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How to Make Hardtack: A Cracker That Will Last A Century

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How to Make Hardtack: A Cracker That Will Last a CenturyOne of the first articles I published on this site was called 15 Foods That Last Forever, and one of the items on that list is hardtack. Ever since then, the most common question about that article is: “What is hardtack and how do I make it?”

Basically, hardtack is a hard cracker made from flour, salt, and water. The great thing about hardtack is that as long as you store it properly, it will last for decades—maybe longer. It will even last through temperature extremes.

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Because it’s inexpensive to make and lasts so long, it was once taken on long sea voyages and was called pilot bread, cabin bread, ship biscuit, sea biscuit, or sea bread. It was also carried by soldiers on long military campaigns and was referred to as tooth dullers, molar breakers, or sheet iron.

I know that sounds bad, but it’s easier to eat when soaked in coffee, crumbled into soup, or fried with other foods. It was particularly popular among soldiers during the American Civil War, and to this day Civil War reenactors still make and carry hardtack with them.

Some hardtack recipes include sugar, milk or butter, but that will significantly shorten the shelf life, so I recommend making it the traditional way. It won’t taste as good, but the whole point of this is to have some food that will last a long time without going bad.

Here’s what you need:

  • 3 cups of white flour
  • 2 teaspoons of salt
  • 1 cup of water
  • A cookie sheet
  • A mixing bowl
  • A knife
  • A common nail

Hardtack Ingredients

Here’s how to make hardtack:

1. First, you’ll need to preheat your oven to 375°.

2. Mix the flour and salt together in a bowl.

Flour and Salt

3. Gradually mix in the water until you form a dough that doesn’t stick to your hands. It will be very sticky at first, but just keep forming it and shaping it until it’s not too sticky.

Ball of Dough

4. Next, you’ll need to use a rolling pin to flatten the dough into a square. Make sure it’s no more than half an inch thick or it won’t bake well.

Dough Under Rolling Pin

5. Now carefully cut the dough into 9 squares.

Sliced Dough

6. Using the nail, make a grid of holes in each of the squares.

Holes in Dough

7. Put all the pieces on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake them for 30 minutes.

Hardtack Baking

8. Now turn the squares over and bake for another 30 minutes.

Hardtack Flipped Over

9. Remove them from the oven and let them cool off. They should look something like this.

Baked Hardtack

Ideally, the hardtack should be just a little brown on each side. Every oven is different and every climate has an effect on baking time, so keep a close eye on them the first time you bake them. You don’t want to burn your first batch.

Adjust the baking time if necessary. Once it’s cool, it should almost be hard as a rock (although you can try to munch on them raw, I recommend dipping them in soup or coffee or something hot). Each piece is about 150 calories.

Hardtack Up Close

As I said, the great thing about hardtack is it lasts for years without any special storage techniques. I would put it in Ziploc bags and add it to your food cache, bug out bags, and vehicle survival kits. It makes a great source of energy in emergency situations. And if you don’t like how hard it is, smash it up and mix with other foods.

Another option is to heat up the pieces and put things like butter, jelly, peanut butter, syrup, and other toppings on them. I’ve done this myself and it makes a great breakfast. My kids like it with honey or applesauce. The possibilities are endless!

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95 Comments

  1. Elbert Jones on September 14, 2020 at 9:35 am

    When was the last time you heard of people willingly wanting to eat Hardtack? Who’d want to eat something you could probably use for shotgun pellets? Let’s see you try to get a 6 year old to eat it.Outside of Alaska; where would anyone willingly want to eat it. Even the U.S. military stopped eating it.
    What will you do if you do not have something to soak it in to soften it up?

  2. Elbert Jones on September 14, 2020 at 1:32 am

    I’d love to make a bet with a “macho” prepper. have them try eating a properly baked piece of hardtack with out soaking it first.

  3. David on July 28, 2020 at 9:45 pm

    May i ask if 375 stand for Celsius or Fahrenheit?

  4. Katherin on March 20, 2020 at 7:51 am

    Can you use almond flour? I have celiac.

