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Title: Hardtack  
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Subject: Abernethy biscuit, Jungle ration, Water biscuit, Field ration, Saltine cracker
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A preserved hardtack at a museum display
Alternative names Hard tack, pilot bread, ship's biscuit, shipbiscuit, sea biscuit, cabin bread, sea bread, dog biscuit, tooth dullers, sheet iron, worm castles, molar breakers
Type Cracker or biscuit
Main ingredients Flour, water
Cookbook: Hardtack 

Hardtack (or hard tack) is a simple type of cracker or biscuit, made from flour, water, and sometimes salt. Inexpensive and long-lasting, it was and is used for sustenance in the absence of perishable foods, commonly during long sea voyages and military campaigns.[1] The name derives from the British sailor slang for food, "tack." It is known by other names such as pilot bread, ship's biscuit, shipbiscuit, sea biscuit, cabin bread, sea bread (as rations for sailors), brewis (possibly a cognate with "brose"), or pejoratively "dog biscuits", "tooth dullers", "sheet iron", "worm castles", or "molar breakers".[2] Australian and New Zealand military personnel knew them with some sarcasm as ANZAC wafers.


  • History 1
  • Modern use 2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • Further reading 5
  • External links 6


A ship's biscuit—purportedly (circa 1852) the oldest in the world—displayed at the maritime museum in Denmark.

The introduction of the baking of processed cereals including the creation of flour provided a more reliable source of food. Egyptian sailors carried a flat brittle loaf of millet bread called dhourra cake, while the Romans had a biscuit called buccellum. King Richard I of England left for the Third Crusade (1189–92) with "biskit of muslin," which was a mixed grain compound of barley, rye and bean flour.[3]

Some early physicians associated most medical problems with digestion. Hence, for sustenance and health, eating a biscuit daily was considered good for one's health. The bakers of the time made biscuits as hard as possible, as the biscuits would soften and be more palatable with time due to exposure to humidity and other weather elements.[4] Because it is so hard and dry, hardtack (when properly stored and transported) will survive rough handling and temperature extremes. The more refined captain's biscuit was made with finer flour.

To soften, it was often dunked in brine, coffee, or some other liquid or cooked into a skillet meal. Baked hard, it would stay intact for years if it was kept dry. For long voyages, hardtack was baked four times, rather than the more common two, and prepared six months before sailing.[5]

In 1588, the daily allowance on board a Royal Navy ship was one pound of biscuits plus one gallon of beer. Later, Samuel Pepys in 1667 first regularized naval victualing with varied and nutritious rations. Royal Navy hardtack during Queen Victoria's reign was made by machine at the Royal Clarence Victualing Yard at Gosport, Hampshire, stamped with the Queen's mark and the number of the oven in which they were baked. Biscuits remained an important part of the Royal Navy sailor’s diet until the introduction of canned foods; canned meat was first marketed in 1814, and preserved beef in tins was officially introduced to the Royal Navy rations in 1847.[3]

Ship's biscuit, crumbled or pounded fine and used as a thickener, was a key ingredient in New England seafood chowders from the late 1700s.[6]

In 1801, Josiah Bent began a baking operation in Milton, Massachusetts, selling "water crackers" or biscuits made of flour and water that would not deteriorate during long sea voyages from the port of Boston, which was also used extensively as a source of food by the gold prospectors who immigrated to the gold mines of California in 1849. Since the journey took months, pilot bread, which could be kept a long time, was stored in the wagon trains. His company later sold the original hardtack crackers used by troops during the American Civil War. The G. H. Bent Company remains in Milton, and continues to sell these items to Civil War re-enactors and others.

During the American Civil War (1861–65), three-inch by three-inch (8 cm by 8 cm) hardtack was shipped from Union and Confederate storehouses. Some of this hardtack had been stored from the 1846–48 Mexican–American War. With insect infestation common in improperly stored provisions, soldiers would break up the hardtack and drop it into their morning coffee. This would not only soften the hardtack but the insects, mostly weevil larvae, would float to the top and the soldiers could skim off the insects and resume consumption.[7] Some men also turned hardtack into a mush by breaking it up with blows from their rifle butts, then adding water. If the men had a frying pan, they could cook the mush into a lumpy pancake; otherwise they dropped the mush directly on the coals of their campfire. They also mixed hardtack with brown sugar, hot water, and sometimes whiskey to create what they called a pudding, to serve as dessert.[8]

During the Spanish–American War some military hardtack was stamped with the phrase "Remember the Maine".[9]

Modern use

Reproductions of two 19th century styles of hardtack
Japanese hardtack "Kanpan" of the JGSDF.
Retail shelf of Sailor Boy Pilot Bread in the Stuaqpaq ("big store") AC Value Store in Barrow, Alaska
"Kanpan"of the JMSDF.

Hardtack is a common pantry item in Hawaii, and The Diamond Bakery "Saloon Pilot" cracker is available in all grocery and sundry stores. The round hardtack crackers are available in large- and small-diameter sizes.

