How to Make Hardtack and Extend the Shelf Life of Your Flour for Decades

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By Grizzlyette Adams

If you ever make anything with flour that has gone “bad” you’ll know it with the first bite: it won’t taste very good. Depending upon how far gone it is, the taste of anything made with old flour can range from being a little weird to downright nasty.

Flour that has gone rancid usually won’t make you sick the way most spoiled foods can. Usually. Sometimes flour can be contaminated with mycotoxins which are toxic substances produced by molds such as Aspergillus species, or by other harmful nasties that can grow on flour that has been stored in damp or less than ideal conditions. If that is the case, throw it out. Don’t try to salvage it.

But what about flour that looks and smells OK, but it’s just a bit old?

Food experts agree that over time, foods made with flour that is too far beyond its useful shelf life can be harmful to your health. Besides a major loss of nutrients in old flour, rancid oils in the grain can destroy some of the B vitamins and vitamin E in your body. It can also form toxic compounds that may contribute to cancer, heart disease, and neurological disorders.

As a general rule of thumb, the quality of whole wheat flour usually begins to decline after about three months at room temperature, six months in the refrigerator, or a year in the freezer. White flour usually stays fresh for about a year at room temperature, two years in the refrigerator or freezer. Afterward, freshness and quality start to decline.

If your flour is so old that you are tempted to throw it out, do a sniff and taste test first. If it does not smell bad (musty, sour, sharp, or weird), put a pinch of it on your tongue and taste it a bit without swallowing. If it passes the taste test, consider keeping the flour a little longer. If you think it would ruin your recipes, there are many other ways you can use old flour. Look for them in a future article. But until then, there’s this amazing thing you can do with flour that is still edible:

You can extend the shelf life of flour for decades by making a shelf-stable survival food.

If flour is not yet too old, you can convert it into an easy-to-make survival food that has an almost unlimited shelf life if stored in a dry, pest-free environment.

A simple bread has sustained many travelers, sailors, and soldiers from ancient times until the World War I era. It was well known as hardtack during the American Civil War; sailors called it ship’s biscuits or ship’s bread. Because it was lightweight and portable, it also rode in many wagon trains to the American West during the gold rush days, and a form of it was used by ancient Egyptian and Roman armies.

This durable survival food was traditionally made with flour, water, and sometimes salt. It was slowly baked at a low temperature until dry and hard, and sometimes baked once more until it was completely dehydrated.

Related: Learn to make pemmican

Although it is one of the longest-standing emergency food rations in history, it was not regarded as gourmet cuisine. Soldiers, sailors, and travelers of olden times knew the tricks for making this hard bread more appetizing. I dug into old Civil War records and historical memoirs to learn their secrets for using this famous survival food.

Here are some Hardtack hacks from American Civil War soldiers.

  • Always soften hardtack in liquid before eating it. If you have fragile teeth, crowns, braces, fillings, dental problems, or if would just like to keep your teeth, don’t try to break dried hardtack with your teeth. Soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War often used the butt of a knife or rifle to break hardtack into pieces before soaking it in liquid to soften.

  • Broken pieces of hardtack can be softened in any liquid including water, coffee, tea, soups, stews, or whatever you have on hand. Hardtack soaked in hot coffee was favored by soldiers during the Civil War. Sometimes this combination was their breakfast, dinner, and sustenance in between meals, especially during hard campaigns.

  • If you are not in a position to soak hardtack in liquid, you can entertain pieces of it in your mouth, rolling it around with your tongue until it absorbed enough moisture to make it soft enough to chew. Soldiers and sailors often resorted to this trick to keep their energy levels up while on the move.

  • Store hardtack in pest-proof containers. Hardtack issued as rations were usually stored and transported in wooden crates and soon became wormy and infested with weevils. During the American Civil War, soldiers scornfully called their rations “worm castles.” To make it edible, they broke pieces of infested bread and soaked them in boiling hot water to kill insect pests which could be easily scooped out. By studying photos of museum pieces, I noticed the kind of worm that often infested hardtack is the mealworm which is the larvae of the mealworm beetle (Tenebrio Molitor). Civil War soldiers sometimes joked that the worms were the meat portion of their hardtack rations. Actually, they are not kidding because in some parts of the world, baked or fried mealworms are popular as highly nutritious food in many Asian countries according to many sources, including this Wikipedia article: Mealworm

  • Crumbled hardtack can be added to soups as a thickener, or pulverized into a rough flour and added to many dishes.

  • Softened hardtack is versatile: it can be made into a pudding, or cooked in meat juices, or fried in fat until browned. It can also be toasted on the end of a split stick over a campfire.