    • Alan on March 20, 2020 at 10:36 am

      I’ve never tried, but I would think so. Only thing is, the shelf life will probably be a lot shorter.

  5. Rick Palmer on March 18, 2020 at 12:42 pm

    I always thought that a “CRACKER” that lasted a long time was George Wallace .?
    If you’re under 30 you won’t get it .

  6. gcaverly on March 18, 2020 at 9:17 am

    The important thing in any survival situation is the KISS principle. Don’t make it or think it and thus make it complex. Try the oven or the camp fire or how about a microwave or a propane torch. Anything that has a good heat source to cook it. Over thinking creates over doing and thus your not overcoming your problem(s) your prolonging them. Its what’s inside, aka the brain and what’s outside, aka the environment you have to work (actions). Be prepared.

  7. Renee A. Nichols on March 17, 2020 at 9:00 pm

    I live in New Mexico. If you live in an area that has Mesquite, you can grind the whole mesquite bean into a flour (the Native Americans did this) and use 1/2 mesquite bean flour in the recipe. (They used just mesquite bean flour.)They used to use the dough to line their food storage baskets. And when food ran out in the winter, they survived on it along with winter meat. Its very sweet so I dont know if you would want to add any sugar. Mesquite bean flour is very good in breads too!! Just use 1/2 mesquite bean flour and 1/2 bread flour in your bread recipe.

  8. Elaine C Skytta on March 17, 2020 at 12:06 pm

    Can I use corn meal instead of the flour? I am allergic to wheat.
    Would it last as long?

    • Alan on March 17, 2020 at 1:04 pm

      Cornmeal doesn’t have as near as long a shelf life, so I wouldn’t think so.

  9. gcaverly on October 2, 2019 at 9:09 am

    Times change and we change with the times. The goal is to make it out of whats available and practical.
    As for peanut butter and rancid, peanut butter lasts a long time. Any food product can over a period of time / long time can go bad. That’s why we always keep up the pace as to what food products we have to work with and are easily available. Remember Occam’s Razor.

  10. Chrisj on September 29, 2019 at 10:32 am

    My husband and I were Civil War re-enactors for 15 years and decided to hone our impression. LOL We made a recipe of hardtack. In our experimenting, we found a new use for our biscuits. When baked and prepared correctly, they made great replacement plates for your plate carrier. Seriously, we had to use a hammer to break it up. We finally ended up grinding it back into flour and using it to thicken stew and such at mealtimes. It would be a great hands-on activity for kids as it involves no fancy instructions or cooking techniques.

  11. Marine on March 24, 2019 at 5:52 pm

    I am constantly out in the Arizona desert. I rely on hard tack greatly. I have a bunch stored up but it’s great when it’s 100+. Hard rack replaces salt and other nutrients needed after sweating all day. It’s very reliable. And definitely field tested. Semper Fi

  12. Linda on March 13, 2019 at 4:37 pm

    If you’re going to Alaska, just ask in any grocery store for the sailor boy pilot bread. It’s made in Seattle but 98% of it is sold in Alaska. I found it once on the Olympic Peninsula too. You’d be hard pressed to find an Alaska Natives’ house that doesn’t have pilot bread. Hard tack by the box.

  13. Jeanine Gaffney on March 12, 2019 at 10:49 pm

    Would adding carrot powder or other vegetable powders (other than garlic or onion) shorten the shelf life of hardtack?

    • Caleb on March 18, 2020 at 11:41 pm

      I would believe so

  14. Mike on January 31, 2019 at 3:55 pm

    Can I add herbs (basil, oregano) for flavor without affecting the lifespan?

    • Alan on February 1, 2019 at 5:18 am

      It can reduce the shelf life some, but to counteract that, you could vacuum seal it and it should still last years.

      • Mark Gardner on August 29, 2019 at 9:28 am

        A tiny bit of cinnamon will add a nice flavor and as a bonus, no bugs! Most insects are repelled by the spice and it doesn’t shorten the shelf life…

  15. dysin on January 24, 2019 at 6:11 pm

    can you use bleached flour

    • Alan on January 25, 2019 at 5:32 am

      I don’t see why not.

