What exactly was hardtack? I get this question hundreds of times during a season at the National Oregon/California Trail Center in Montpelier.
Most folks think it is a hard candy you used to get in your stocking years ago. Well...No. Hardtack is a staple survival food that dates back to Roman times. It is a simple biscuit made with flour, water and a pinch of salt. It is then repeatedly baked to suck out as much moisture as possible to prevent spoilage.
Some of the troops in the Civil War were given hardtack from the Mexican War which was at least fifteen years prior to the Civil War!
When repeatedly baked to remove moisture this made the hardtack extremely tough and rubbery. Soldiers had to soak the hardtack in coffee or water before eating. It wasn't an enjoyable experience unless, someone with cooking knowledge would soak the hardtack in broth and serve with a stew.
Why was hardtack a staple for travelers and soldiers? Many people and armies had limited resources and funds. Fresher foods with more ingredients would spoil without refrigeration. The main purpose was to fill the belly while using the least amount of resources and money.
What did it taste like? As stated before it was often rubbery in texture and very bland in flavor. Do you think you could have survived on hardtack? Which brings up the next question, how long could you survive just eating hard tack. The answer is about three months. Why three months? Most journeys across the ocean whether sailing journeys, or military forays averaged three months.
Can you purchase hardtack today? Yes, as of 2015 98% of the hardtack is sold to Alaskans. Hardtack is great for dry food storage and survival. Many Civil War re-enactors still purchase it.
I acquainted with a family that loves to go on river rafting trips. When they heard of what we do at the trail center they offered me a modern, (and much more tasty) version of modern hard tack. They claimed this recipe would not go bad for some time. So naturally I made a batch and kept two back just to see how long before mold set in! We had these pieces on the kitchen counter for over six months and no sign of spoilage! They were hard as bricks but this recipe stayed soft for at least one month!!
Here is the recipe:
11/2 Cups white flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour or 9 grain cereal
1/2 cup lightly packed brown sugar
1/4 cup oatmeal (dry and whole oats, not the quick cook kind)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup buttermilk
Mix all dry ingredients together. Cut in butter and add buttermilk. Mix well. Roll thin on floured board and cut into 3x3 inch pieces. Place them on a cookie sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes at 350 degrees.