Cooking with Filo Dough

Filo (also "phyllo" or "fillo") is an extremely thin pastry dough that is commonly used in Greek cuisine, and comes from the Greek word for "leaf". You can find filo in the frozen section of most grocery stores near the desserts and pastries. Filo is sold rolled in 1 pound boxes of 20-30 sheets, and will keep for months in the freezer. The brand I buy is 13"x18"; you can buy smaller sizes or even cut the dough with scissors or a knife. Defrost it by leaving it overnight in the refrigerator; avoid defrosting at room temperature as the sheets are more likely to stick to one another. Filo will keep for a few weeks in the refrigerator.

Filo Dough

Filo very quickly dries out when exposed to air. When using filo, be sure you have all the ingredients handy and the oven preheated. Have a convenient area to unroll the filo clean and ready and keep a clean damp cloth and waxed paper or parchment paper handy to keep the supply of dough covered while you work. What I like to do is use lint-free cotton "jumbo flour sacks" (32"x38" towels). I put one down on the counter to unroll the filo onto. I put a piece of waxed or parchment paper on top of the stack of filo once open, and put a second lint-free towel, this one just barely moist, on top of the paper (but not touching the dough). Typically, you will be spreading melted margarine (or oil) on the individual sheets - it is handy to have a pastry brush, and you should focus on quick, broad strokes, working from the edges in; don't saturate the sheets, but quickly get some margarine on each sheet before it dries.

It's fun to cook with filo! Try making filo triangles filled with fruit or maybe a tofu and vegetables stir fry, or experiment with other ideas; see my recipe for Pear Filo Triangles below. The benefit of triangles or other pockets is that these readily form nice appetizers and take less time to cook. The basic idea is to cut the filo into 2.5 to 3.5 inch strips the long way (parallel to the long direction of the dough), lightly grease a strip, and put a little bit of filling near the bottom, then fold the strip up like you were folding a flag, ensuring that the dough completely encases the filling. If you have too many strips, you can always double- or triple- wrap; I prefer doubling, but see details below. Place the triangles on a baking sheet, brush with margarine, and bake at 375 degF for 16 minutes or so, or until golden brown. Try simple fillings like wild mushrooms, quickly sauteed with shallots and red wine; tomato paste with olives; or roasted eggplant mixed with a bit of fresh fennel root, sage, and salt - and your guests will label you a gourmet! You can even find prebaked filo shells in the store; simply add (for small shells) 1 to 1.5 teaspoons of your filling, gently press down, and bake the filled shell in a 350 degF oven for 7 minutes.


This makes 8 servings
  1. Chop a large onion, which should result in 1.5-2 cups, into uniform cubes between 1/4" and 1/2"; in a large pan, saute till onions are clear and not brown (about 5m)
  2. Add 2 pounds chopped fresh or frozen spinach and saute till limp
  3. Mash a 16 ounce tub of firm water-packed tofu (first frozen and defrosted if possible to give it additional texture) to chunks less than 1/2 inch in size
  4. Mix in to the pan the mashed tofu, 2t salt, 3/4 t black pepper, and 2T oregano and then remove from heat. Gently drain excess water then optionally mix in 1.5T nutritional yeast.
  5. Preheat oven to 350 degF and lightly oil a 9"x13"x2" 3-quart glass baking dish
  6. Prepare to use filo (phyllo) dough. Get everything ready before opening the dough; once the filo is open, it will dry quickly, so working fast and in concert with your team is key. Have handy a small amount of olive oil in a shallow bowl and a pastry brush, as well as a barely moist towel and a clean surface that the opened filo can rest on (e.g., a metal baking sheet). It's best to have three or four people working together. One person can be in charge of keeping the filo dough covered with the moist towel, pulling it away when the second person reaches down for a new sheet. The person handling the filo sheets will lay the sheet into the prepared baking dish and the third will immediately quickly lighly oil the sheet, working from the edges in (try to be light and don't worry about complete coverage). If you were making Baklava, the filo handler would then fold the filo over and the oiler would quickly coat that side - but here you will leave the sheets coming out of the tray. The filo handler can then get the next sheet (remember to count and stop when it is time for the filling; you probably want to rotate roles then). If you have a fourth team member to help, that person should press down each filo sheet as soon as it is put into the baking tray and just before it is oiled. Note that you may wish to work with two individual pieces of filo at a time instead of one, if you can't separate the sheets. Also, don't worry about it if you rip some sheets - they will still taste great!
  7. When everything is ready, cut open the filo dough and start with a sheet of dough on the bottom of the baking dish, allowing the sheet to follow the edges of the dish and hang over the top, remembering to lightly oil this and all remaining sheets. Filling Spanokopita with spinach-tofu mixture
  8. Continue putting sheets down, putting each at a slight angle to the one beneath it and oiling, until you have used up a third of the filo.
  9. After carefully covering the filo with the moist towel, add half of the spinach-tofu filling, then fold the edges of the filo you've laid down so far over the filling.
  10. Continue adding the second third of filo sheets and fill, as above.
  11. Add the remaining third filo sheets one at a time. At the end, tuck in the overhang all around.
  12. Along the diagonal, make a slash through to the filling in several places with a sharp knife. Lightly oil the top and bake 45m-1h until the top is brown and crisp. Serve as 8 squares.

