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How to make phyllo dough is a question we asked ourselves after enjoying many traditional Greek and Cretan pies. When our Airbnb host from Crete said she would show us how, we jumped at the opportunity. With only five ingredients, this homemade phyllo dough recipe is simple to make. Instead of pre-packaged dough, take your recipes up a notch with homemade phyllo dough.
What is Phyllo Dough?
Phyllo dough, pronounced FEE-low is a simple dough made from mixing flour, salt, water, and olive oil.
It is unleavened flour dough made into very thin sheets.
Phyllo dough also known as fillo or filo pastry features prominently in Greek cuisine. The dough is used in Greek foods like Baklava, Spanakopita and a variety of other sweet and savory pies.
In Greek, the word phyllo means “leaf” which refers to the paper thin layers of pastry.
Phyllo Dough Versus Puff Pastry
Phyllo dough and puff pastry are not the same. They are more like cousins and both known for their layers of dough.
Phyllo dough is widely used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes and the phyllo sheets are very thin, almost tissue-like.
By contrast, puff pastry, birthed in France, is flaky, buttery and most famously expressed in the croissant. In the French language, puff pastry is known as pâte feuilletée.
The preparation of each is different. Phyllo dough is stretched out into paper thin sheets and is layered with olive oil while cooking. The texture is crunchy with the layers of dough being crispy and flaky.
Puff pastry is thicker and richer made by folding in layers of butter into the dough. This makes the pasty soft and stretchy.
Due to the differences in ingredients and how they are made, you cannot use puff pastry and phyllo dough interchangeably.
Use this simple filo dough recipe when making Greek pies or desserts.
Discovering Phyllo Dough in Chania, Crete
One thing that surprised us while exploring the local food specialties in Chania, Crete was the popularity of phyllo pies.
Bakeries were filled with Cretan pies in all sorts of shapes, sizes and fillings. Whenever we gathered with locals, phyllo dough pies known as kalitsounia were always present.
In Crete, most locals make their own homemade phyllo dough at home. If they need extremely thin phyllo sheets to make specific desserts, they buy them from specialty shops.
In the center of Chania, we saw the fascinating process of making handmade phyllo in the traditional style.
At the Phyllo & Kataifi store we watched Stelios and his brother Nikos take mounds of phyllo dough and stretch them out paper-thin across a large table.
Inspired and also eager to make our own Cretan pies, we asked our Litsa, our Airbnb host to teach us how to make phyllo dough from scratch.
“It’s so easy to make”, Litsa told us. “You want to learn how to make zými̱, the Greek word for dough?” “I can show you,” she told us. “It will only take about 15 minutes.”
One afternoon later that week, we met in Litsa’s kitchen to learn how she makes phyllo dough or zými̱ from scratch.
This homemade filo dough recipe is from the island of Crete. It is one she learned to make as a child and it incorporates Cretan traditional products like olive oil and raki.
History of Phyllo Dough
Phyllo dough has a rich culinary history, though the precise origins are unclear. The name Filo which is Greek for “leaf” is used to describe this thin and flaky pastry.
Despite the etymology or origins of the word, some historians believe phyllo was invented during the early Ottoman Empire. It is said to have been used in the kitchens of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.
Phyllo dough is most popularly known in desserts like baklava or spanakopita, the famous Greek spinach pie.
Beyond that, phyllo dough has been adopted as strudel in Austria and is also found in Moroccan and North African dishes.
Regardless of the origins, for centuries, phyllo dough was traditionally made by hand. This changed in the 1970s when phyllo dough machines for stretching them out paper thin were invented.
Instead of rolling out the dough by hand using a rolling pin, most use an electric machine. As Litsa told us, “I don’t make phyllo sheets using a rolling pin” and “most Greek women use an electric machine.”
The Italian Marcato Atlas pasta machine, considered the “Ferrari of pasta machines”, is one of the most popular brands we saw in Crete.
If you don’t want to make phyllo dough from scratch, you can buy pre-packed dough. You can buy filo dough online or find it in most grocery stores.
Phyllo Dough Recipe – How To Make It at Home
There is no doubt there are many ways to make homemade phyllo dough from scratch. Each Greek home cook has their own time tested technique.
As phyllo novices, we really like the use of simple ingredients and the guaranteed results.
If you are intimidated by making homemade filo dough, this simple recipe will put you at ease.
All you need are the following ingredients.
Homemade Phyllo Dough Recipe Tips
Greek Brandy or Substitutes
This homemade phyllo dough recipe is a Cretan style recipe. This means local ingredients are incorporated whenever possible.
Raki, which is also known as Tsikoudia in Crete, is a much loved local spirit. A symbol of Cretan culture, tsikoudia or raki represents hospitality.
Tsikoudia or raki is difficult to find outside of the island of Crete. In its place, you may use Greek Ouzo liquor instead.
However, if you do not want to use any alcohol, you may simply add more fresh lemon juice instead.
Homemade Phyllo Dough Step by Step Instructions
This traditional phyllo dough recipe from Crete does not require the use of any eggs or milk.
All you need is to work the dough with your hands and feel if it needs slightly more water or flour and adjust accordingly.
Once you have mixed all the ingredients into a bowl, add the water in small increments kneading as you go along.
Keep working the dough until there is no flour left on the sides of the bowl or in your hands. Feel free to add a little more flour or water as needed.
Special thanks to Lista (Triantafyllia Stagaki), our Airbnb host, for teaching us how to make phyllo dough or zými̱ from scratch.
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Rosemary, ex-marketing and advertising strategist, is a digital nomad and content creator at Authentic Food Quest. Since 2015, with her partner, Claire, they travel the world in search of the best local food experiences. Their mission is to help you enjoy the best local specialties on your travels or via recipes in your home kitchen. Favorite country for food: Peru. Favorite local dish: Bacalhau. Favorite way to keep fit: Running. Rosemary is the chief content writer and strategist on Authentic Food Quest. She is also co-author of Authentic Food Quest Argentina and Authentic Food Quest Peru, available on Amazon.