Five Letters Re: Hardtack

Dear Editor,

When I was in college we had a history class which we re-enacted the civil war battle at Pea Ridge, Arkansas. We actually dressed in period clothing and ate food the solders would eat. Hard tack was one on the meals we had. Another staple was beans, I found if you put the hard tack down and had the beans on top it was a little easier to eat. If this was all I had to eat I would go looking for something better for supper. FYI the hard tack works well as a hammer. – K.

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Hello Hugh,

Glad to have you as part of SB. Regarding the recent post about hardtack, I have some experience here having made several batches over the years. Original, old time hardtack was said to be tough enough, yet not brittle, that when thrown against a brick wall would chip at the edges, but not shatter. It was essentially never eaten alone, as it would break the teeth of those attempting such a feat. This was not a good idea in a time when dentists were few and far between. Rather, the hardtack would be soaked in coffee or soup or gruel or grease and fat of salt port to allow it to soften somewhat. Breaking it into smaller pieces with the help of the butt of a rifle or hammer helps. Sounds great doesn’t it? But it does do some things well, and that is why it persists. It lasts. I have some left over in my cellar that I made 3 or 4 years ago, with no sign of going bad or mold or off flavors or discoloration. Some of it was stored in mason jars, some in ziplock baggies, and some wrapped in newspaper, just to see what effect each storage method had. The difference in effect was negligible. That said, when I did a side by side taste test with the 4 year old hard tack verses some fresh stock I made the other day, the fresh was definitely better. To make it, simply grind wheat berries into flour, add enough water to make a dough that doesn’t stick to your fingers, roll it out until half an inch thick, cut into squares (or rectangles, whatever), pierce with knife or fork several times each to aid the air circulation as they dry. And I do mean dry, rather than bake. Place them in the oven at about 250-275 for half an hour or so, then flip them over and repeat for another half hour. Then take them out of the oven to cool. Then back in for another 45 minutes to an hour, or even longer if your dough was quite wet when you started. This slow cooking is the secret to hardtack that passes the durable-but-not-shattering test. I got in a hurry once and turned the heat up to 300 for awhile, and while it gave a nice toasted appearance to the hard tack, it made it much more brittle. Many modern recipes will call for salt, sugar, lard, milk, butter, and all sorts of other things. While these no doubt improve the taste and nutrition content of the hardtack, they take away from the shelf life and durability, which is the main thing hardtack has going for it in the first place. If you wanted it to taste good, pack snickers bars instead! (Emphasis added by HJL) Salt and sugar attract moisture; lard, butter, and milk increase rancidity. I’ve only ever made it with fresh ground whole wheat, so can’t speak to white vs wheat. I figured all hard tack was from fresh ground whole wheat, back in the day. If other readers have different experience, I’d be glad to learn from them. Cheers, – J.

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HJL:

Hard Tack has always been made with wheat flour. The generalized process of grinding wheat grain often includes sifting which removes the chaff (bran). This process makes wheat flour appear whiter than it would be if simply grinding the wheat berries into a coarse wheat flour.

Since early times, milling has been a process of separating the outer wheat bran and wheat germ from the inner endosperm portion of the wheat berries. Through mechanization in the 19th Century, though, the process became more streamlined. New equipment was introduced into the process which refined flour milling. Sifters, bran dusters, and even middlings purifiers all contributed to the industrialization of the variety of mills. A technique adapted from Europe, called “the New Process” also helped American mills achieve a better and more refined flour. Through these processes, the commercialized wheat flours became finer, lighter in color, and more desirable by most. Then came the bleaching process and additions of nutrients to enrich the final flour product. Rather ironic that now there are so many of us prefer freshly ground whole wheat flour. – LynnS

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Dear Mr. Latimer,

In just reading the post concerning Hard Tack I wanted to share with you the following web site dedicated to hard tack. I have not yet attempted any of these recipes but the post got me thinking about it again and I plan to give it a good test! – M.B.

HJL Adds: S.V. also sent in the link to this web site.

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Some Discussion:

Lembas was made with Elven magic by the Lady herself. Without that – no lembas.

Below is the hardtack recipe I use and my results. The recipe was derived from a Civil War recipe drawn from a no longer there re-enacting web site. At 8 years old (stored as noted below) didn’t make anyone sick. I’m not sure if it did nourish anyone. Any fat in it can eventually go rancid, any seasons can eventually go stale.

Finding weevils in the hardtack was fairly common so I doubt that the small amount of fat going rancid would matter. Hungry is hungry.

HARDTACK

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees

Ingredients:
2 1/2 cups flour
6 tsp. Salt
3/4 cup water

Dry mix the ingredients.

Add the water and knead the dough. Dough should not be sticky.

Roll out to an even thickness. I use a shallow sided cookie pan. The shallow sides control the thickness

Cut to shape. Poke three rows of holds with a fork.

Place in the oven for about 1/2 hour or until just golden.

Makes 10-12 biscuits.

To cook them really thoroughly, set them aside for a day, then cook them at 225 degrees for 30-45 more minutes. The second baking will remove any “sweat” and really dry the biscuit. This is important.

I took my original recipe from a civil war reenacting webpage (it’s not there anymore) and experimented. The recipe listed above is what I wound up with. I first made a double batch then put them in 1 gallon Ziploc baggies and put the baggies on the guest Bedroom closet shelf. All food trials included a bowl of hot chicken bouillon for dipping/soaking. One week later I tried one and I’d hate to have to live on them. Two weeks later I had the same result. I continued to test them at one month, six months, one year, 18 months, two years, 2-1/2 years, 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8 years with the same result. I gave one to a friend’s step-son – a reenactor, and he liked it so I gave what was left to him. Apparently they were a hit at the reenaction. I have made a batch or two since then.

If you’re going to consume them in a month or so – bake up a batch with whatever is in it and try it. The water/salt/flour recipe is the standard. – W.B.

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