Cookin’ Up Some Three-Year-Old Hard Tack

Hard tack is simply a bland, dry bread with the consistency of a brick. It is not particularly appetizing on its own; its virtue is in that it can be preserved for decades, even centuries, and retain some nutritional value. The whole point of hard tack is that it must be completely dehydrated in order to keep, but this also makes it nearly inedible in its preserved state. To make 3-year-old hard tack edible you must do one simple thing — soak it long enough.

I soaked the brick in this video for 3.5 hours, but it was still a bit chewy and dry in the middle. It was definitely edible, and even tasty as prepared, but if you want something soft, say the consistency of a potato, soak it 12 to 24 hours before cooking it.

To prepare the initial dry hard tack, follow this recipe. It’s just flour, water, and salt; very simple.

I’ve also made hard tack and gravy, but at that point the hard tack was only 10 months old, so I was interested to see if it had degraded since then. It was stored in a plastic zipper bag with a pack of desiccant, so it was still dry. When I poured the contents onto a plate, I found a single, dried out, long-dead worm. (See the video). Other than that, it smelled almost the same, looked the same, and felt the same.

About the smell — it was slightly less fragrant than it used to be. When I first made it I used fresh ground whole wheat, so it had a nice honey-like odor, though there is no honey in the recipe. Now, three years later, that fragrance has faded a little.

Since the whole wheat has a little oil in it, I was concerned that it might be rancid after all this time, but it was fine. I suspect that in time it might still go bad. I prefer the nutritional value of whole wheat, but if I’m going to make it for decades-long storage, I’ll probably make it from white flour. In the alternative, you could store it in an oxygen-free container to prevent the fats from going rancid.

To preserve nutritional value, it should also be stored in the dark, as light degrades a lot of nutrients. This stuff was in a backpack, so it was fine.

Recipes for Old Hard Tack

Assuming you have properly preserved your hard tack, these easy recipes should yield a tender, tasty meal even if you’re using decades-old hard tack. The secret is not to be in a hurry; getting the hard tack tender takes time.

Simple Fried Hard Tack

  1. Soak your hard tack 12 to 24 hours if possible. Do it in a cool place if possible, to keep it from going sour. Even if it goes sour it should still be edible when cooked; it just affects the flavor.
  2. Drain and place it hot skillet with lard, butter, oil, or beef fat. Fry on both sides.
  3. Season with salt and black pepper, and serve hot.

This makes a sort of cake similar to polenta, with about the same consistency.

Hard Tack and Bacon

  1. Soak the hard tack at least 3.5 hours, and up to 12, in a cool place.
  2. Render diced bacon in a skillet on low heat. Transfer bacon to a plate, leaving fat in the skillet.
  3. Increase heat, then fry drained hard tack on both sides.
  4. Transfer bacon back to skillet, add water to nearly cover hard tack. Bring to a boil. (Optional: splash with flat beer or white wine before adding water).
  5. Cover and simmer on low heat for 1 hour up to 3 hours, depending on desired tenderness, checking occasionally to make sure there is still water.
  6. Check seasoning and serve hot.

Medieval Hard Tack

  1. Soak hard tack at least 3.5 hours, and up to 12, in a cool place.
  2. On high heat, fry drained hard tack on both sides in lard, butter, oil, or beef fat. Transfer to plate, leaving fat in skillet.
  3. Fry minced meat of your choice on high heat, just enough to brown.
  4. Add chopped mushrooms and onions, saute until onions turn clear and mushrooms render their liquid.
  5. Splash with red wine.
  6. Transfer hard tack to skillet, cover with water, and bring to boil.
  7. Cover and simmer on low heat for 1 to 3 hours, depending on desired tenderness, adding water if necessary.
  8. Season with salt and pepper and serve hot.

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