A cracker is a cracker is a cracker, right?
Hmm, not exactly.
Even though most of us think of oyster crackers as tiny saltines, they aren’t quite the same thing.
The main difference between oyster crackers and saltines, aside from the shape, are the ingredients used in each. Oyster crackers contain flour, yeast, higher amounts of shortening (or oils), sugar, salt, and baking powder. Saltines don’t contain as much shortening or sugar but have flour, yeast and baking soda. That may seem like a small distinction, but it makes a noticeable difference on the palate.
Believe it or not, besides sharing similar ingredients, these two snacking staples have little else in common!
Their respective histories are unique (and interesting!) and in this article, we’ll be taking an in-depth look at how each came to be constant in so many of our lives.
I know it’s hard to believe that either of these simple crackers has long and interesting histories but it’s true, so let’s dig in, starting with oyster crackers and their unique past.
Differences in Origin
Oysters spoil quickly once they’re out of their shells so until the mid-1800s, consumption of them in large quantities was rare outside of coastal cities.
However, thanks to the booming innovations in harvesting machinery and food storage that happened during the Industrial Revolution, no longer was oyster consumption limited to these areas and soon, America was swept up into what has been called, “The Great Oyster Craze“.
This is clearly seen in cookbooks of the era that were loaded with recipes for everything imaginable involving oysters – from broiling, to pickling, in pies, as soup, on toast and more!
As luck would have it, a man named Adam Exton recognized this growing trend and developed a cracker specifically for oyster stew. After arriving in America by way of England in 1842, his innovation was the development of a rolling machine that both eliminated the risk of contamination from human handling and also dramatically sped up the cracker making process.
As he perfected it, he began selling his creation in Trenton, New Jersey and it wasn’t long before he was joined in competition by another man named Ezekiel Pullen who developed his own brand of oyster cracker, “The Original Trenton Cracker”, also known as OTC Oyster Crackers.
The two companies remained fierce competitors for over 100 years until OTC acquired the Exton company in 1962. Today, while Exton’s crackers are a distant memory, OTC Oyster Crackers are still made by Panorama Foods.
As interesting as this bit of trivia is, there’s yet another company that claims to have been making oyster crackers for even longer. The Westminster’s Cracker Company in Rutland, Vermont, claims to have been making their oyster crackers since 1828. According to the company, over 40 restaurant chains and thousands more independent restaurants serve their oyster crackers all across the United States.
As for saltines, their evolution is no less interesting or lengthy.
In fact, the term saltine was not originally used to describe them, but instead they were called “soda crackers” because of their use of baking soda as a leavening agent.
It’s thought that the first written mention of them appeared in a book published in 1838 called, “The Young Housekeeper: Or, Thoughts on Food and Cookery”, by a man named William A. Alcott. Mr. Alcott was unique for the time period in that he was a staunch advocate of vegetarianism and dedicated his life to what he believed to a superior way of eating.
Fast forward about 40 years and it’s here that the popularity of the modern day saltine took shape thanks to the F. L. Sommer Biscuit Company and their innovation of adding salt to the soda cracker recipe. Soon after, the cracker caught on and after a series of mergers over the next 25 years; the company was at last acquired by Nabisco in 1898.
Ever since, the saltine has remained in steady demand and continues to this day.
Differences in Usage
As mentioned in the section on their origin, oyster crackers have long been used in oyster stews, soups, and, of course, in the ever popular clam chowder.
In other areas of the United States, they’re sometimes eaten as snacks or appetizers, but perhaps most famously are a key ingredient in 3 Way Skyline Chili from Cincinnati, Ohio.
Similar to oyster crackers, saltines are sometimes crumbled and eaten in soups and stews also, but most often, are consumed as a snack versatile snack item.
The crispy lightness combined with a hint of salt makes them ideal for spreads, cheeses or cured meats. In addition, saltines can be crumbled and used as toppings or as breading when frying foods like fish or chicken. Lastly, they can also be used as a thickening agent for soups, stews, chili or meatloaf.
Differences in Taste
Most people would describe the taste of oyster crackers and saltines as being similar, but not exactly the same. Oyster crackers are smaller and more dense which makes them more buttery on the palate.
In contrast, saltines are drier and, unlike most oyster crackers, have higher amounts of salt.
I’m Griffin and I make my living as a freelance writer and wannabe sci fi author. Besides my obsession with words, I have a few others which may or may not include craft beer, backcountry hikes and spending time with loved ones – preferably in that order. Thanks for checking out my work and I hope you enjoy it!