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6 Tips for Perfect Phyllo

While we champion homespun cooking, there’s one thing we still buy in a box: phyllo dough.

by John D. IvankoJanuary 16, 2013

Use Greek phyllo dough to dress up ordinary garden ingredients into a delightful treat. Photo courtesy Hemera/Thinkstock (
Courtesy Hemera/Thinkstock
Use Greek phyllo dough to dress up ordinary garden ingredients into a delightful treat.

While we champion homespun cooking, there’s one thing we still buy in a box: phyllo dough. These paper-thin dough sheets historically originate in Greece and can be used in a variety of sweet or savory dishes. Phyllo is an unleavened dough, meaning no yeast is added, and has a simple ingredient list: flour, water, salt and egg—sometimes you’ll see vinegar or cornstarch.

Think of phyllo, sometimes spelled “fillo,” as that special dress, that thing you put on every once in a while to make an evening special. That’s how we look at phyllo in our kitchen: as a treat to dress up everyday ingredients, such as in our spanakopita (aka spinach pie) recipe .

But phyllo can feel challenging to use when you’re first getting started. Here are some of our tips:

  1. Because phyllo comes in a box in the freezer section, it is hard to judge freshness, even if you read the expiration date. Improper handling can cause it to thaw and refreeze into broken sheets. After several bad rounds of buying phyllo in our local rural grocery store and having it crumble and fall apart, we now stock up when we’re in the city and can head to a Greek or Middle Eastern market that has a variety of brands, high volume and typically better pricing.
  2. There’s another kind of phyllo called “country” style, which has a different texture and is much thicker, more like a puffed pastry. We prefer traditional phyllo for the multi-layer crispiness.
  3. Phyllo typically comes in a one-pound box, containing two half-pound packages of phyllo individually wrapped. One of these half-pound packages will make the spanakopita recipe. Defrost phyllo overnight in the refrigerator and bring to room temperature right before using. Don’t let it sit out too long or it will start to dry out.
  4. When ready to assemble, carefully unroll phyllo onto your countertop and immediately place a sheet of plastic wrap and then a lightly damp towel over the phyllo. The sheets dry out quickly and this step helps keep the moisture in.
  5. Brushing each individual layer of phyllo with melted butter will give you that beautiful light and crispy pastry. Use a soft-bristle brush to spread the melted butter. A hard-bristle brush can tear the phyllo.
  6. Our spanakopita recipe uses phyllo in a basic manner of flat, buttered sheets, but there are lots of other creative ways to shape phyllo, including triangles and cup-shaped tart shells.

Everyone in our household loves spanakopita as a means of incorporating spinach into a meal. Among our son’s favorite “special meals,” Greek spanakopita is appealing to young and old alike because of its buttery phyllo dough crunch, rich egg-spinach-dill-feta filling and its saltiness. If using frozen spinach, defrost first and tightly sqeeze to release extra water.

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