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Ship’s Bisket – Hard Tack: 18th Century Breads, Part 1. S2E12

Ship’s Bisket – Hard Tack: 18th Century Breads, Part 1.   S2E12


Throughout history, bread has been a vital
staple of life. Archaeological evidence suggests that pre-neolithic cultures baked a very simple
flat bread on hot stones and sourdough breads have been made for millennia. First century Romans observed the Celts of
Gall skimming the foam off of beer to create a lighter kind of bread. By the 13th century,
bread became highly regulated. As an early form of wage and price controls. Unscrupulous
bakers who cut corners to increase profits faced potentially heavy punishment. Such regulation
was common throughout Europe and early documents show that at least an attempt was made for
doing the same thing in 18th century colonial America. Over the coming weeks we’re going to focus
on 18th century breads. We’re going to begin our journey with one of the simplest forms,
the ship’s bisket. This bisket is known by many names. Most of
the time it was called just bisket, sometimes it was called hard bisket or brown bisket,
sea bisket and ship’s bread. Now many today might want to call it hard tack, but hard
tack is really a 19th century term that was popularized during the American civil war.
These 18th century biskets, they’re not like today’s buttery flaky version that we serve
along with sausage gravy for breakfast. These biskets were not made to be enjoyed, they
were made out of necessity. So ship’s captains faced a continual challenge of having enough
food on board to feed a large crew for a long journey. Food spoilage was really his greatest
concern. Fresh bread rapidly became moldy on long trips and so did stored flour which
would go rancid and bug ridden, so hard bisket is really born out of necessity. It’s a means
of food preservation. If it was prepared properly and stored properly it would last for a year
or more. In addition to preservation, the bisket form also helped in portability and
in dividing the rations when it came time. Soldiers and sailors typically got one pound
of bread a day and the biskets were usually made in about a four ounce form so when it
came time to distribute them, each sailor or soldier would get four biskets.
Biskets from London were considered to be the highest quality. The most resistant to
mold and to insects. They were really the standard by which all the other bisket makers
aspired to, but not all biskets were the same quality.
In a book called “The Adventures of Roderick Random” from 1748 we read this little section
here: “Every bisket like a piece of clockwork moved of it’s own internal impulse, occasioned
by myriads of insects that dwelled within it.” There are other accounts of sailors opening
up barrels marked sea biskets and only to find them filled to overflowing with roaches.
The sea biskets having long since disappeared. Biskets were not only used by sailors but
also soldiers and travelers. Travelers of just about any sort. Traders many times used
them to bargain with the Indians and they were also thought to have medicinal properties.
They used them in treating edema and indigestion and gout.
Just as biskets had different names and different uses, they were also made in different ways.
The term bisket has its origins in the word twice baked. Many 18th century recipes call
for bread rolls to be baked, sliced into slices and then baked again. These are also known
as rusks. Ben Franklin in his memoir also called this type of bisket the true original
bisket, much superior to the unleavened variety, but it’s this unleavened variety that we’re
going to do today. We’ve preheated our oven and allowed it to
cool to a medium low heat. If you’re doing this in a home oven, about 300-350 degrees.
Our ingredients for these biskets are very simple. We’ve got some whole wheat flour.
You’re definitely going to need some salt, and then we need enough water to make a very
stiff dough. So let’s get these mixed up. I’m going to
probably work with about two pounds of flour here, enough to make eight 4 ounce biskets.
We’re going to just guess our amount of salt and get that mixed in, and now let’s pour
in that water until we get a good stiff dough. I’ve got this larger loaf kneaded here, now
it’s time to break this up into the individual approximately four ounce portions for each
bisket and then I’ll form those up individually. Each one of these I’m going to knead just
a little bit more and get it into its patty or final bisket shape. These biskets are ready
to go on the baking tray here. We’re going to arrange them, they’re not going to rise
so we can put them right next to each other. You want to make sure they’re the final proper
thickness, about a half an inch, maybe a little thinner, and we need to prick them so that
they don’t puff up too much. Okay, these are ready for the oven. We’re
going to put these in and they’re going to bake for 2-3 hours at that low temperature.
You want to watch them to make sure they don’t burn. It’s been 3 hours. These should have baked
long enough. Many times in the time period, these would be baked and then pulled out.
They’d let them cool and then they’d bake them again the next day, probably at a lower
temperature to drive out any excess moisture and for very long term storage, they might
bake these three or four times. Let’s take a look. Hard biskets could be eaten just as they are,
but it was never thought of as an enjoyable event. Many times they were soaked in wine,
brandy, or sac to soften them up a little. Cooks would also take the biskets and they
would grind them up or powder them by putting them in a bag and beating them with a hammer
then take the crumbs left over and use them like flour. This crunched up bisket
tastes a lot like raisin bran without the raisins. While this isn’t the most flavorful recipe
that we’ve done so far, it’s certainly a very significant food source for people in the
18th century. All the things you’ve seen here today, all
the cooking implements, all the clothing, these things are available in our print catalog,
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100 thoughts on “Ship’s Bisket – Hard Tack: 18th Century Breads, Part 1. S2E12”