      • Joshua L Carper on April 15, 2020 at 1:47 am

        I actually made a batch with bleached flour and bisquick lately, we’ll see how it holds up

  16. Kathy J on January 4, 2019 at 5:08 pm

    Hardtack has a shelf life of 100 yrs! Yes, that’s what i said. You can grind it up into flour again if you want to. Basically, it was used as a safe way to keep flour, without having the powder version to deal with while you traveled like in the wagon-train days. After all, it is only flour, some salt and water, dehydrated. It was also easy to tuck into small places instead of one huge sack taking up a lot of room in one place. Perhaps the salt kept the bugs out as well. I know bags of flour had a problem with weevils.

  17. Craig Smith on January 2, 2019 at 9:31 am

    What makes hardtack so undesirable is the fact that it is rock hard, dense, no air inside. A leavening ingredient like baking powder would resolve that, wouldn’t it? Baking powder is primarily Cornstarch, a ‘forever’ food product, and sodium bicarbonate. So my question is; does baking powder help, and keep just as long?

    • Aj on May 22, 2019 at 8:00 pm

      Baking powder wasnt a common item in the 18-19th centuries, water and flour was easy, little salt if you had it.

  18. Mike on July 15, 2018 at 9:50 am

    In his excellent autobiographical book “Hardtack and Coffee”, John D. Billings commented on using hardtack in “skillygalee” and “lobscouse”. “Lobscouse” sounded like beef stew or beef soup with hardtack added and “skillygalee” just sounded disgusting. (Billing’ book was written about his service in the “Federal Army” (US Army) during the Civil War.)

    Do you have any page featuring either of these two “delicacies?

  19. Lisa on February 24, 2018 at 7:28 am

    Lol so I am making this in my kitchen with the bare essentials that most kitchens have and I should go out to the garage to get a nail to make the holes? Not a knife or fork that are inches from my grasp but a nail in my garage that is not made with food grade materials and will probably have a toxic coating that will need to be scrubbed off? Just saying, kinda funny, lol.

    • Alan on February 24, 2018 at 9:24 am

      Ha! Yea, but with a fork it’s harder to get just one hole and with a knife it doesn’t make a perfectly round hole. Maybe an ice pick? Or maybe just some toothpick?

    • Dakota on February 24, 2018 at 2:38 pm

      I bought skewers because they’re a little bigger than toothpicks and don’t break easily.

      • Doug on September 11, 2018 at 3:25 am

        A wooden golf tee works great

        • Steve on July 11, 2020 at 5:37 pm

          Two problems using golf tees. One is that nearly all golf tees are painted, and if it was possibly used for golf, the golf tee would likely have fertilizer on it from the turf. Too dangerous to use either tee. A toothpick or fork should serve you just fine.

    • Joey on March 25, 2019 at 8:44 pm

      I used a meat thermometer

    • Ernie on October 1, 2019 at 10:08 pm

      You’e kidding right? Its a tried and true method that has been around for hundreds of years and you worry about “food grade materials”? The baking process alone will negate any contaminants and any “toxic substance” on the nail such as lacquer will be vaporized if any at all is present on the nail. Seems like you might just want to stick to getting a bag of Oreos at the supermarket if tried and true historical methods offend anyone’s yuppie predilections. Happy eating.

  20. Dakota on February 7, 2018 at 4:10 pm

    If I was trying to store this for awhile and just put it away, if I used Mylar bags should I use an oxygen absorber or no? Thanks

    • Alan on February 7, 2018 at 5:51 pm

      It should last for years regardless, but an O2 absorber or two can’t hurt.

      • Dakota on February 7, 2018 at 5:53 pm

        Ok cool. I appreciate the response!

  21. Larry B on February 6, 2018 at 7:29 pm

    I wonder if adding a sprinkle of broth/soup base or bullion would effect the storage life? They would add excellent flavor to the hardtack.

    • Matt on November 25, 2018 at 10:58 pm

      I’ve read a decent amount about hardtack. Don’t add broth or soup base to the hardtack, or it will not last as long (if you want to understand more about that fact, read about salt, osmosis vs reverse-osmosis). Anyhow, add salt, broth, or whatever to the product when you want to actually cook it and consume it, but not when you are making it for storage.

