Filo is a tricky dough with which to work and has gifted me with hours of frustration and a ridiculously messy kitchen. If it didn't develop into such a wonderful variety of super tasty products I would have abandoned it after my first attempt at wrangling the stuff. While I am sure there are gifted filo slingers out there who have no problems at all, until I learned a few handling tips it seemed about as easy as juggling flaming, feral bobcats.

The factors which provide the great difficulty in working with filo are twofold: fragility and rapid desiccation. The individual sheets of filo are incredibly thin and correspondingly fragile. Singly, they can be very difficult to manipulate without tearing. The very large ratio of surface area to volume for a given sheet of dough means that evaporation can dry the dough very rapidly. My first time to use the stuff I placed the stack of filo sheets unprotected on the counter and found by the time I was assembling my fifth pastry that the balance of the dough was so dry and brittle that it was no longer usable and had to be discarded. So without further ado, here are the tips I have collected and found useful:

  1. When using frozen filo dough (which is the entirety of my experience, actually), thaw the dough in the refrigerator for approximately 24 hours prior to use. Attempts at thawing the dough at room temperature for shorter periods have always resulted in sheets which were gummy and very difficult to separate.
  2. Throw the leftover dough away. It doesn't matter how skilled and obsessive a packrat you are. You cannot save it for later. You cannot wear it as a turban. Throw the leftover dough away.
  3. Your working environment is very important. Work away from direct sunlight. Work away from any air conditioner vents. Sunlight and dry, moving air will suck the moisture from your dough like a ravenous vampire.
  4. If, despite your mastery of your personal climate, you find the filo to be too dry you can use a plant mister to spray water over the dough. This only seems to work up until a certain point of dryness, but if you are at this point with the filo you don't have a whole lot to lose. Don't spray directly on the filo; rather mist the air about 6 - 12 inches above the dough.
  5. Stage your filo sheets in a hermetically sealed, humidity-controlled container that will dispense your sheets one at a time. Or if you live in my universe, place a sheet of Saran Wrap on your counter top, securing each corner with a weighty object or tape, to serve as a base. Place your filo sheets on this base and then cover them with another sheet of Saran Wrap. Cover the top layer of wrap with a damp dishtowel to provide a little moisture. Replace the top layer immediately after withdrawing a sheet of filo for assembly.
  6. Finally, perhaps due to my poor-man's cutlery, I have yet to find a knife that can be used to cut filo sheets without tearing the sheet. The best solution I have found so far is a sharp wheel-type cutter such as a pizza cutter or a dough cutter. Sharpness is the key.

If anyone has any more filo lore and/or corrections, dear lord, please let me know!

Li Kao has been there, friends, and knows. I too have been there, and I have only a few things to add.

Making filo or phyllo as thin as the frozen stuff is impossible for mere mortals, so I too buy it in that form. I wholly concur with the crucial 24-hour fridge-thawing, to which I would add 1 or 2 hours out of the fridge to get the stuff to room temperature. Phyllo at room temperature is easiest to work with.

Li Kao uses plastic wrap under and over the filo, which is an interesting idea. I find plastic wrap about as user friendly as Superglue, which is to say, not very. Experiences with the latter invariably end up with finger fastened firmly to eyebrow, while those with the former seem a battle against the plastic's perverted will to self-gratification that will not be denied. And once a corner of a sheet of plastic wrap has stuck to its middle, no pleas, threats, or tears will pull it apart. I use waxed paper or parchment paper, which is much more placid. And yes, still a slightly damp tea towel on top.

Work with one sheet of phyllo at a time, removing it from its plastic or waxy casing and placing it deftly on a large cutting board. At this point it's best if you coat the sheet lightly with some kind of fat. Some brush it with melted butter or olive oil, which inevitably results in some tearing. I recently discovered spray cans of olive oil, which works like a dream for precisely this task. A quick pass over the sheet and it's oily and ready for the next sheet. I can't think of anything I make with filo - triangles, cigars, or purses - that doesn't use at least two stacked sheets. (See here for instructions on making these shapes of filled phyllo.)

The cutting board may help Li Kao with cutting the phyllo, though it's true, as s/he knows in his/her heart of hearts, that nothing makes cutting easy like a good sharp knife. Buy one, a good big chef's knife, along with a good sharpening steel, and all cutting jobs will become much easier.

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