A Phyllo Dough Primer

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I just posted my Buttery Greek Apple Tart recipe. As I started to write the notes on how to deal with phyllo dough at the end of the recipe, I realized that it probably merits its own discussion, since phyllo can be really easy to work with if you know how to handle it—and completely unforgiving if you don’t.

So, what is phyllo dough and where do you find it?
Phyllo (also seen as “fillo” of “filo”) is a staple of Turkish and Greek cooking, as well as a handful of other cuisines. The paper-thin sheets of dough are used to create all manners of sweet and savory dishes.

It’s one of the simplest doughs in the world, made from just flour, water, and a little oil. Add butter, a handful of embellishments, and slide it into the oven, and it transforms into some of the most sumptuous stuff you can possibly eat.

Not to be overly dramatic, but it’s kind of like magic.

Here in Boston, I’m lucky to live within a stone’s throw of a handful of markets that sell fresh phyllo dough. Check any Greek or Armenian markets in your area. If you can’t find it fresh, most larger grocers will sell a frozen version. Just thaw it completely in the fridge before you try to use it.

If you see dough that’s labeled “country-style,” this means that the sheets are slightly thicker than traditional phyllo. Country-style phyllo can be easier to work with (the sheets tend to tear less), but can be wrong for some recipes. You also may need to cut out a few layers if you use this kind.

Once you get your phyllo dough, what can you do with it?
Not to be cliche, but the possibilities really are kind of endless. It’s a good base ingredient, and you can do just about anything with it.

For example, you can wrap strips of it around jumbo shrimp, tuck in a little fresh rosemary and garlic, and blast them in the oven for a quick, hot appetizer. You can use sheets of it to bake juicy, rustic tarts with whatever fruit is most in season. You can fill squares with diced veggies and little bits of meat, then bunch them up and tie them off into purses for impressive, deep-fried hors d’oeuvres.

I could go on. You get the idea.

Athens, a brand of phyllo dough, has a ton of good information and ideas on its site.

Tips for keeping your phyllo dough happy
Because it’s super thin, the key to working with phyllo dough is to move fast and keep it from drying out. You need to keep any dough you’re not actively using covered with a few damp paper towels. Phyllo can dry out in a matter of just a few minutes, leaving it basically un-usable, so this is important.

Most recipes that include phyllo dough tell you to brush it with butter. Be sure to use a pastry brush with softish bristles, because a hard-bristled brush can put rips in your dough. In fact, when my mom bakes with phyllo dough, she uses my grandmother’s Hungarian goose-feather pastry brushes. No joke. You can actually still get them online. The Slovak Shop sells this one for $1.99 each.

Goose Feather Brush

Can you make phyllo dough at home?
Absolutely. For those purists out there, I may try to dig up my Czechoslovakian grandmother’s recipe for homemade dough. When I was a kid, I remember hearing about how she would make the dough, cover her big kitchen table in a clean white tablecloth, then stretch it by hand til it covered the whole tabletop. I’m sure it was so thin that you could see right through it.

I can imagine that her phyllo dough was delicious—and completely maddening to make.

In my mind, making your own is a combination labor of love/science experiment and isn’t practical for everyday baking. I would love to try it sometime, but that day is probably a ways off, since the pre-made dough that’s available is really very good.

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Jessie Cross is a cookbook author and creator of The Hungry Mouse, a monster online food blog w/500+ recipes. When she's not shopping for cheese or baking pies, Jessie works as an advertising copywriter in Boston. She lives in Salem, Massachusetts with her husband and two small, fluffy wolves.