  22. Grace S. Potts on December 28, 2017 at 5:43 pm

    I’m assuming this is plain flour, not self-rising?

    • Alan on December 29, 2017 at 7:34 am

      Correct.

  23. Cathy on August 8, 2017 at 2:34 pm

    What about adding spices like cumin, italian seasoning, sage or even chili powder?

    • tomtrk on January 4, 2018 at 10:11 am

      Absolutely that sounds deliteful Perhaps you can bake us a pie as well before we come to steal your food.

      • Rousseau on January 6, 2018 at 11:34 pm

        Can’t tell if tomtrk is joking but that’s hilarious.

        Cathy – lots of spices have preservative properties that protect foods from spoilage in hot weather. Think of the all the spice in foods from India, South America, China, Africa. Spices with good flavors also add incentive to keep eating food even if it’s hard and bland.

        So I think you’re on to something.

      • Kane Shepard on January 12, 2018 at 1:18 am

        tomtrk, stop LARPing

  24. Katnik on November 8, 2016 at 11:08 am

    Is this what the Bible calls unleavened bread ?

    • J.D. on January 5, 2017 at 12:07 am

      The Old Testament is the Jewish Torah, so if you’re asking about that, then “unleavened bread” is Matzoh: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matzo You can usually find it in the grocery store around Easter (Passover) time. If you live near a Jewish/kosher bakery, they might offer it at more times a year.

      • Onefeather on January 11, 2017 at 7:56 pm

        Unleavened bread does not have yeast in it and is softer than hardtack. So the bread does not rise like it would if you were making normal bread or biscuit.

        • Rosemary C Mills on July 5, 2018 at 9:21 pm

          Matzah bread is: 1 cup flour, 1 tsp olive oil, and 1/3 cup warm water. (no salt) Knead into smooth ball, divide dough into 8 fairly equal pieces, roll thin to about 6 inches diameter, pierce with fork many times -and bake at 425 degrees for 3 min. on one side and 2 minutes on the other side. You can eat them like crackers with butter and salt on them, or use them for Communion for yourself or for your church.

  25. Calisto01 on October 11, 2016 at 1:01 am

    I would leave the salt out altogether and just cook the flour and water to make hardtack. During the Civil War hardtack wasn’t made with salt in it because they usually ate it with salt pork which has so much salt you have a hard time eating it without rinsing it first. The easy way to eat hardtack is to add it to some type of soup. In modern times, the simplest trick for long shelf like and good flavor is to keep a flavor packet from ramen noodles with your hardtack and either cook both into a broth or sprinkle on top as you bite off small bits.
    Just my $0.02

    • Jane Downes on November 14, 2016 at 2:12 pm

      Learning as I go…………The flavor packet could be just about any you might have or make…Love what I’m learning…

    • White Pride on February 15, 2017 at 10:36 am

      The salt is part of what makes it last so long. Salt is a natural preservative.

      • PicklePratt on August 13, 2017 at 3:44 am

        Hardtack made right and stored right will last longer than anyone would actually store the stuff for unless you plan to make it when you are 30 and eat it when you are in your late 70s. Salt is added to improve the flavor. Keep salt out if you want to make historically accurate Hardtack.
        For survival needs stockpiling some Hardtack add the salt, why not. You have salt now, who knows if you will later. For a survival “bugout” situation where salt is limited or gone you can make the tack with just water and flour

  26. Lynn on August 25, 2016 at 12:31 pm

    I have a question. Can it be made really thin like crackers?

    • Calisto01 on October 11, 2016 at 1:05 am

      Modern Pilot crackers are pretty much thin hardtack. The only difference is the type of flour they use. You will have to experiment with oven times but I know it works. Don’t leave out the holes or dimples in the dough. They make it much easier to eat the thicker hardtack and help the crackers stay flat.

  27. Paul Stevens on August 9, 2016 at 8:02 pm

    Look, if you add something to hardtack that makes it taste better, but shortens the shelf life to two years, what are you out? A couple of bucks for a bag of flour? The solution is to spend a couple of hours every two years making a new batch. No big deal, but you wind up with a much more palatable product.

