While working cattle at my in-laws’ ranch recently I caught myself dreaming about the past, running through a checklist of things I take for granted that George – the ranch’s founder who grew up in the 1930s — never had the chance to enjoy as a kid in his small house.
The one thing I kept circling back to was food. I thought about my refrigerator at home, packed with juices, meat, cheese, fruit and everything else the average fridge contains. I imagined how my diet would change if one day somebody disconnected the fridge for good. Not only would it cause some storage problems, but it would drastically alter what foods I actually ate.
These dilemmas were an everyday reality for people of George’s day. Folks today often cite canning as the way our ancestors preserved food. It is true the generations of the late 19th and entire 20th century put excess food away by canning. But canning has only been around for a little over 200 years. How did people preserve food prior to that?
The answer is through a variety of methods. Many foods were dehydrated or salted to extend their shelf life. One food that people, especially explorers, found especially useful was hardtack. It seemingly lasted forever.
Hardtack refers to a type of biscuit or cracker that can last an extraordinary length of time. This bread is made with very little water, no yeast, and will keep in storage for years if kept dry. Hardtack’s ability to stay in storage for years without spoiling or molding was probably its greatest attribute. It is also lightweight, nearly indestructible, and contains an abundance of carbohydrates which makes it ideal for a person on the move.
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Hardtack is one of the oldest known foods we have. If you sit down and enjoy a piece, you’ll be sharing the same cuisine feasted on by Roman legionaries, Egyptian sailors and crusaders — just to name a few. Known around the world by different names, the title of “hardtack” became well-used by the early 1800s. Patriot fighters during the Revolutionary War, pioneers and frontiersmen such as Daniel Boone, and mountain men like Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith would have known the unyielding strength of a hardtack biscuit. In fact, the food was so common to the mountain men they simply referred to it as a “biscuit” rather than differentiating between it and the softer textured bread we know today. In the past, hardtack was generally enjoyed after dipping it in coffee or soup to moisten and soften the bread. In many circumstances I’m sure they were happy to have something to eat.
Making hardtack is extremely easy and only takes a few minutes. If you’ve ever thought about making hardtack, want to get a better feel for what table fare in the past would have been like, or are intrigued by foods that can last indefinitely, give this recipe a try.
This recipe is one I got my hands on after browsing the book Wildwood Wisdom by Ellsworth Jaeger. Jaeger was a very experienced woodsman who put the book together after a life spent learning skills we would dub today as bushcraft. His four ingredients are as follows:
- 5 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
In the book the entire recipe reads as such:
Mix the dry ingredients, and then add just enough water to make a stiff dough. Roll out the dough to about ¼-inch thickness and cut it into sections. Bake them in a greased pan until the hardtack is bone-dry.
That is the entire recipe for making hardtack. Jaeger doesn’t divulge cooking time in his recipe, but I can attest it will take around 1 hour and 10 minutes to cook at 375 degrees Fahrenheit. If you have your oven preheated, it will help. Simply put the rolled and cut dough into the oven for 35 minutes. After 35 minutes, you can flip the pieces for another 35 minutes. When you pull it out of the oven, you’ll likely be surprised how incredibly hard this stuff is. If you choose to use this recipe, there is one thing to note. The sugar in the recipe should be considered an optional ingredient. By adding sugar to the mix, you decrease the shelf life of the product, since sugar does not store as well. If you leave out the sugar, then you are left with three ingredients:
- 5 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
I’m not entirely sure why Jaeger included sugar in this recipe, other than it was probably a recipe he had personally used before. Anyone looking to preserve their hardtack for an extremely long time should avoid using sugar.
Hardtack is a food everyone interested in history, camping or survival should know how to make. It is extremely simple and only takes a few minutes of preparation. Once you have made a batch, it can keep for years at a time and provide you with the energy you need to keep moving forward. It also can offer a glimpse into the lives of those shadowy figures who came before us and struggled to build the world we know today. I’d encourage you to take a few minutes to prepare yourself some of the indestructible camp bread known as hardtack.
People really should avert their gaze from the modern survival thinking for just a bit and also look at how the guys who wandered the west 150 or so years ago did it.
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