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History Cookbook: Hardtack (Ships Biscuits)

This recipe is in category Tudors
About this recipe
Healthiness : (290 votes)
Comments: Take care when removing the biscuits from the oven - let them cool before moving them to a tray.
Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 30-40 minutes
Number of servings: 16 biscuits
Serving suggestions: You'd be better off with digestives or shortbread!

The name hardtack refers to the iron hard biscuits that were stored on ships during the Tudor and later periods. They were a staple part of the diet. They were made from a simple unleavened mixture of flour, water and salt, rolled out thinly and baked slowly until very hard and dry. We have added milk instead of water to our biscuits, and a little buitter, to make them more edible.

If cooked slowly, these biscuits are a challenge for even the healthiest of teeth. The sailors must have softened them in some liquid to be able to eat them. Cooked properly, they are hard not brittle and no good for dunking in tea as they are still rock hard afterwards.

However, in former times, maybe the maggots helped to break them down. As voyages progressed, the food would become infested with worms, maggots and other creatures. Ferdinand Columbus, describing one of his father’s voyages, wrote:

"Food had become so wormy that sailors waited to dark to eat … so they could not see the maggots."
The original ingredients for hard Tack:
  • 1 lb flour
  • 1/2 pint water
  • 1/2 tablespoon sea salt

Optional to suit more modern tastes:

  • 2 oz butter (This was not used in the original recipe, but it will makes the biscuits easiert to eat. You can leave it out if you wish but the biscuits will be very hard). 
  • Use 1/2 pint skimmed milk insted of water.
  • Weighing scales
  • Measuring jug
  • Mixing bowl
  • Saucepan
  • Sieve
  • Rolling pin
  • Cup
  • Baking tray
  • Wire tray
Making and cooking it
Always wash your hands before preparing food Always wash your hands before preparing food.

  1. Measure out the flour and place in a mixing bowl
  2. Measure out the milk and butter and place in a saucepan
  3. Melt the butter in the milk over a very low heat
  4. Add the sea salt to the flour and mix
  5. Add the milk and butter then the flour and mix until you have a dough, kneading the dough until all the flour is absorbed (it should be a thick, shiny, stiff mix)
  6. Roll the dough out until fairly thin
  7. Cut the biscuit shapes using a cup rim
  8. Place on a baking tray and prick all over to let out any air when cooking
  9. Bake slowly at only a moderate heat  (A moderate heat is 350°C, 177°°F, Gas 4 )until golden brown (30-40 minutes - the time will depend on thickness of the biscuits). The biscuits should be dry right through or they might go mouldy when you take them to sea.
  10. Turn off the oven and leave to cool. Store in a dry place until needed.
Hardtack (Ships Biscuits) - print view  Hardtack (Ships Biscuits) - print view

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Name: Rhandolph 6th September 2014
These biscuits were commonly carried by soldiers and pioneers as well, until the invention of tinned foods they were the longest lasting foodstuff. The word Biscuit comes from the French for twice-cooked, all moisture had to be baked out of them and so they were usually cooked twice or more on a low/moderate heat. Another way to eat them was to crush/smash them up and use them as a base for a kind of porridge. I am a Napoleonic re-enactor and intend to bake a load for next year!
Name: Gerry N. 13th August 2014
Hardtack or Ship's Bisquit was not round, but squarish with 9-15 holes punched in a pattern. There should also be a larger hole in a corner for stringing on a thong to hang te bisquits up for storage. They were never intended to be eaten out of hand, but broken up (thus the holes) and put in soup, stew, coffee or tea to make them edible. They were also called "Portable Flour" as the salt made them a bit more resistant to vermin. They actually taste a bit less than horrible.
Name: Mark 25th July 2014
Before people get too carried away with thoughts of sailors gnawing on maggoty biscuits it's worth pointing out that back in the days of sail the vast majority of voyages never lost sight of land. Trans-oceanic voyages were very much the exception and generally speaking sailors ate at least as well as those on land often a hell of a lot better.

Food preservation wasn't just an issue at sea and much of the food of the day was dried, pickled or salted.
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