  • Crushed and finely ground hardtack is good for making porridge, and for cooking with bacon grease to make a decent roux or thickener for gravy.

  • Crumbled hardtack was sometimes roasted until nearly burnt then “brewed” to make a coffee substitute when the real thing was scarce.

  • Hardtack naturally has a freshly baked bread aroma to it, but over time, the flavor can be affected by its surroundings. Plastic bags and containers may not be a good choice for extended long-term storage because they have a peculiar quality that hardtack will eventually pick up over time. Odor-free glass jars are your best bet for ensuring decades of freshness, but make absolutely certain that the contents are completely dry.  Sometimes the hard bread’s exterior will look and feel perfectly dry while some moisture remains inside. If there is any question of moisture, I like to run it in the oven at the lowest temperature for a final time of about an hour or so, then allow it to gradually cool in the oven before storing in glass jars.

  • If you must eat an abundance of hardtack or any other dehydrated food, be sure to drink enough liquids to stay well hydrated to avoid constipation.

  • The average hardtack ration for Civil War soldiers was about 10 pieces that were about 3 inches square and nearly a half-inch thick.

This 235-year-old ship’s biscuit was part of a seaman’s ration in the Royal Navy and is on display in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London: Ship’s biscuit

Here’s how to make hardtack.

There are many recipes for hardtack that contain the same basic ingredients in varying amounts. They all work well as long as it is baked at low heat, long enough until every trace of moisture is completely gone. You do not want to hurry this process by cooking it at high temperatures; low and slow is the key to success. Do not allow this kind of bread to turn dark brown.

Whole grain flour is the type that was traditionally used and has stood the test of time. You can also use plain white flour, but do not use self-rising flour.

If you are tempted to add other ingredients for flavoring or to increase nutritional value, keep in mind that additional ingredients will shorten the shelf life. Especially ingredients that contain oil, even in minute amounts, which will go rancid. (Yes, even garlic powder.) Anything that attracts moisture, such as sugar or honey, may also shorten the shelf life of hardtack. But if long-term storage is not your goal, you may like to experiment by customizing the recipe to suit your tastes.

Old Fashioned Hardtack Recipe

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • ½ cup water + a little more if needed

Preheat oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit (121 degrees Celsius).

Dissolve 2 teaspoons salt into ½ cup of water. In a bowl, mix together the salty water and flour with a fork, then finally with your hands. Add more plain water if needed, a tiny bit at a time, so that the dough has barely enough moisture to hold itself together. Add more flour if the dough sticks too much to your hands.

Fold and knead the dough for a few minutes until it is about the consistency of modeling clay (such as Play-Doh) that is a little on the dry side. Make adjustments with flour or water if needed. Roll the dough out on a floured surface with a rolling pin, or a drinking glass, or with your hands until it is just a little less than ½ inch thick.

Cut squares roughly three inches wide by three inches long and arrange them on an ungreased baking pan. With a bamboo skewer, kitchen match or something similarly sized, poke 16 evenly spaced holes into each cracker. Make sure that you have roughly 1/8-inch holes that clear all the way through to the other side of the dough squares. For best results, each square should have four rows of holes across and four rows down. This will help the dough to cook and dry evenly without rising.

Bake for 2 hours at 250 degrees Fahrenheit (121 degrees Celsius), then turn over all of the pieces and cook for another 2 hours for a total of four hours. Allow the hardtack to cool in the oven, then turn on the oven again for an additional hour at 250 degrees, this time with the oven door slightly open.

If you decide to cook a lot of hardtack at once, rotate your trays on the upper and lower racks a few times during cooking so that they cook evenly. You may need to add another 30 – 40 or so minutes or so to the cooking time to compensate for the temperature changes caused by opening the oven door.

Are you feeling creative?

If you are interested in making some hardtack for camping or short-term emergencies, you may want to experiment with adding your own custom flavors and nutritional ingredients to the basic recipe. Let me hear about your ideas; I may want to try them!

About GrizzlyetteAdams

My brother called me Grizzly Adams like it was a bad thing. I took it as a compliment and fashioned my cyber name after Mr. Adams who dropped out of society in 1852 and made the wilderness his home. I pretty much did the same thing over twenty years ago and discovered what Mark Twain said is true, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.”

I watched a few popular prepper’s myths bite the dust and also learned not to depend entirely upon stored supplies; instead, I celebrate them with a view to how temporary they are. Skills and knowledge are far more enduring and are among the best back up plans we can ever have.

Most of all, I also discovered that the so-called Hard Times can be the best of times.

