Ship’s Biscuit Recipes


Many recipes in the 18th century use biscuits as an ingredient in other foods.

Now I’m a biscuit fan. I’ll take mine hot with a dab of butter and a little honey. It just so happens that my bucket list includes the goal of producing lightest, flakiest biscuit I’ve ever eaten…and it’s likely that the more I attempt to accomplish this so I can check it off my list, the more urgent the matter becomes.

cutting round shapes in the bisket doughBut that’s truly beside the point. The old English recipes aren’t referring to the Ol’ Southern variety that utilize chemical leavening agents, i.e., baking powder and baking soda, in order to reach new heights. 18th century biscuits were most often flat and crisp — more like a cookie or cracker.

There were different kinds of biscuits, each with their own texture and method for making. Some recipes called for the dough to be violently beaten with a rolling pin or paddle. This softened the dough and made the finished product lighter. Other recipes required whipping eggs for a long time and then gently folding in the flour. This was actually a early form of leavening. It resulted in a light and spongy texture. Most biscuits, like the simple biscuit, were sweetened with sugar, some, like the ship’s biscuit, were not.

While biscuit recipes differed in ingredients and techniques, the one element that seemed to be common across the board was that they were either twice-baked or baked for a longer period of time at lower temperatures. This ensured their crispiness and also allowed them to be stored for long periods of time. The word “biscuit” is believed to come from the Old French that means twice-baked.

The biscuit I’m focusing on today is the ship’s biscuit — the plainest of them all. The ship’s biscuit usually consisted of just flour and water. They were favored by quartermasters and ship’s captains for their ability to last. They were baked at least twice, sometimes four or five times to drive as much moisture from the crumb as possible. What was left behind was a hard, barely edible puck, that usually required soaking in beer, coffee, milk, water, broth, or wine to make more palatable.

Here are some recipes that utilize the biscuit as an ingredient from Charles Carter’s 1749 cookbook, “The London and Country Cook.”

It could be debated that Carter was referring to a sweetened simple biscuit in this recipe. It’s unclear, however. The addition of sugar to the mix would suggest that ship’s biscuit could be used.

Also, here’s a remedy for the dropsy from the same work:

Another common and apparently popular dish among sailors, depending on the skill of those who prepared it, was lobscouse (a.k.a. Lobscourse, scouse, lap’s course, or lobskous) — a thick and hearty stew of beef or pork, often with root vegetables, that was thickened with crushed ship’s biscuit. Be sure to check out our previous post on how to make lobscouse, and don’t miss the video on lobscouse on our Youtube channel.

This entry was posted in 18th Century Cooking, Bread, Historic Cooking, Recipe, Video and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Ship’s Biscuit Recipes

  1. Cynthia says:

    Recently found your blog and am very glad I did. Fascinating! Thank you so much.

  2. Pingback: Archival Food – 14-Day Unsupported Hiking Expedition, 1920s | THE JUNGLE IS NEUTRAL

  3. Scott says:

    Here’s a link to a dish that has been eaten for the last two hundred years up in Newfoundland:
    You can still purchase the hardtack made in the traditional fashion from Purity.
    Whole Foods now sells salt cod pieces…

  4. Claus Dohrn says:

    A very interesting article- thank you! I am from Norway- where we have a traditional stew named ‘lapskaus’ which is pronounced very close to “lobscouse”!

    (This stew is so beloved and useful (fast and inexpensive dinner) that many varieties exist both tinned and fresh or frozen in the stores.

    Never forget the 4-5 slices of Norwegian Goat “cheese” aka ‘Geitost’ (it’s a sweet and pungent caramelization of goat milk whey) nor the 5-6 dried juniper berries- both add a certain something to the stew, reindeer or moose meat makes it a dish for royalty!

  5. Jeff Harman says:

    Having portraied Soldiers, both Yank and Reb, in American Civil War Reenactments (we Southern boys like to call that conflict the War of Northern Aggression) there are to be seen dozens and dozens of wooden crates around the camp labled such as “50 Pounds Army Bread – Union Mechinical Baking Co., Boston Mass.” and so on and so fourth. Having gotten the chance to see an actual piece of “Hard Tak” in a Museum, I took some photos of it and made measurements of this piece of Army Bread!

    I made a bunch of “Replica Army Bread” and put it in my Army Bread crate (on top of a platform inside the crate… I wasn’t going to make a full 50-Pounds of the stuff) and had the lid off while doing a Living History demonstration one afternoon so that spectators could try out what soldiers had to choke down in those days! Needless to say it was really neat to watch a girl of 8-years try to take a bite from the cormer of one of the pieces and after several fruitless attempts she asked, “How do you eat this stuff?” I replied, “I just boil it in the pot when making soup… it won’t break yer’ teath then and it’s really soft and tastes kinda’ good too!” Needless to say, not many folks took a piece to snack on when driving home…

    being a bit of a Historian, I was so happy to se the Ships Biscuit video a good whhile back and the recipe here for the just flour and water tasty treats is exactly what I use when I go out on the town to impress the natives! Now, where on earth did I put my hammer and chissel? I’m gettin’ kinda’ hungry and don’t want to make soup right now…

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