  28. GeneralMayhem on July 25, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    I would say that adding it probably would. Honey keeps because it is made by bees to be anti-bacterial. Once diluted in the batter it would lose that property. But you could store some honey with it to put on it before eating.

  29. Cat on July 11, 2016 at 7:22 pm

    Had been reading about hardtack from several sources, and wanted to try it… Baked up a batch from your recipe, it was great! I am going to make some, and put it in some ‘seal a meal’ packs, and put it in my emergency pack. Thank you!

  30. Hank, the Beardo on June 30, 2016 at 6:33 am

    If you’re making some hardtack for a survival kit, you’ll definitely want to bake it at least twice.
    This ensures that most of the moisture is drawn out of the cracker, and that makes them last a lot longer.

    • Chris Rakes on August 13, 2016 at 1:36 pm

      What do you mean bake twice? How would you do it?

      • Maria on October 5, 2016 at 1:25 am

        http://www.6thtx.org/Making%20Hardtack.htm

        There you go. There is more of a in depth way to make them. Its all basically the same recipe, only with the extra baking step. If you don’t want to click basically, after you have baked this the one the other side, lower the oven temp to 200 or so and then bake for 30 minutes more.

        I’m planning on making a bugout bag, well more like a survival pack, because I’m becoming more paranoid as I age, so I’m looking up how to make these things and stuff like pemmkin, and stuff like that. ((I’m thinking of adding a vegan ‘all in one’ powder to pemmikin, but I don’t know how well that will work, it COULD work pretty well. But I’ll have to do it to see.))

  31. Jimmie on June 29, 2016 at 11:19 am

    What about peanut butter protein powder? Can that be added and still have a long shelf life?

    • hellbringervic on June 29, 2016 at 3:05 pm

      you could try it and experiment with it, but if you want to also increase shelf life, You might want to reconsider baking the hardtack couple times more. British Royal Navy use to have there hardtack baked 3-4 times before packaging, to insure that it would last couple years on a boat.

  32. lucid poseidon on April 27, 2016 at 11:12 am

    i really want to try making this sometime. i’m currently looking for various different ways to prepare it that would add flavor. i have heard of someone frying it in bacon grease and i have also heard of it being served covered in gravy. makes me wonder what culinary possibilities exist for hardtack.

    • Daniel on May 18, 2016 at 10:06 pm

      Anything with fat content or sugar will greatly reduce the shelf life of hard tack unless your going to eat it within a couple months.

    • Riggs on July 4, 2018 at 12:43 am

      Did you just use the words culinary and hardtack in the same sentence? SMH…

  33. gary m on December 27, 2015 at 9:21 pm

    The only thing I ever heard of causing a detriment to hard tack were weevils, but that adds protein.

    • K9Z on February 7, 2016 at 4:44 pm

      Just make sure you only chews the lesser of two weevils.

      • Roxo on February 23, 2016 at 7:37 am

        This joke gave me diabetes.

  34. MI Patriot on December 22, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    My husband and I are Civil War reenactors and we know all about hardtack. I made some once just to see if I could. It came out hard, really hard, like cement hard. If you needed to replace the plates in your flak jacket, hard tack would do the trick. Seriously though, I put a couple pinches of garlic salt in it to make it taste better. It tasted ok, but you really need to crumble it or soak it in milk or dunk in your coffee. It didn’t stay hard for as long as I thought it would, but I only had it in a ziplock bag. The next batch I made I sealed it in my food saver and that was 3 years ago. Still hard as a rock.

    • SlowToGo on January 28, 2018 at 11:09 pm

      You might try wrapping it in a bandana, helps to keep it dry!

    • D Vacc on May 14, 2018 at 11:06 am

      How can I make it stay hard even after it has touched liquid?

