Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Hardtack – Vital Vittles of the Sea

Pirates spent long weeks, months, and even years at sea. Not only was the ship outfitted with plenty of rope and canvas, arms and gunpowder, carpentry tools and wood, navigational equipment, and cooking utensils, but the essential stores of food and drink. The business of feeding the ship’s crew was a serious one. Oftentimes, the length of the voyage was governed by how much food and drink could be carried on board. There would be no crossing an ocean if there was only enough room for two weeks of provisions. All food and drink were carefully rationed. Anyone caught with more than their fair share faced punishment. Yup, serious business.

When a ship set sail, it was usually well-stocked with live hens for eggs and sometimes goats for milk. There was also items such as salted pork, beef, and fish, rounds of cheese, dried potatoes, corn, vinegary cabbage, spices, ale and more. Aye, pirates ate like kings. Better than their sailor counterparts in the navies. But the fresh or perishable food did not last long. Even water went bad. The humid, dank conditions hastened spoiling and bred insects. Feasts could turn into famine. Malnutrition, disease, and starvation were very real concerns for seafarers. Ports of call weren’t always close and ships to plunder not always on the horizon. But when a ship was spotted, they were often just as prized for their food supply as a Spanish galleon sailing low from treasure. Have you ever met a hangry pirate? *shivers*

One staple found on a pirate ship was sea biscuits. Sea biscuits, more commonly known as hardtack (but also called pilot bread, ship biscuit, sheet iron, molar breakers, among other endearments), are hard, dry, heavy, crackers that were inexpensive to make, filled the stomach, and provided some measure of sustenance. To make them more edible, they were dipped in ale, coffee, soups, water, or fried in animal fat when possible. These bricks, when kept dry, can last years. YEARS! This was why they were a must-have for sea voyages, during military warfare, and lengthy land migrations. Never mind those weevils. Given the storage, they eventually found their way into the hard tack. Pirates just knocked the biscuit on a solid surface and waited for the bugs to crawl out before eating. Ewww. But it was either that or starve.

Knowing that the biscuit was such a big part of a pirate’s diet, I just had to try some for myself. There are many slightly varying recipes but they all have the same basics—flour, salt, and water. Below is the recipe I used. With pictures! Huzzah! 

Hard Tack


Rolling pin
Cookie sheet
Something to make holes with – skewer, nail, dowel


2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
¾ cup water


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix flour and salt together.
Add water and knead into dough. Add more water or flour as needed to get the right consistency.


Use a rolling pin to flatten and shape in a ½ thick square.
Cut into 9 smaller squares.

Use any implement to poke holes into squares to allow even baking.
Bake for 30 minutes. Be careful not to burn them.

As I’m making these things, I’m reminded of the doughy Christmas ornaments we used to make as kids. Now I’m certain these things will taste gross. But you know what? It wasn’t bad at all. The hardtack tasted like, well, unleavened bread dough. It would taste even better dipped in soup or drizzled with honey.

So why would you want to make hardtack today? To impress your pirate friends, of course. Never hurts to be prepared for an apocalypse, either.


About the Author                                                

Jennifer is the award-winning author of the Romancing the Pirate series. Visit her at www.jbrayweber.com or join her mailing list for sneak peeks, excerpts, and giveaways.

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