Civil War Journal: Five-Star Dining in Your Own Home

With hundreds of recipes on-line for the gourmet Civil War cuisine known as hardtack, I decided to go with the simplest one imaginable, since I’m more of a cook than a baker. With just four cups of flour, four teaspoons of salt, a little less than two cups of water, and plenty of patience, you can make the three-times daily bread ration that soldiers ate in the war that divided a nation. Normally, when I go to an encampment or reenactment, I buy a square or two, eating one and saving the other for when I give a lecture. It always generates laughs when you slam the three-by-three inch cracker on the table, and the sound resonates through the room, without a piece even chipping off, and then you explain that this was an essential part of the 1860’s US Army diet. Below is what came out of my oven today:

Okay, so they don’t look like conveyor belt material, and they taste like something Wolfgang Puck’s evil twin would have made (they smell pretty good, though), but they are enjoyable nonetheless. It’s fitting that I am going to the dentist on Thursday, because I may need one if I eat more than a few of these. The key to the perfect hardtack, however, is waiting. You can eat them as soon as they come out of the oven, but they will still be somewhat soft and flaky. You should wait a few hours for them to become stale and harden, and once they get hard, they will stay edible for years.

There is a story that during the Spanish-American war in the 1890’s, that the US Army actually sent our soldiers hardtack that was baked thirty years prior in the Civil War, because they never went bad. How’s that for a re-issue?

I won’t even suggest these for reenactors, because they eat their fair share already, but for teachers that are going to be instructing on the Civil War, this would be something you could bake and bring into the classroom to give your students an idea of what life was like. It is also quite safe allergy-wise because it contains nothing but flour, water, and salt! Health-wise, there is no fat in it if you use the recipe below (there are some that call for shortening or oil) but stay away if you are on a low-carb diet. The recipe I used is listed below, but click here for other army-related breads, including one from Sweden that is actually sweetened up with honey. Hmm…that sounds like a pretty good idea. Until next time, everyone!

Army Hardtack Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups flour (preferably whole wheat)
  • 4 teaspoons salt
  • Water (about 2 cups)
  • Pre-heat oven to 375° F
  • Makes about 10 pieces

Mix the flour and salt together in a bowl. Add just enough water (less than two cups) so that the mixture will stick together, producing a dough that won’t stick to hands, rolling-pin or pan.  Mix the dough by hand. Roll the dough out, shaping it roughly into a rectangle. Cut into the dough into squares about 3 x 3 inches and ½ inch thick.

After cutting the squares, press a pattern of four rows of four holes into each square, using a nail or other such object. Do not punch through the dough.  The appearance you want is similar to that of a modern saltine cracker.  Turn each square over and do the same thing to the other side.

Place the squares on an ungreased cookie sheet in the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Turn each piece over and bake for another 30 minutes. The crackers should be slightly brown on both sides. The fresh crackers are easily broken but as they dry, they harden and assume the consistency of fired brick.

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