Ship’s Bisket

Ships Bisket (Time 0_00_24;14)Throughout history, bread has been a vital staple of life. . Archaeological evidence suggests that pre-Neolithic cultures baked 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.

Ships Bisket (Time 0_01_36;06)
This Ship’s 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 are 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. Ships Bisket (Time 0_02_01;29)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 stored flour would go rancid and bug ridden, so hard bisket was really born out of necessity. It was a means of food preservation. If it was prepared 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 biskets were usually about four ounces 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. They were the most resistant to mold to insects. They were really the standard by which all the other bisket maker’s aspired to, but not all biskets were the same quality. Copy of Ships Bisket
In a book called The Adventures of Roderick Random, written by Tobias Smollett in 1748, we read this little section here, “Every bisket, like a piece of clockwork, moved of its 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.

Ships Bisket (Time 0_03_43;12)Biskets were not only used by sailors, but also soldiers and 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, indigestion, and gout.

Just as biskets had different names and 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. Ships Bisket (Time 0_04_02;15)
Ben Franklin, in his memoir, also called this type of bisket the true original bisket, much superior to the unleavened variety, but it’s the unleavened variety that we’re going to make today.

  • Flour (We used whole wheat for authenticity)
  • Salt
  • Water

Preheat your oven to a medium low heat. If you are using a home oven it needs to be about 300-350 degrees. About two pounds of flour will be enough to make eight 4 ounce biskets. Add about a teaspoon of salt for each cup of flour added. Pour in the water slowly until you get a good stiff dough.

Ships Bisket (Time 0_05_35;29)Knead your dough a bit and then break it up into individual portions about 4 ounces in size. Knead each individual bisket and then form them into a patty for your final bisket shape. Place your biskets on the baking tray right next to each other as they will not rise making sure that they are the final proper thickness of about a half an inch or thinner. Prick each bisket so that they don’t puff up too much.

Ships Bisket (Time 0_06_23;16)These are going to bake for about 2-3 hours. Many times in the time period, these would be baked and then pulled out. They’d let them cool and then they would 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.

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. Ships Bisket (Time 0_07_57;07)Cooks would also take the biskets and 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 you can 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.

Transcript of Video:

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 you can 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, on our website, I invite you to subscribe to our YouTube channel, and don’t forget to follow us on Facebook.

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