I love to share with my readers the things I have learned in the way of being a prepared and experienced survivalist, bush crafter, herbalist, hunter/gatherer, primitive organic gardener (no store-bought stuff!), plus a bunch of other things related and unrelated. I am also an unapologetic thriftyista; I know that being frugal can buy us the freedom to enjoy the things we love most.

There are several books inside of me that are threatening to spring out soon (watch for announcements on my Twitter page:  https://twitter.com/GrizzlyeteAdams).

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20 Responses

  1. How I would love to spend a week with you just watching your day-to-day living, frugaling, and surviving! I also wish I had started learning your skills when I was younger.

    Great article! I have heard the word “hardtack” many times but never knew what it was exactly. Thank you for sharing. Off to try it!

    1. Louise, thank you! Let me know how it turns out for you. Remember, don’t let it brown; the secret is long and slow cooking.

      I love, LOVE the old ways…especially learning and doing low-tech ways to replace “modern” trappings and things of this day and age. Speaking of age, you said that you wished you had started learning those skills at a young age…but hey, Michaelangelo’s last words on his deathbed were, “Still, I am learning!” So you see, it’s not too late to learn, especially if you look at the old ways as a fun hobby and pastime. Then before you know it, they kind of sneak up on you and bloom into a lifestyle! 🙂

  2. My gr gr grandfather fought in the Civil War, and I love reading anything I can about that war. I made some hardtack in 2009 and still have some of it! It’s truly a hardy food worthy of survival packs!

    1. Penny, like you, I have learned so much from reading accounts of the Civil War, I just can’t stop! In another article, I will bust some common prepper myths with some eye-opening accounts of life during the Civil War days. Stay tuned! It’ll be a good read to enjoy with hardtack and hot coffee.

    1. Sandy, wow, that just made my day to read what you thought of the article. (I never thought writing about hardtack could ever be beautiful, but if you think so, that means I must surely have reached a new high!) Thank you, dear.

  3. I’m thinking that the flour available in the Civil War era was much different from what’s available today. Back then, large commercial processors hadn’t begun to strip out the wheat germ with the nutritious oils, the goal being to leave the remaining white flour powder in an inert form for long shelf life. So it would seem that making hardtack today from store-bought flour would be much less nutritious.

    Much of that history is discussed here:
    https://pioneerthinking.com/history-of-white-flour

    A way to duplicate the old hardtack quality would be to use a handcranked flour mill to grind only as much flour as would be needed for one hardtack batch, leaving the rest of the grain intact until needed the next time. Prior to the Y2K days I learned that freshly handcranked milled wheat grains made superb flour for pancakes, and I learned quickly how little grain one batch took. It made an enormous difference of cranking ease when I handmade a much longer wooden cranking arm (with a 15“ radius) than what the Country Living mill factory makes available. They do have a pulley so you can motorize if you need to mill larger quantities.

    Now it’s likely that using fresh milled grain flour (with the nutritious goodies still intact) will result in a much shorter shelf life of the baked product. The solution to that is to mill and make only as much as you learn to use in whatever shorter shelf life you find is the case.

    Another benefit of doing your own milling is that gives you a choice of what types of grain to experiment with. Some people have medical restrictions that prohibit using wheat, but can happily tolerate other selected grains. Some people try out combinations of various grains to learn what flavors they like best. Even beyond that, with a mill that can also grind nuts and beans, the possibility opens up to make nut butter or bean flour. (The Country Living mill has an optional “bean augur” for nuts or beans.)

    BTW, the suggestion to bake at lower temperatures in slow cooker fashion sounds like an ideal opportunity to try out a solar box oven that lets you control the temperature. The solar baking literature out of India firmly supports the idea that baking low and slow does a much better job of preserving both taste and nutritional content.

    –Lewis

    1. Lewis, thank you for your research and very interesting comment. I agree that most flours that are used today can’t compare with stone ground whole grain flours of yesteryear. But fortunately the old-fashioned flours are readily available today.

      I especially like flour made from Einkorn wheat, which is one of the oldest strains of wheat in the world. This strain has been found in the tombs of ancient Egypt, and is still cultivated today.

      Stone ground Einkorn flour is hard to come by, but I found some here:

      http://www.ancientgrains.com/shop/farro/einkorn/

      https://breadtopia.com/store/organic-einkorn-wheat-flour/

      Breadtopia.com points out that Einkorn is about 50% higher in protein, has 3-4 times more riboflavin, 3-4 times more beta-carotene, 3-4 times more lutein, and significantly higher levels of vitamin A than other wheats. Plus it is rich in minerals as well.

