs from the Civil war that talk about the soldiers eating hardtack. In fact, hardtack is so synonymous with the Civil War that modern reenactors carry hardtack with them for authenticity.
How Do I Store Hardtack?
If you want your hardtack to survive in a survival shelter or anywhere else for a long period of time, you need to store it properly. If any moisture at all enters your hardtack, it will be compromised. There is a scientific rule called water activity that factors into a lot off the ideas behind food preservation and storage. We won’t go deep into it, except to say that generally, the dryer a food is, the longer it will stay edible. That’s why beef jerky for example stays good longer than fresh beef does. One of the things that allows hardtack to stay safe to eat for so long is its dryness, and anything that compromises this dryness can put it as risk of spoiling.
For this reason, it is highly recommended that you store all of your hardtack in proper storage containers and away from moisture and humidity where possible. Ideally that means airtight containers that don’t let in moisture from the air.
The best options for containers are glass mason jars and metal tins, although tupperware also works. Mason jars will keep your hardtack 100% safe from moisture and are much better for storage than plastic bags or zip lock bags. If you don’t have any mason jars or metal tins, vacuum-sealed bags are the next best choice. You really just want to keep air and moisture out.
What’s the Difference Between Homemade Hardtack and Store-Bought Hardtack?
Survivalists tend to make their hardtack out of the three main ingredients – salt, water, and flour. As a survivalist, you typically don’t care as much about flavor as you do about surviving. The more ingredients you add to hardtack, the more you slash its shelf life. (You can learn more about exactly what survivalism is here)
The main difference between homemade hardtack and the kind of hardtack you’ll buy in the store is what ingredients go into it. Commercial hardtack is going to often contain oil, butter, sugar, and even honey and spice. All of these ingredients cause the hardtack’s longevity to drastically decline.
Commercial hardtack is made more like a snack biscuit than a survival tool. They are made to be tastier and are not made for prolonged storage. Anything that contains butter or oil is going to spoil extremely quickly without proper refrigeration.
If you want survival biscuits that will last a lifetime in your survival bunker or safely stowed in your bug-out bag, I highly recommend not buying hardtack from the store and only making it yourself with its three main ingredients.
How Do I Make Hardtack?
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes
Total Calories: 1450
Servings: Creates 20 servings of 72.5 calories each, total 1450 calories.
- 1 cup water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2.5 cups of flour
It’s time to make your hardtack. This will take you no more than an afternoon of baking, and you will be left with a massive supply of hardtack that will last you for many years to come if you store it properly. All you need is 1 cup of water, 1 teaspoon of salt, and 2.5 cups of flour. If you wish to make a bigger batch, simply double up on the ingredients. For materials, just gather a big mixing bowl, a rolling pin, and a cookie sheet.
In terms of what flour to use, it doesn’t really matter. Whole wheat flour works amazingly for everyone, gluten-free flour will also work, and so will rye flour for people who are allergic to wheat. We like whole wheat for its fiber and protein content. It makes the hardtack a little bit more nutritious, and it tastes pretty bad either way so we’re not really concerned about the flavor.
Step 1: Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F. Start by mixing the flour and salt in your large mixing bowl. Once the salt and flour are mixed well, you can add water in small amounts while continuing to mix. You can mix your dough by hand or with a standard mixer.
Keep in mind that hardtack dough is super sticky at first, so you may want to remove any jewelry on your hands. Keep mixing until all your water is gone and you have a uniform dough. If your dough is still extremely sticky after you’ve been kneading and mixing it for a few minutes, add a little more flour.
Knead your dough until you have formed a solid ball. Dust a small area with flour and then place the dough ball in the center.
Step 2: Roll out your dough until it is roughly ¼” or ½” thick, then place your flattened dough on the cookie sheet and cut the dough into your desired serving portions. I suggest cutting the dough into small pieces the size of a normal cracker. You should get roughly 16 square pieces of hardtack from this method.
Step 3: Now you want to poke holes into each of your pieces of hardtack, just like you see in normal crackers. Try to make roughly 9 holes evenly spaced apart (or as many as seems appropriate). This will help each of your biscuits to bake consistently.
Also, poking these holes allows extra moisture to escape and prevents the dough from rising while it is in the oven. The holes also make it easier in the future for you to break apart the cracker and eat it.
Step 4: Bake your hardtack biscuits for between 25 and 35 minutes at approximately 375 degrees. You want to bake your hardtack until it turns light tan. You don’t want your crackers to be dark brown at all.
Remove them from the oven once they are the right shade of tan and then let them cool for a long time. You want them to be completely cool before you store them to ensure all the moisture has been removed from the biscuits.
Extra Tips: You may want to try a few different batches to make sure you get it right. If you are preparing a survival shelter, it is worth it to experiment a few times to make sure your crackers are perfect and free of moisture.
Try putting your first few batches in clear mason jars and then checking them a few months down the road to make sure they are not spoiling.
How to Make Hardtack: Final Thoughts
Hardtack is a great shelf stable, long term food source to have in any shelter or survival kit. Hardtack can keep you alive in dire situations and is excellent because of its incredible longevity. However, your body requires more nutrients than hardtack has to offer, but if you use it as a staple food, you can stretch out your supply of other more nutritious foods much longer. You still need protein and vitamins, and so hardtack cannot support you forever.
We also highly recommend looking into something called pemmican, which is a different type of long-lasting shelf stable food that contains loads of protein and will survive a lifetime without being refrigerated.
How to make pemmican (article)
With a survival shelter stocked with both hardtack and pemmican, you can dramatically increase your chances of survival in long-term situations.