The Ins & Outs of Phyllo Dough

In my last Cooking Tip, I wrote in general terms about pastry doughs. In this Tip, I want to delve deeper into just one of those types — Phyllo Dough.

The word Phyllo (also known as filo/fillo) is said to come from “the Greek ancestor of the French word feuille, meaning leaf.” This type of pastry dough may go back as far as the 1500s in Istanbul.

It is made by making a stiff flour/water dough with a bit of salt and maybe some acid or oil. It is kneaded, rested and then stretched out so it gets thin enough to be translucent. In recipes calling for phyllo, these paper-thin sheets are layered to give a structure that is similar to puff pastry but the dough itself is virtually fat-free.

We will normally find phyllo in our stores in the freezer section. Although not the only brand, the major one you will find in our supermarkets is Athens and they make not only the sheets but also little phyllo cups. Because of the minimal fat content, many prefer these to little tart shells made with pie dough or puff pastry. They will be crunchier and more delicate, though.

It will most likely be frozen when you buy it and, most sources, including Athens, say phyllo should be allowed to defrost slowly in the refrigerator overnight. Some experts warn that if it thaws too quickly, the dough can become sticky. Others claim it can be thawed for several hours at room temperature. If at all possible, I would opt for thawing in the refrigerator.

Athens also recommends allowing it to sit at room temperature for a couple of hours before using. 

When you are ready to use it in your recipe, you must take certain precautions. Because of how thin it is, phyllo will quickly dry out and become brittle. The typical recommendation is to cover the sheets you are not using with a damp cloth to keep them moist and pliable. Cooks Illustrated finds that people often make the towel too wet leading to a sticky dough. They, therefore, recommend either covering the sheets with plastic wrap or parchment followed by a damp towel.

As the phyllo sheets are layered in a recipe, they are brushed or sprayed with oil or melted butter to keep them supple.  It is easy to get tears in the phyllo dough as you use it. If this happens, just make sure the tears don’t line up as you stack the phyllo sheets.

Bo Friberg in The Professional Pastry Chef warns that if phyllo is re-frozen, the sheets can become brittle. Athens say that you can store unused sheets in the refrigerator for up to 1 week if wrapped tightly in plastic wrap. They also say it can be refrozen for up to 2 months but recommend wrapping tightly in plastic wrap followed by foil. From personal experience, I can say that it does become more brittle the more you refreeze it.

Strudel is a variant of phyllo dough but it is made differently in that it is a wetter dough and contains more fat, often an egg. These two terms (phyllo & strudel) are sometimes used interchangeably and many apple strudel recipes are made with phyllo dough.

So, what can you make with phyllo dough? Many of us think of dishes such as baklava and spanakopita. It is also used in making both sweet and savory strudels. You can experiment and try phyllo in place of other pastry in items such as tarts and pies although the results will be different.

Yes, you can make your own phyllo dough but it does take some technique and quite a bit of practice. Have you ever made your own?  Let me know.