Hardtack or Pilot Bread is Good for Long-Term Storage


Hardtack from the civil war that is in a museum

I have been reading a book about the experiences of a soldier in the civil war.  In it, he describes a lot about their diet which included large amounts of hardtack or pilot bread, sowbelly and beans.  Sowbelly is defined as salt pork taken from the belly of the pig.  He says that on many occasions they ate sowbelly raw with their hardtack.

Hardtack is a type of cracker, made from flour, water, and sometimes salt.  It is inexpensive and long lasting.  Hardtack was also know as pilot bread, ship’s biscuit,  sea biscuit, cabin bread, or sea bread  It has been used for long term food storage for hundreds of years.

Civil war hardtack was used for rations in the Spanish American war. In 1907 when President “Teddy” Roosevelt sent the “Great White Fleet” around the world, surplus hardtack left over from the Civil War was included in their supplies.  It was over 50 years old at the time.

Today hardtack is still manufactured and sold as pilot bread in the United States.  Alaskans are among the last to eat hardtack  as a significant part of their normal diet. Interbake Foods of Richmond, Virginia, produces hardtack under the “Sailor Boy” label. Ninety eight percent of what they produce is sold in Alaska. You can find it for sale on Amazon.

Army Hardtack or Pilot Bread Recipe

  • 4 cups flour (preferably whole wheat)
  • 4 teaspoons salt or to taste
  • Water (about 2 cups)

Pre-heat oven to 375° F

Put the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl and then add the water.  Mix the ingredients until the dough will stick together and is easy to work with.  If you add too much flour, add slightly more water.  Roll the dough out into a rectangle.  Cut the dough into squares about 3 x 3 inches and ½ inch thick.  This recipe should make about 10 pieces.

After cutting the squares, press a pattern of four rows of four holes into each square, using a fork 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 biggest mistake that you can make is not cooking them long enough.  During the time of the civil war, they cooked them in kilns for hours.  You can’t leave them in to cook to long unless you burn them. When you first take them out, store them in paper bags for a day or so to give them a chance to breath. Just remember the harder the better for long-term storage.  Once they are dried, protect them from moisture and insects.


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8 Responses to Hardtack or Pilot Bread is Good for Long-Term Storage

  1. Brad Arnold says:

    I was wondering what book you are reading. I’m a bit of a collector of books related to hardship living and would love any chance to find a new read. Thanks!

  2. jonnie says:

    I would like to thank you for the recipe, I had not found anyone who knew it, since my great-grandmother had passed in 1985. I’m looking for the way to make pelican, or jerky. I haven’t found any salt pork, at the stores around here, in ages. It was quite common back home. I buy large bags of beans in different varieties, bags of rice, and dried pasta. I understand there are a variety of ‘forever’ foods. I would like to get a list of the for myself and my adult children. My adult grandkids as well. I would like them to be prepared as well. I learn a lot from your site, and wish they would take the time to learn this stuff. Thanks.

  3. jonnie says:

    Sorry, pemican. This dang thing guesses at what you are trying to say, and changes things, at will.

  4. Philip of Boondocks, Oregon says:

    Our local Employee owned chain: “Winco Foods” sells 3″ round pilot bread crackers, in bulk foods. I ordered 2 cases of them as part of my “Store what you Eat, Eat what you store” mentality…

    They lasted me 2 years, give or take an inch (old carpenters measure twice cut once) The last crackkers are part of todays meal!!!!

    I do not recall how much the cases cost, but they were just one plastic bag in the box!

  5. Illini Warrior says:

    unleavened bread – Jewish matzo or matzah is similiar … available in the ethnic section of your larger groceries …. usually on sale for the holidays and sold off even cheaper afterwards

    also an eazy DIY …. http://www.ehow.com/how_5052774_make-matzo-bread.html

  6. Roseanne Reddy says:

    Cream crackers (in the UK) serve the same purpose. Eaten with cheese, butter, pickle, meat, cream cheese and fruit/jam, they can be sublime! Protect from air and moisture and they will last indefinitely. Great with soups and stews.

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