Hard Tack

I could mean a hard tack on my sail boat, but actually I want to introduce you to the hard tack the Pilgrims ate as one of their staples during their 66 day voyage on the Mayflower. As many of you know, I am writing  a historical novel about one Pilgrim in particular, and as a treat (?) for one of my critique groups reviewing the early chapters, I made some for them to try.

Hard tack is is a simple type of biscuit or cracker (my friends who tried it said it tasted like a Saltine), made from flour, water, and sometimes salt. In the absence of perishable food, it’s a cheap and long-lasting source of sustenance, commonly used during long sea voyages, land migrations or military maneuvers. It derives from the slang word for food used by British sailors: tack. Synonyms are cabin bread, pilot bread, sea biscuit, sea bread, ship’s biscuit, or ship biscuit, and it has also been sarcastically called dog biscuits, molar breakers, sheet iron, tooth dullers and worm castles.


It is baked HARD, and can keep for years if kept dry. For example, during our Civil War, hardtack shipped to Union and Confederate storehouses had been made and stored during the 1846–48 Mexican-American War. For long voyages, hardtack was baked four times, rather than the more common two (as in the recipe I will provide), and was usually made months before it was needed. Hard tack is softened by dunking it in brine, coffee, or any liquid of choice.

Soldiers during the Civil War would often get hard tack with insect infestation, usually of weevils. They would crumble it into their coffee, the insects would float to the top, where they could be skimmed off, and the coffee plus sodden hard tack then eaten.

Here is my hard tack recipe, made in the traditional way without sugar, butter, and milk.


3 cups of white flour

2 tsp salt

1 cup of water


  1. Preheat oven to 375o.
  2. Gradually mix in the water until a dough is formed that doesn’t stick to your hands. One cup is just about right.
  3. Roll out the dough into a square no more than 0.5 inches thick
  4. Cut the dough into 9 squares.
  5. Using a nail, make a 4 x 4 grid of holes deep into the dough in each of the squares.
  6. Put the squares individually on an ungreased cookie sheet.
  7. Bake for 30 min.
  8. Turn the squares over and bake for another 30 min.
  9. Allow the squares to cool thoroughly before attempting to eat!

My group found this hard tack interesting, and two of them asked for the recipe. One wants it for her diet and the other wants to make it for cruises on his sailboat. Go figure!



27 thoughts on “Hard Tack”

  1. It was disgusting! I can’t imagine eating ‘concrete’for every meal for 66 days. It was embarrassing to try to eat it in public because you can’t bite it, but I took a piece home. It’s like gnawing on a concrete saltiness cracker. That’s why I call it Weight Watchers food because it takes so long to eat.

  2. This “sea biscuit”, or cracker of the sea, has a renown namesake. The famous American racehorse Seabiscuit was given his name from owner Charles Howard, an admirer of all things navy and ocean.

      1. You’re welcome. Not a lot of people realize that about Seabiscuit’s name, including casual horse racing fans. I’ve written articles on horse racing and read “biographies” of some of the great race horses, otherwise I wouldn’t have known it, either.

        1. We plan to take our daughter and son in law to Kentucky sometime to do the Bourbon Trail for him and a tour of the horse farms for her. She used to ride competitively. I wouldn’t mine seeing some equine beauties myself!

  3. My dad used to make hard tack for our long camping trips as kids (on the softer side since it didn’t have to keep long. We’d smear it in jelly. And it didn’t have weevils in it! Thank goodness! That wouldn’t have gone over well. Ha ha. Thank for the weevil-removing technique if ever needed 😀

  4. Fascinating – I always wondered what ‘ship’s biscuit’ was – that’s what they call them in English history. 🙂 I might try to make it too…!

  5. I love to learn little history tidbits like this one – but I certainly would NOT love to have to subsist on hard tack. It’s better than starving (or rickets), but it sounds perfectly dreadful. I don’t think I’ll be trying the recipe you located and were kind enough to share. 🙂

    You know, if they’d eaten the bugs it would have added some protein to their diets – and wouldn’t that have been appetizing?

    Where do you find these things?

    1. I’ve been doing a lot of research for the historical novel I am writing about the oldest surviving Pilgrim, so it comes from that. And you are exactly right – those weevils would have provided some much needed protein. My research, when I was at UNC, was on insects. One species I studied was quite tasty when fried and I always gave some to my students to eat.

      1. It sounds fascinating. I’m looking forward to having time to read it!

        I can’t believe your students were adventurous enough to eat insects. We Americans are fairly straight-laced in our tastes (as in “buds”) – but around the world, some are considered a delicacy.

        What made you think to fry them?

    1. Yes, they are a bit salty, but a good way for the Pilgrims to get their salt – the weevils would have been a good protein addition to their diet – the hard tack is all carbs. I can’t imagine living on this diet, which is why the Pilgrims suffered mightily from scurvy.

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