From Scratch: Crackers 101

November 1, 2012

Crackers come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.
Photo by Joseph De Leo; styled by Maria Yufest

Capped with cheese, sandwiched for s'mores, or crumbled into soups and over gratins, there are endless reasons to stock more than one type of cracker in the pantry. Their array of sizes, shapes, and flavors spans such a wide spectrum, we like to think of crackers as having their own international language of crisp. It's time to take a closer look at these crunchy creations.

Brittle Beginnings

Crackers have histories that span the globe, making their mark in various cultures as early as 3,000 years ago. The preamble to the modern-day cracker is likely the Middle Eastern flat bread known as lavash, which was popular in ancient times and remains so today. Lavash comes in two forms: soft and crispy. When rolled thin and baked to a crisp, lavash stores well and is used as a cheap, filling accompaniment to everyday meals. Matzo and pita, two other flatbreads dating back to antiquity, also set the stage for the widespread development of crackers.

Across the globe and forward many years, European tradition gives us the tale of that slender, brittle breadstick known as grissini. According to legend, it saved the young Duke of Savoy in the 1300s when he had trouble digesting other foods (to this day, mild crackers soothe sore stomaches). Stateside, Americans popularized hardtack, or "molar breakers," in the late 1700s, originally a European invention. Made with a mix of flour and water, these rock-hard biscuits resisted spoiling, which made them required sustenance during military pursuits and long sea voyages. During the early 19th century, companies on both sides of the Atlantic refined the dough and baking methods to produce what we now know as water crackers.

Thankfully, we've come a long way from the days of dried flour and water! Today, the most popular crackers tell tales of their own:

Small Crackers

Oyster Crackers

  • The babies of the bunch, these tiny guys are famous for their small size and often accompany chowder. 
  • A combination of flour, butter, salt and milk gives them their flaky texture, while a pinch of baking powder helps them puff. 
  • Oyster crackers often take the form of flat, hexagonal buttons or cherry tomato-sized orbs. 
  • Contrary to their name, these crackers don't actually contain oysters. No one knows for sure where the name "oyster cracker" originated, but it's likely the result of the early New England tradition of eating them with oyster (and other seafood) chowders.

Cheese Crackers

  • Chock-full of cheese and butter, these tangy, bite-sized cheese snacks melt in your mouth.
  • Though they're usually made with sharp cheddar, feel free to experiment with different types of cheese, or add a pinch of cayenne for a spicy kick.
  • The rich dough for these crackers can usually be frozen for up to two months, so you can have freshly made snacks whenever you decide it's time to slice and bake. 
  • Cheese-based cracker doughs are very forgiving and are great to make with children under proper supervision. Roll out the dough and offer small cookie cutters so kids can stamp out shapes that appeal to them.

Medium Crackers

Shredded Wheat Crackers

  • The only crackers on this list not made with flour, the wheat for these crackers is boiled and pulled into large threads, which are then stacked on top of each other in layers to create that dense, crunchy, criss-cross effect that we love so much. 
  • As these shredded crackers are not so simple to make at home, try customizing store-bought ones by tossing them in a savory spice mix.

Soda Crackers

  • One of the more basic crackers of the bunch, soda crackers are made with a mixture of flour, yeast, baking soda, milk or water, and butter.
  • The use of both yeast and baking soda gives them their characteristic light, airy texture.
  • To add extra flavor and upgrade the cheese tray at your next party, mix spices or dried herbs into the dough before rolling it out.

Water Crackers

  • Thin and brittle, water crackers are the refined descendents of hardtack.
  • Made with water and a neutral oil, these crackers have a very mild taste that allows toppings to do all the talking.

Butter Crackers

  • Almost biscuit- or shortbread-like, butter crackers contain a higher proportion of butter to flour than the other crackers in this group.
  • Depending on fat and water content and whether cake flour replaces some of the all-purpose or whole wheat flour, butter crackers can be tender and flaky or downright crumbly once bitten into.
  • Unlike most other crackers on this list, butter crackers are often rolled fairly thick and are commonly eaten as a snack on their own, without accompaniments. 

