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" What is filo dough and how can I make it? "

Dear Anne and Sue,

What is filo dough and how can I make it?

— Annmarie Dowden


Still have more questions? You'll find more answers in our archived monthly feature articles by the Inquisitive Cooks.

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Dear Annmarie,

The word "phyllo" in Greek means leaf, so the name "filo" is apt for a type of dough that has been stretched and pulled gently into sheets so thin they're almost like tissue. Then, they're brushed with melted butter and stacked into layers, filled and baked. Or, a single sheet is buttered and folded around a filling to create many crisp layers surrounding a sweet or savory interior.

Filo is the basis of the Greek, spanakopita (spinach and feta enclosed in filo) as well as the famed, baklava (a dessert in which filo is layered with nuts and spices, baked, then drizzled with a honey syrup) When baked, the dough puffs to flaky crisp layers so recipes made with filo are both unique and memorable.

Filo dough is usually made with flour, water, salt, egg, and sometimes vinegar, though its ingredients show some variation. Preparing this dough depends on the development of gluten from the proteins in flour. Thus the dough is mixed and kneaded until it's pliable and silky. The acids in vinegar also help increase the flexibility of gluten so the dough stretches more easily.

Traditionally, filo was made by hand, stretching the mixture into sheets with one's knuckles, rather than the fingertips that are more likely to cause tears. With consummate skill filo was cajoled into sheets so fine that the baker's hands could be seen through the dough.

One of the tricks in working with filo is keeping the extra dough covered with a damp towel. You'll notice as you work, that sheets of filo truly are like fine paper, so thin they dry out quickly and then are more likely to crack and tear as you fold them around a filling. Brushing sheets of filo with melted butter not only holds in moisture but also helps crisp the fragile layers as the filo bakes in the oven.

Traditionally, filo is believed to have originated in Turkey. Now, many variations exist as it has passed through different cultures over many generations.

The process of making filo at home is laborious and takes considerable skill. So today, most filo is purchased ready-made. Occasionally, some bakeries still sell it fresh, though most is found packaged and frozen. If you buy it frozen leave it in the box to defrost overnight in your refrigerator. When it thaws at room temperature, the sheets are more likely to stick together. Should you want to try making filo we suggest you post your request for a recipe on the Forum.

Wishing you happy hours as you uncover the magic of filo!

Regards, Anne and Sue



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