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Hearty Mushroom Bake

This makes 8 servings
  1. First prepare the mushroom filling. I came up with this idea in October 2003 based on a dish I created a year or so back which is essentially this filling, but with the ingredients cut larger and served not as part of a filo baked dish, but as is with a grain on the side.
    1. Slice 8 ounces of wheat gluten (seitan) into 1/4" sticks 1" long, medium fine chop a medium onion into 1/4" cubes, and coarsely chop 4 ounces of mixed gourmet mushrooms (try oyster, shiitake, and crimini) into pieces approx. 3/4" in size.
    2. Saute the onions till they just start getting clear then add in the seitan.
    3. When the seitan just starts showing some browning, add in the mushrooms and 2 or 3 rosemary stems with the needles intact. Continue to saute another 5m or so till the seitan is brown and the mushrooms cooked.
    4. Using a small (I find them to be 187 ml but don't know why such an odd measure) bottle of red wine, pour about a quarter of the bottle into the saute pan and then turn the heat down to medium. In about 5m, pour in another quarter bottle and cook another 5m. The ingredients should remain moist.
  2. While the mushroom filling is sauteeing, you can begin to prepare the potatoes. Use about 3 medium Yukon Gold or other good boiling potato, sliced to about 1/4" thickness. You can check how many potatoes you need by laying them out in a 9"x13"x2" 3-quart glass baking dish and slice enough so they form a single layer. Boil the potato slices briefly, 3-5m, till they are still firm but done, then drain and set aside.
  3. Proceed as above with the spanakopita, but use the potatoes with a few pinches of salt sprinkled atop in a single layer after the first third of dough is put down, and use the mushroom filing (leaving the rosemary out) for the top layer after the second third of dough.

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Baklava! Baklava

  1. Make sugar syrup
  2. Clarify margarine to make "ghee" (traditionally, butter with milk solids and water removed)
  3. In a food processor, quickly pulse 1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts (or 1 1/2 cups Pistachios pistachios) to a medium mince; add another 2T (2T = 1 ounce in each of syrup and filling) rosewater and 1/2 cup liquid sweetener like brown rice syrup (see notes below about other options) and touch of cinnamon, and quickly process to mix well
  4. Preheat oven to 350 degF
  5. With ghee, grease a 10"x14" baking pan
  6. Prepare to work with filo. Instead of oil, you'll be using ghee, and you will want to fold each sheet completely into the baking tray instead of leaving it overhanging.
  7. Spread plastic wrap or aluminum foil as work surface, open 1 pound box of filo pastry, spread on surface, and have on hand a barely damp cloth to immediately cover the filo should you need to
  8. Place a sheet of filo in the bottom of the pan (1/2 will fit), butter surface, and fold over
  9. Continue till you have a third of the sheets in
  10. Distribute half of the nut mixture in an even layer, optionally with 2 ounces (an eighth of a pound) or so of unsweetened chocolate pieces ("Dilip's Chaklava")
  11. Continue with another third of the pastry and top with the rest of the nut mixture (no chocolate)
  12. Continue with the rest of the pastry sheets
  13. After buttering the top, cut through the whole stack with a sharp knife in (14" across) horizontal bands 1" apart, then on diagonals to make diamonds
  14. Pour any remaining ghee on top
  15. Bake for 30m then increase heat to 425 degF and bake another 10m till puffed and golden brown
  16. Remove from oven and immediately pour cold sugar water syrup over hot pastry
  17. Serve when comes down to room temperature
  18. Makes about 30 pieces; 7g saturated fat/piece, 15 g fat/piece!! (Roughly how much will this cost? Based on shopping in January 2002 for 7 trays, it was around $91; if you make this on your own, budget about $13 per tray, or less than fifty cents per baklava piece.)

In this recipe, I suggest brown rice syrup; the result in baklava tastes like honey! Other sweeteners that can be used include maple syrup (use about 1/2 as much as you would brown rice syrup, and beware that this may change significantly the taste you would expect of baklava), molasses (use 1/2 as much), frozen fruit juice concentrate (experiment, but try using about 3/4 the amount), various brands that mix fruit juice concentrate with rice syrup (also try 3/4), corn syrup (you may have to nearly double the amount), and malt syrup (about the same amount as brown rice syrup, but the result will be less sweet; try mixing in some stevia or maple syrup). For recipes calling for a cup of sugar, you can substitute with a liquid sweetener. As a guide, a cup of sugar is roughly equivalent to a cup of brown rice syrup in sweetness; reduce the total amount of other liquids in the recipe by about 1/4 cup for each cup liquid sweetener added. A good place on the internet to read more about sweeteners is A by-product in the creation of rose oil for perfume, rosewater is used in desserts in both the Middle East and South Asia.