Rice Crackers

  • You might recognize these funky, gluten-free fellows from Asian snack mixes or on their own as bright, white, bite-sized crisps.
  • The type of flour they're made with changes their color and texture: brown rice flour has a nuttier, sweeter taste and a grainier texture than mild white rice flour.
  • Super-crunchy and not at all flaky, rice crackers are made with very little to no oil.
  • While more traditional flavors include sesame, seaweed, and wasabi, if you're up for a challenge you might find some odd pairings such as chocolate-covered rice crackers.

Knäckerbröd (Swedish Oatmeal Crackers)

  • Knäckerbröd translates to "crispbread," and has been a staple food in Sweden for around 500 years. 
  • Dense and very rich, these oatmeal crackers are slightly sweet.
  • Uncooked rolled oats, flour, and oil are combined and caked together to create a thick dough that is baked for up to half an hour.

Large Crackers

Graham Crackers

  • The name is a tease, as these flat, sugary crackers often taste more like cookies. Their sweet nature makes them a popular choice for press-in pie crusts.
  • A combination of cinnamon, honey, and sugar (and often a mix of wheat and white flours) give these flat crackers their unique taste and texture.
  • Graham crackers weren't always the sweet childhood snack that they are today. In fact, they started out as a bland health food made with graham flour, a finely ground wheat flour with coarsely ground bran and germ mixed in.

Grissini

  • A breadstick turned cracker, grissini are still popular in Italy, their homeland, but have gained common acceptance in America.
  • Long, skinny, and often sesame-coated, the dough for grissini is rolled into thin strips before baking, giving the snack its characteristic lanky appearance.
  • Grissini are a great place for new cracker bakers to begin, because you don't have to roll the dough into thin sheets or cut out precise shapes.

Making Your Own Crackers

Cracker Dough Basics

  • If you want flaky crackers, make sure to use cold butter. Combine it with your flour mixture in a food processor to break it into small pieces, and try not to work the dough too much with your hands. It's like pastry dough: you want the butter to melt in the oven and create thin, flaky layers.
  • The crunch of your cracker depends on the type of fat mixed into the dough. Crackers made with cheese or butter will be denser and less crispy than crackers made with oil, which will be thinner and more brittle. A notable exception is coconut oil, which is solid at room temperature and behaves more like butter than oil.
  • Some crackers are made with wine or beer instead of water, which adds a mild flavor of the drink to the cracker and a little lift to the dough. Try pairing particular wines with complimentary seasonings (such as Riesling and tarragon), or try splitting a batch of dough and making half with a porter and half with an IPA to taste the differences.
  • As with any dough containing gluten, if it isn't rolling out smoothly, let the dough rest for a few minutes before trying to roll it again. 

Forming, Flavoring & Baking

  • Docking your crackers -- that is, pricking them with the prongs of a fork -- makes small holes in the dough that help oyster, soda, water, rice, and graham crackers stay flat while baking.
  • Adding salt or spices on top? Sprinkle from way above (a foot or so) to help distribute the seasonings efficiently and evenly.
  • Get creative with flavorings -- water, flour, salt, and fat give you a basic cracker. Try adding diced dried fruit, nuts, or seeds.
  • Try cutting your dough with a pizza cutter -- the dough won’t stick and pull the way it can with a knife.
  • Very thin dough is crucial to certain crackers like oyster, soda, water, rice, graham, and some cheese crackers. Try rolling and cutting the dough right on your baking sheet or parchment paper so you don't have to transport the cut-out forms individually.
  • Keep an eye on the oven during baking. Although recipes will give you baking times, thin cracker dough can quickly go from cooked to burnt. Pull crackers out of the oven before any browning occurs.

Recipes

Homemade Spicy Cheddar Crackers
Sugar-Dusted Whole Wheat Graham Crackers
Date and Olive Oil Wine Crackers

Three-Seed Rosemary Crackers

Quick Whole Wheat and Rye Crackers
Three Onion Chowder with Parsleyed Oyster Crackers [Food52]

Have you ever made crackers from scratch? How do you season store-bought crackers? Share your cooking tips and ideas in the comments section below.

Like this post? Check out last week's From Scratch topic: All About Chicories.

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