Alaskans are among the last to still eat hardtack (Iñupiaq: qaqqulaq, Central Alaskan Yup'ik: suggʼaliq, Tlingit g̱aatl) as a significant part of their normal diet. Interbake Foods of Richmond, Virginia, produces most, if not all, of the commercially available hardtack under the "Sailor Boy" label—98 percent of its production goes to Alaskans. Originally imported as a food product that could endure the rigours of transportation throughout Alaska, pilot bread has become a favoured food even as other, less robust foods have become available. Alaskan law requires all light aircraft to carry "survival gear", including food. The blue-and-white Sailor Boy Pilot Bread boxes are ubiquitous at Alaskan airstrips, in cabins, and virtually every village. Unlike the traditional hardtack recipe, Sailor Boy Pilot Bread contains leavening and vegetable shortening.[10]

Commercially available pilot bread is a significant source of food energy in a small, durable package. A store-bought 24-gram cracker can contain 100 kilocalories (20 percent from fat), 2 grams of protein and practically no fibre.

In the fall of 2007, rumours spread throughout Alaska that Interbake Foods might stop producing pilot bread. An Anchorage Daily News article[11] published November 6, 2007, reported the rumour was false. Alaskans enjoy warmed pilot bread with melted butter or with soup or moose stew. Pilot bread with peanut butter, honey, or apple sauce is often enjoyed by children.

Those who buy commercially baked pilot bread in the continental US are often those who stock up on long-lasting foods for disaster survival rations. Hardtack can comprise the bulk of dry food storage for some campers. Pilot bread, sometimes referred to as pilot crackers in advertising, is often sold in conjunction with freeze-dried foods as part of package deals by some survival food companies.

Hardtack was a staple of military servicemen in Japan and South Korea well into the late 20th century. It is known as Kanpan (乾パン) in Japan and geonbbang (건빵) in South Korea, meaning 'dry bread', and is still sold as a fairly popular snack food in South Korea as well as in Japan. (Canned kanpan is also distributed in Japan as emergency rations in case of earthquake, flood or other disaster.[12]) A harder hardtack than Kanpan called Katapan (堅パン) is historically popular in Kitakyushu City, Fukuoka, Japan as one of its regional speciality foods.[13]

Many people who currently buy or bake hardtack in the US are Civil War re-enactors.[14] One of the units that continually bakes hardtack for living history is the USS Tahoma Marine Guard Infantry of the Washington State Civil War Association. British and French re-enactors buy or bake hardtack as well.

Hardtack is also a mainstay in parts of Canada. Located in St John's, Newfoundland, Purity Factories currently bakes three varieties. The first variety, a cracker similar to a cross between an unsalted saltine and hardtack, is the "Crown Pilot Cracker". It was a popular item in much of New England and was manufactured by Nabisco until it was discontinued in the first quarter of 2008. It was discontinued once before, in 1996, but a small uprising by its supporters brought it back in 1997. This variety comes in two sub-varieties, Flaky and Barge biscuits. The second is Hard Bread, a traditional hardtack, and is the principal ingredient in fish and brewis, a traditional Newfoundland and Labrador meal. The third variety is Sweet Bread, which is slightly softer than regular hardtack due to a higher sugar and shortening content, and is eaten as a snack food. Canawa is another Canadian maker of traditional hardtack. They specialize in a high density, high caloric product that is well suited for use by expeditions.

Hardtack is also mentioned as being a staple food of Chinese hard-labor workers in Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution by Ma Bo in his memoir.[15]

Hardtack, baked with or without the addition of fat, was and still is a staple in Russian military rations, especially in the Navy, as infantry traditionally preferred simple dried bread when long shelf life was needed. Called galeta (галета) in Russian, it is usually somewhat softer and crumblier than traditional hardtack, as most varieties made in Russia include at least some fat or shortening, making them closer to saltine crackers. One such variety, khlyebtsy armyeyskiye (хлебцы армейские), or "army crackers", is currently included into modern Russian military rations, and other brands enjoy significant popularity among the civilian population as well, both among campers and the general populace.

In Genoa it was and still is a traditional addition to a fish and vegetable salad called Cappon magro.

See also

A package of Canadian Purity hard bread with one hard bread biscuit in front


  1. ^ article on Hardtack
  2. ^ "19th United States Infantry". Retrieved 2013-12-25. 
  3. ^ a b "Ships Biscuits – Royal Navy hardtack". Royal Navy Museum. Retrieved 2010-01-14. 
  4. ^ "HM Customs&Excise – differentiation of cakes and biscuits". 
  5. ^ Article on Hardtack from Cyclopædia
  6. ^ John Thorne and Matt Lewis Thorne, Serious Pig: An American Cook in Search of His Roots. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1996. pp.163–166.
  7. ^ "Hardtack". Retrieved 2010-08-13. 
  8. ^ "Hardtack Is Easy to Make, Hard to Eat", The Washington Post, 2004-12-12. Retrieved 2013-11-24.
  9. ^ "Spanish American Hardtack". Retrieved 2012-05-28. 
  10. ^ Northern Exposure: A Henrico firm’s hardtack cracker has become a cultural staple for Alaskans, Gary Robertson, Henrico Monthly. Accessed on line Jan. 8, 2015.
  11. ^ Beth Bragg, "Alaska cracker connection unbroken as Pilot Bread's demise proves false", Anchorage Daily News, November 6, 2007, p. A1.
  12. ^ 非常食
  13. ^ 堅パン Katapan from WorldHeritage
  14. ^ Olustee Battlefield Reenactment Everything from bacon and hardtack. Retrieved 2008-10-23.
  15. ^  


Further reading

  • Layinka Swinburne (1997). "Dancing with the Mermaids: Ship's Biscuit and Portable Soup". In Harlan Walker. Food on the Move: Proceedings of the  

External links

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