Saganaki – Authentic Greek Fried Cheese

November 11, 2018

Cheese SaganakiIs there anyone who does not like fried cheese? In Greece ordering a “saganaki” basically means fried cheese. Crunchy on the outside, melted cheese on the inside and warm. A perfect appetizer to start any meal.

If you have ever visited a Greek restaurant in the US, you have surely come across the flaming saganaki, also known as the flaming cheese. While saganaki, fried or pan-seared cheese has always existed, the flaming cheese is a Greek-American thing. It was invented by the owner of the Parthenon restaurant in Greektown in Chicago in the late 60’s, and since then has been a fixture in most Greek restaurants. When you order this flaming cheese, the waiter will pour some brandy or ouzo and set it on fire and yell “OPA”, which is an exclamation to express surprise, admiration or wonder, it is not the cheese that is on fire, but the plate. The cheese is fried in a small pan on the stovetop and then transferred to a dish or little pan. The word saganaki actually means a little pan and that’s where the name comes from.

In Greece we do not do the flaming thing (only in some touristy places), but the saganaki as an appetizer is quite popular when eating out at a tavern here. It is ordered as a meze (appetizer) and shared among everyone at the table.

The Right Kind of Cheese for Saganaki

Obviously you need a cheese that is hard, that will not just melt in your pan. The standard cheese is kefalotyri. You may also try kegalograviera, graviera or kasseri. You should be able to find these cheeses in certain stores, if not you can try Pecorino Romano. Then there is also the Cypriot halloumi and formaela from Arahova, but these do not melt that much although they are equally delicious.

How to Make Saganaki

So let’s see how to make this delectable appetizer at home. Some restaurants deep fry this cheese, but I feel that you can’t taste the cheese that way, you end up eating more crust than cheese, plus it doesn’t really need it. The goal here is to get a nice crust and get the cheese in the middle to soften and melt just a bit, and once you do this, you must eat it right away, otherwise the cheese will get hard. You only need 3 ingredients: flour, olive oil and the cheese as you will not be making some sort of breading.

How to Serve Saganaki

This is quite an easy appetizer to make, but you cannot make it ahead since it must be served hot. There is no reason to make ahead since it literally takes only 5 minutes to make. Saganaki is served with a bit of lemon and that’s it. Place it on the table and cut it in bite size pieces. Generally it is not consumed with bread, I find that it is nice to eat with a salad like a simple tomato salad or a romaine as it balances out all richness of the cheese. Now let me add, this is not the healthiest food, but remember, a saganaki is usually shared among 2-4 people which corresponds to just a few ounces of cheese.

Saganaki - Greek Fried Cheese

Yield: 2-4

Saganaki - Greek Fried Cheese

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil
  • Flour
  • 1 thick square slice of kefalotyri or other hard cheese (see above) around 4 x 4 inches (11 x 11 cm). Thickness must be at least 2/3 of an inch or 1 ½ cm. If it is thinner, it will melt.
  • Lemon for serving

Instructions

  1. Take the slice of cheese and dip it in cold water, then in white flour, shaking to remove excess and smoothing it with your fingers.
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a small pan under medium heat. Once hot, place the cheese in the pan and fry for about 2 minutes than flip carefully (I use a thin rubber spatula). Be careful not to let the crust slide off. Fry on the other side for about 2 minutes. The crust should be golden.
  3. Remove from pan and place on a plate, squeeze some lemon over it and serve right away.

SAVE FOR LATER AND PIN IT!

saganaki recipe

Photos by Elena Paravantes © All Rights Reserved

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8 Comments

  • Reply Diana November 11, 2018 at 4:35 pm

    Dear Elena, Saganaki is a regular staple for summer lunches with a tomato salad. I probably make it once a week, it’s so easy and so good. But I have found that the cheese has to be cold, right out of the fridge or it doesn’t slice properly or cook right.

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RDN November 11, 2018 at 6:38 pm

      Thanks for sharing Diana. Yes, it should as cold as possible, hence also dipping it in cold water. Some people even recommend putting it in the freezer for a few minutes before frying.

  • Reply Linda November 11, 2018 at 8:22 pm

    My son (17) loves to make Saganaki. He has become the house specialist in frying and then adding lemon juice to it. As I read your article, though, I laughed because the first time I had Saganaki was at the Parthenon in Chicago. I was in college and visiting my niece who is Greek. We had flaming Saganaki with the OPA included by the waiter. At that time it seemed so grown up and special. I’ve never had it flaming since.

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RDN November 12, 2018 at 5:55 am

      Thank you for sharing Linda! How lucky to have had the flaming cheese at the source!

  • Reply Ken Wightman November 12, 2018 at 2:29 am

    Nice work. You got the story of Flaming Cheese correct. Concocted in Chicago in the ’60s, it soon migrated to Detroit Greektown. It was a dramatic hit. So often, folk get the story wrong. Not you. Take a bow.
    Cheers!

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RDN November 12, 2018 at 5:59 am

      Thanks Ken! Being from Chicago, I have first-hand accounts from my parents and friends who were there at the time.

  • Reply Nick @ GreekBoston.com November 28, 2018 at 4:41 pm

    Saganaki is one of those classic Greek dishes that should be on every Greek table! When it “flames” it’s an even bigger treat. This is a great recipe.

  • Reply Eleftheria vogiatzi November 29, 2018 at 2:17 pm

    Saganaki is one of the best Greek dishes ever. If spread with a bit of honey and sesame seeds it’s lifted on another level.

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