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Pear Filo Triangles

Here is a recipe that is best made in the form of filo triangles. Buy good, firm, fresh pears - I highly recommend using small, sweet Seckel or Forelle pears, available in the fall and much of the winter, but you can use Boscs (brown and available most of the year except summer). You can also use Bartlett pears (red or yellow, available fall through early winter) if the other varieties aren't available. With fresh forelles or seckels, in particular, you'll amaze yourself at how tasty these are.

You can try any number of variations. Substitute the pear with a good baking apple if you wish, though I really think pear works much better here. I like the Pink Lady apple if you can find it or Honeycrisp, but you can use other firm varieties like Granny Smith, Braeburn, or Jonagold.

  1. Prepare fruit filling
  2. Clarify 1/3 pound margarine to make "ghee" as with the baklava recipe above. Particularly if you are using a good quality margarine, you can alternatively just melt the margarine.
  3. Prepare the filo dough. You want to divide the dough into four stacks of long strips maintaining the long dimension (e.g., with 13"x18" sheets, you want four 3.25"x18" stacks of strips).
  4. Preheat oven to 375 degF; have several baking sheets handy, greased lightly with "ghee" Folding filo dough into triangles
  5. Quickly remove two strips together and cover up the rest of the dough stack. Grease the top strip and, as in the shaded portion of the diagram here (shown approximately proportional to a 3.25"x18" strip), place 1.5 T of the filling, roughly shaping it into a triangle and keeping it 1/2" or so away from the edge.
  6. Fold at a 45 degree angle down and over the filling to form a first triangle. Use your fingers to ensure the filling is inside the triangular area, and carefully fold this triangle over to form triangle 2, folding as you would a flag. Continue till you get to triangle 4, at which point the filling should be sealed within dough. Gently but firmly pat the filling to cause it to uniformly fill the space inside the dough. (Keep the dough on a flat surface instead of trying to fold it in your hands.)
  7. Continue folding and gently pressing down on the filling till you've folded all the dough into a complete triangle. Pick up the triangle and hold it in your hands as you fold over the remaining dough at the end.
    Greasing strip of filo Putting filling on strip of filo Folding over filling - image 1 of 2 Folding over filling - image 2 of 2 Folding up to 4th triangle Picking up to make final fold Greasing the finished triangle
  8. Brush "ghee" onto the triangle and lay on the baking sheet.
  9. When all the triangles are done (remember to use the remaining three strips in turn to use up all of the filo dough), bake them in the 375 degF oven for approximately 16m, or until lightly golden brown. Remove from the oven and serve warm.

The triangles are great to serve as finger foods at parties. You can skip the initial greasing of the inside of the strip, but the triangles may taste a bit dry. If you want a more decadent version, use a single sheet strip, greased only when complete, and cut the filling back to 1 T; the result can be a bit flimsy to hold, but will be more fruity in flavor.

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Tub margarine vs. stick margarine? Vegans who won't eat butter may prefer margarine, but is margarine a good choice? Margarine is made from vegetable oils instead of animal fats, and has less saturated fats and no added cholesterol, good news for heart health. But margarine is more processed, and to solidify the oils, undergoes hydrogenation which creates trans-fatty acids, found to increase "bad" cholesterol (LDL) and lower "good" cholesterol (HDL).

In the late 1990s, some good tub margarines became available with no trans fats. I like to use these in my cooking. They typically come in 1 pound tubs and, because they are often 60-80% fat, just like margarine, can be substituted by weight. So, for example, a pound of margarine = 4 sticks = 32T = 2 cups; a pound of tub margarine should be substitutable 4 sticks of margarine. (If you need, say, 1 stick of margarine, try turning a tub upside down on the counter, letting it sit for a few minutes to soften a little, and open it, still upside down, setting aside the container and letting the margarine sit on the lid. Carefully slice through to quarter the tub, and take one of the quarters for your recipe.) Just one note of caution - if you use a low fat margarine or spread, some of the oil may be replaced with water. If you use a very soft spread that is less than 60% fat, baked goods like cookies may spread and be too soft and not very tasty. Stick with at least 60% fat spreads when enjoying desserts!

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Visit Dilip on the web at; you can see this material, including clickable pictures, at

Stock picture of filo dough courtesy of The Cook's Thesaurus, Series of pictures of triangle formation courtesy of Holli Kearns.
Created: June 26, 2002
Last updated: March 25, 2008