      Here’s more info on Einkorn flour: https://foodal.com/knowledge/baking/what-is-einkorn-flour/

      Regular milled Einkorn is much easier to find than stone ground. I get mine here because they use a low-temperature process which retains more nutrients:

      https://www.azurestandard.com/shop/product/food/flour/einkorn-flour/einkorn-flour-unifine-organic/15702?package=FL250

      Another type of super nutritious flour that I especially like is sprouted wheat flour: https://www.azurestandard.com/shop/search/organic%20sprouted%20flour

      You can also buy Einkorn seeds there as well:

      https://www.azurestandard.com/shop/product/outdoor-garden/garden-seeds/grain/einkorn-wheat/einkorn-ancient-grain-wheat-seeds-unhulled-organic/22210?package=GP1004

      My two favorite books on the subject of growing wheat and other grains on a small scale homestead:

      https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/160342153X/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0

      https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1603580778/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0

    1. Over the centuries, many kinds of flour have been used to make hardtack. I am thinking that the secret to a long lasting shelf life is for the hardtack to be absolutely dry. As in drier than bone dry, lol.

      Here’s a what I found in wikipedia about the variety of flours that have been used to make hardtack: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hardtack

      “Egyptiansailors carried a flat brittle loaf of millet bread called dhourra cake, while the Romans had a biscuit called bucellatum. King Richard I of England left for the Third Crusade (1189–92) with “biskit of muslin”, which was a mixed grain compound of barley, bean flour, and rye.”

  4. tThe old sea captain had his cadets in for dinner. He broke a ships biscuit in half and a two weevils fell out, one large and one small. He asked his cadets which half of the biscuit is the preferred half, the one from which the large weevil fell from or the one from which the small weevil fell from. All of the cadets went with the bigger is better decision. The Captain corrected them with the admonishment that when in a dilemma it is always better to choose the lessor of two weevils.

    1. Haha!! “…the lesser of two weevils,” lol. Wish I had found it first, it would have been a perfect encore for the article. Thanks for posting it!

  5. Thank you for the aging list of flours. I WILL be tossing several bags of various varieties of flours from my refrig. I was really surprised at the short life span.

    1. It may surprise you to know how many things you can do with old flour besides eat it. 🙂 Google that before you toss your old flour out. Also, it may not be as rancid as you think. Do a taste test first (the article mentions how you can do that).

  6. I tried making it in the past & my prep group tried pretty close to fresh. At any rate, I don’t think it dried enough because it ended up getting moldy. I will try your recipe & tips. Appreciate your efforts. Keep the good info coming!

  7. My group got together last month and we made hardtack. We used the oven, propane grill and smoker cabinet. The smoker cabinet (minus water pan and smoke) worked best. I bought those tin foil sheet pans at dollar store that have holes in them.
    We stored it in Mylar. I had cut down some bags and I used them like sleeves before sealing it in a new bag. That way the sharp edges didn’t poke through.
    It was a good afternoon spent. We worked together as an assembly line which was almost as important because we learn be another each time we work together.
    We used sharpies to date and label and everyone went home with some.

  8. For those of us that are gluten challenged:
    Johnny Cakes
    Ingredients:
    2 cups of cornmeal 1 teaspoon baking soda
    2/3 cup milk ½ teaspoon salt
    2 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
    Directions:
    1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
    2. Mix ingredients in a bowl until a stiff batter is formed.
    3. Divide into biscuits and place on a greased cookie sheet. You will be able to make about
    8 with this recipe.
    4. Bake in oven for more 20 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool for a few minutes.
    5. Serve with butter, honey, or molasses.

  9. Re: dehydrating to make hardtack instead of baking

    I ran a search and found this fascinating discussion of exactly that:

    https://www.instructables.com/Soft-Hardtack-Thats-Actually-Edible/

    While the writer was substituting oats for wheat, an obvious question is what other grains, or even beans etc might also work as well?

    –Lewis

    PS: There’s a family story from one of my pre-WW1 ancestors who would hitch up his horse to pull a wagon load of wheat to a local grain mill. In the hot summertime, in a pre-electric era before refrigerators, the family knew that freshly ground wheat flour (with the oily wheat germ intact) would only last 7 days before going rancid. So it had to be used up quickly. Just imagine how much more flexibility they could have enjoyed if they’d had a hand cranked kitchen countertop grain mill so they could store wheat for years but only need to grind enough into flour for immediate needs.

  10. Dear Daisy and Grizzlyette Adams,

    Thanks for this article about ‘Hardtack’…I always wondered about how to make it!

    My great, great grandfather was a Confederate light artillery sergeant in Captain Pratt’s company, Texas Volunteers. He survived the war and I’m sure he had his fair share of hardtack.

    Now I know what it is & how it’s made.

    Thank you & take care,

    Dave

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