Adventures with Ship’s Biscuit (aka Hard Tack)

Posted By on May 16, 2012

Ah, hard tack. The mere name evokes thoughts of broken teeth, weevils, and mold. Mm. Just like mother used to make. We were therefore pleasantly surprised to discover if made correctly, it makes a tolerable snack (if you’re hungry enough) and – this is its true vocation, I believe – amazing dumplings. We learned this a couple of years ago at the Burning of Kingston reenactment in Kingston, New York. This event takes place in October, and the weather is frequently chilly. This was the case in 2009, when it alternately rained and snowed all weekend. Crewman Brian had brought along some of his homemade ship’s biscuit. It proved far too hard to eat on its own. I was reduced to hitting it with the reverse of a hatchet on our shore camp’s splitting log, to the amused amazement of a passing British Army reenactor, who exclaimed in appreciation of how tough we Navy folks were. Eventually, I put the fractured biscuits into our cauldron with its mixture of sausage and root vegetables. The end result was delicious, and not only because we were freezing. That soup inspired all of us to try our hands at versions of the standard hard tack recipe.

The stew that saved us, Kingston 2009.

Ekk and I are currently gearing up for the 2012 reenacting season. We’ve spent a couple of nights experimenting with the recipe for the ship’s biscuit this summer. Our basic recipe came from William Falconer’s description of biscuit and its production from his 1769 work A New Universal Dictionary of the Marine. We modified it a bit to test the difference between a whole wheat version and a white flour version.

Ship’s biscuit is simple: flour and water, kneaded into a stiff dough, shaped into round cakes, pricked all over (we used a convenient marlinspike), and baked until hard and dry. Some redactions add salt, but salt attracts water which then encourages mold. We experimented with entirely whole wheat flour, entirely white flour, and a half-and-half mixture of the two.

Ship's biscuit. Whole-wheat on the left, white flour on the right.

The white version was extremely hard, but unpredictable. Some of the white biscuits split perfectly down the middle like a Vermont common cracker, while others revealed an almost glossy brittle interior. My oven probably doesn’t heat evenly. The whole wheat version came out somewhat softer, but took forever to dry. They seemed to rise a bit in the oven. Both of the above biscuits were cut with the same tool (a tuna can, okay), but the size difference is dramatic. The half-and-half versions were the best of both worlds – they split relatively well and are the most palatable of the two.

No weevils have appeared yet. We’ll keep you posted.

About the author

I’m a museum professional with an MA in Museum Studies and Atlantic History. A lot of my research has been in colonial and maritime history, as well as material culture of the 16th – 19th centuries. I’ve held a lot of weird jobs covering everything from beekeeper to tall ship deckhand. I currently live with my partner on the Canadian border in Vermont.

Comments

4 Responses to “Adventures with Ship’s Biscuit (aka Hard Tack)”

  1. Elias says:

    Hey…
    I’ve made use of similar recipes, Baking once in a hot oven and then again at 250 for a long time seems to be the most consistent.
    Twice baking is, after all why it is called “biscuit”
    White only flour should probably be rolled thinner and cooked faster, more like crackers.
    It would be “Officers biscuit” after all (at least before the idegerming process made the industrial processing of flour possible in the 19th century) since refined and bolted flour would be more expensive. I’ve found thinner cakes have better consistency, between 1/8 and 3/16 in thickness works well.
    According to some Tudor era sources I’ve read ( admiralty complaints about the biscuit ) other, cheaper, flours would be mixed in, as the bakeries would use up the ends of bags of what they had on hand, and tossing in some rye or barley changes the texture a bit. IIRC they complained about oats and pulses being mixed in too.

  2. Brian says:

    The most successful version I’ve made was using the recipe from the HMMS Richmond. These were the ones that made the fine dumplings.

    The LEAST successful one was using the recipe from the Royal Naval Museum. 420 degrees F was what caused the biscuits to crystallize. They shattered if you looked at them wrong. Again, they tasted lovely, but didn’t keep intact.

    I also tried white and wheat and most recently, White Whole Wheat Flour. Well… It tastes great. The flour makes awesome bread, but the ships biscuit just wasn’t right. Regular white flour worked the best of these, but I think for my next batch I’ll try the mix of white and wheat flours.

    I’m thinking we’ll be eating even more like sailors this season……

  3. Sarah says:

    I’m making another batch today. Gonna try your suggestions, Elias.

  4. […] posted before about my adventures and misadventures in making ship’s biscuit or hardtack, and in cooking with it. I’ve made it a bunch of times but never seem to get it […]

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