  1. They still eat these types of baked goods in the province of Newfoundland Canada called Hard Bread shaped like an oval thick boat which they soak overnight and boil for 5 minutes and serve with salted cod also soaked in water overnight and boiled the next day. They would pour sauted onion in butter over it for a tasty dish (called fish & brewis). Some would even fry fat back pork until crunchy with the onion butter. Newfoundlanders still use these 18th century techniques occasionally such as salt beef or salt pork (used in a boiled meal of salt meat, carrots, turnips, cabbage, potatoes and a pudding of either split peas or bread & raison..locally called Jigs Dinner).

  2. “It’s got calories, right? Then quit your complaining! The bugs are extra protein. You won’t die immediately. You don’t gotta worry about scurvy till later.”

  3. "Not the buttery flaky biscuit you have with sausages and gravy for breakfast."

    Sorry what? …Is this an American thing?

  4. An odd thing about biscuit history, the British sailors often had theirs made with brown sugar added. They would soak them in rum to soften them. That is why most of the former British colonies still call cookies, biscuits.

  5. It’s 3am and here I am watching a video on making breads in the 18th century instead of sleeping, and I don’t even live in the 18th century.

  6. Oh my God my grandmother been feeding us hard tack but we called them buckshot rolls.She use to dump flour on her countertop put her fist in the middle pour water in it and a little bit of salt.Those were so hard you had to break her rolls and drown them in honey.grand Pa always told us to save a roll and if he ran out of buckshot he'd use her rolls as buckshot couldn't kill ya but could knock you out.

  7. It's a little known fact that hard tack can be used as an inexpensive addition to tank armor, when layered with unsold Britney Spears music CDs.

  8. "Uhhh, guess our amount of _______" Yep. definitely how i cook and bake. And hey it comes out all right. (Most of the time.)

  9. Is it possible to do this recipe in a pan on the stovetop? I’ve got an oven but don’t have a cooking sheet or anything like that. (Poor college student here looking for a way to make food that’ll keep for emergencies)

  10. I found this video because I was reading an online article on the diet of 17th century sailors, which included a card that told of the diet as issued by the navy, which was used for over a hundred years or so, with the only change over the years being to replace fish with 3 lb of oatmeal a week.

    Do you have any videos that go into this more?

  11. About how much water is needed (roughly). I've not cooked bread before so it may be helpful. Of course I suppose I can experiment and play around to see what works best. Thanks for these videos! So awesome. I love learning to cook in these old ways, more from scratch.

  12. When I was a kid in the 60's I ate a ton of buttered hard tack. I'm in TN now and good luck finding anyone here who ever heard of it. Thank you for the memory from the bottom of this NH girl's heart, it really brought a tear. I know this recipe isn't the later gray cardboard of my time, but that may be a good thing!

  13. lol the barrel of roaches would ironically be quite nutritious. Maybe thats why asian cultures were so good on sea, if there food became bug-ridden it was just a bonus lol

  14. That hard tac was so versatile… it could be used as a hammer-stone, as shot for the cannon, a door stop, and you could also eat it 🤪🤪🤪

  15. A man who's passionate of his work makes me joyful. Regardless of the field, when a crafter enjoys his craft, I can enjoy it too

  16. Question……… in the strawberry preservation vid you mention they added raisins to bread to prevent mould growth….. could they have added raisins to hardtack biscuits?

  17. I made a batch of these. I either baked them too long or the dough was too stiff, because they were like rocks. It was a challenge to even break them with a hammer.

  18. I originally thought you knew your breads. However, a lot of hardtack didn't have the taste of salt. For shame.

  19. Watching this makes me want to have a cookie
    Go to 8:05 an realized that these are basically rocked flour
    … You know, actually, I'm good …

  20. In Mallorca a form of ship's biscuit is still sold commercially today, though saltier and in a much smaller form. My family and I developed quite a taste for them out there and id be interested to try modifying this recipe to recreate them! Thank you very much!!

  21. Imaging the sailors with a hot cup of cinnamon black tea with honey and rum , while they are dipping Ship's Bisket in it. Sometimes a spicy  fish soup with the crumbs of Bisket or ground Bisket for breaded  fried catch of the day. Probably can use it for a vegan burger too.

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