Hardtack

Ship's biscuit isn't fluffy and buttery - it's hard and salty, twice-baked for preservation.

Ubiquitous to sailors and spacers throughout history, hardtack, or ship's biscuit, is as essential to starfaring as it is hated by starfarers. A simple unleavened bread in a long history of unleavened breads, hardtack lasts for years if it's stored properly, and provides basic calories for the hard and active life of spacefaring.   However, the active word is hard. Hardtack must be softened in water before it can be eaten without the risk of breaking a tooth, although it can be rolled around in the mouth awhile until saliva does the job. It is also dry and relatively tasteless, except for the salt that is used to preserve it.   Elves prefer to replace hardtack with Elven Waybread whenever possible, but even they keep ship's biscuit in stores for emergencies. The Fomorians have their own version of hardtack, called Châff Mnópap (Orcish Hardtack), which will be dealt with as a separate recipe.   To be fair, I enjoyed this recipe. It reminded me of soda crackers, which I like, and I found it pleasant when left to soak in my soup for a few minutes, or dipped into coffee and rolled around in my mouth until it was ready to chew. Of course, I don't have to eat it for emergency rations as a staple of my diet.

History of Hardtack

Since sailors first took to terrestrial oceans, some form of bread was required for survival. The discovery that baking a hard, almost-completely dehydrated bread without leavening would prevent decay if it was kept dry was probably an ancient one. Most seafaring and spacefaring cultures have a version of ship's biscuit that makes use of the grains and flours that are produced in their land of origin. Hardtack has been made from millet, barley, bean flour, rye, wheat, corn, and sorghum.   It was a logical extension of this existing technology to bring hardtack on campaign for marching armies, and into the stars for space voyages. Hardtack is easier to maintain for starfarers than it is even for sailors, because it's far less likely to get wet and spoil.   How long will ship's biscuit last? I understand that on Earth, there is a piece of hardtack at the Wentworth Museum in Florida, preserved from the American Civil War, that would still be edible today.

Preparation

It may be helpful to acquire a pizza pan that is designed to aerate the dough as it's cooking. You can find wire pizza pans, or something like mine, which is a pizza pan with holes distributed throughout its surface. If you don't have this or don't want to find one, no problem: a simple pizza pan or cookie sheet will do.   Preheat your oven to 375 °F (190.5 °C). Obviously most ovens among the starfaring cultures do not have this accurate of a temperature gauge (although I suspect that Gnomes and Goblins do,) but that just means preparing a medium-hot oven.   Stir the salt and flour together in a mixing bowl.   Work your water into the dry ingredients about a half cup at a time. Knead the dough until you get a consistency that's just pliable enough to be worked with a rolling pin. You may not require all the water; or you may need a bit more. Conditions will vary depending on humidity in the air, air pressure, and a variety of other factors.   Roll out your dough until it's about an inch thick. Lay it on the pan.   Poke holes in the dough at regular intervals. You can get a dough docker for this purpose, or you can do what I did, which was to poke holes with a bamboo skewer. I had the holes in my pan to guide me, but just make sure they're roughly evenly-spaced.   Most recipes will tell you to cut your dough into square biscuit shapes. I think it also works just fine cut into slices, if you're using a round pan. The point is to make the portions about even, since it's traditionally intended as a ration for a soldier, sailor, or spacer. Typically they are each issued a pound of hardtack a day.   Bake for 30 minutes.   Remove from oven and let sit until at least completely cool. I'd give it a couple of hours, if not overnight.   Re-heat your oven, and when it reaches the appropriate temperature, bake your hardtack again for at least 15 to 20 minutes. "Twice-baked" is one of the epithets that ship's biscuit has acquired, and this is why. The purpose is to make sure that as much water as possible is removed from the biscuit, so that it will survive storage for long periods without spoiling.   Allow to cool completely before storing. Store in a cool, dry place that's out of direct sunlight for maximum preservation.

Ingredients:

  • 4 and a half cups (about 1 litre) flour*
  • 3 tbsp (44 ml) salt
  • about 1 and a half cups (355 ml) cold water

Notes and Substitutions:

*Gluten-Free Substitutes: I found that Robin Hood brand all-purpose gluten-free flour worked just fine in place of traditional white wheat flour. I imagine any similar all-purpose gluten-free flour mix would work just fine, because it's pretty hard to screw this up! Since it's nearly impossible to roll gluten-free dough with a rolling pin, just pound it flat into the pan with your hands instead. The dough should be dry enough that parchment paper or silicone pans are unnecessary. It's almost impossible to cut properly as well, so I baked it for about 10 minutes before splitting it into pieces.
This was a much longer trip through interstellar space. Forty days, forty nights. The crew felt it hard, with about six weeks between resupply points and all the slaves making extra bodies on board. Meals dwindled to pickles, jerky they had to fight the rats for, and weevil-infested hardtack.
To Know Your Enemy by Diane Morrison

Related Article

Châff Mnópap (Orcish Hardtack)
Generic article | Feb 27, 2020

Many recipes that would be familiar to many starfaring cultures still exist, but have been altered to incorporate the conditions of the Balorian staple diet. Châff Mnópap, which simply means "hard bread," is one such recipe.



Cover image: Hard Tack by Diane Morrison

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