  35. Grace on December 8, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    it tastes like almost burnt pizza crust. I think it’s delicous.I remember in 5th grade I teacher made it for us because we were learning about european explorers. Everyone hated it and so they gave it all to me. Then I went home and had my mom make it. It’s my favorite food after stuffed crust pizza. Also I put nothing on it it was just plain and SO delicous

  36. Johnchi1 on September 21, 2015 at 6:54 pm

    Made a batch and it was fine tasting…it also cracked a porcelain crown (no joke)…I would recommend for survival food only and then add it to soup or coffee to soften it before eating.

  37. oddball on February 25, 2015 at 7:51 pm

    HONEY keeps indefinitely. Mix it with a little water, it ferments and turns to alcoholic mead. So yes, I would say adding honey to hard tack will dramatically shorten the shelf life.

    • Gargoyle on March 12, 2015 at 5:41 pm

      Meadtack. I can see possibilities.
      Not very good ones, or useful, but possibilities.

  38. Guest on January 3, 2015 at 7:46 pm

    The idea is to add flavoring to it when you eat it, not when you make it. Traditionally, they were soaked in coffee, milk or gravy before eating. Or, you can soak them overnight in some milk or water and then fry them in some sort of oil in the morning.

  39. Karla Webb on December 18, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    Does powdered garlic or onion reduce the shelf life

  40. Deb on February 17, 2013 at 6:41 am

    I tried to make this and followed instructions and the dough is way too sticky.

    • Daniel on May 18, 2016 at 10:04 pm

      Just need to keep adding more flour until its not sticky.

    • Brian on August 22, 2016 at 2:48 am

      OR, you could just add the water slower like the directions say!

  41. alanz11 on December 5, 2012 at 2:59 pm

    I can’t imagine why it would affect the shelf life unless there’s some reaction between the honey and flour but I really doubt it. 

  42. treva on November 10, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    Would adding a bit of baking soda shorten the shelf life?
    What about a drop of flavoring like vanilla extract or almond extract which are mostly alcohol – would that affect shelf life?
    I am definitely making this for my emergency bag. Thanks for the recipe!

  43. guest on September 13, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    can you make gluten free hardtack?

    • alanz11 on September 14, 2012 at 8:24 am

      good question. I’ve never done it, but you can buy gluten-free flour online and try it out.

      • wtr on August 21, 2016 at 2:25 pm

        I am making my first hard tack as I write this text It is about 3/8 inch thick.

    • C on October 4, 2016 at 8:27 pm

      Yes, it’s called rice. Best to soak it in hot liquid before you eat it or it will be very hard. 😉

  44. Anonymous on October 4, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    Oils in Whole Wheat flour will cause hardtack to go rancid in time! For longer storage, use refined white flour only!

    • Anonymous on October 14, 2011 at 3:45 pm

      Thanks for the tip!

    • Gargoyle on March 12, 2015 at 5:40 pm

      Ah. Good thing I go through hardtack relatively quickly.

      I need to get around to making pemmican. Pemmican and hardtack sandwiches… yum!

    • Kathy Ruth on April 26, 2015 at 9:09 am

      Historically, only the very wealthy used refined flour. Did the hardtack made years ago–from whole grain flour–go bad, then? I’ve not heard of it ever going rancid.

  45. mae243 on August 3, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    I know it defeats the purpose a little bit but I made some and added onion powder to half and garlic powder to the other half and they came out delicious. No need to stay alive by eating bland food when you can have something with a little flavor!

    • Roxo on February 23, 2016 at 7:37 am

      How does it defeat the purpose? Milk an sugar defeat the purpose because it feeds molds and microbes but onion powder and garlic powder are antimicrobial, I think.

    • Daniel on May 18, 2016 at 10:16 pm

      The shelf life of Onion and Garlic powder is 3-4 years with the flavor decreasing each year. So I would think it might reduce the shelf life of the hard tack if stored longer than that. Proteins, sugars, fruits are definite no no’s unless eaten in a few months time and sealed.

      • Arthur on February 1, 2017 at 11:08 pm

        Would adding seeds, like rye or sesame greatly shorten its safe eating span? How would adding powdered peanut butter effect its longevity?

        • Alan on February 2, 2017 at 7:46 am

          I think either of those–especially powdered peanut butter–would significantly shorten the shelf life. The both have traces of oils that could go rancid.

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