Flaming Cheese Saganaki

Oct 2nd, 2010 | By | Category: Appetizer, Chinese, Featured, Flambe, Frying, Greek, Greek Wine, How To, Meze, Quick

This appetizer meze is one that you will find both in Greece and in the tavernas around the world. The glaring difference in the Cheese Saganaki served in Greece and abroad is that in Greece it will simply be pan-seared and brought to your table. Abroad (Canada, US, Australia, western Europe) you will also get some showmanship with the waiter lighting up the cheese with either Metaxa (Greek brandy) or Ouzo (anise aperatif). This “flaming cheese” theatric got its beginnings in Chicago’s Greektown. The Liakouras brothers, founding owners of the Parthenon, claim to be the first to light the fried cheese with brandy (Metaxa).

Non-Greek friends get a kick out this spectacle and both Greeks and non-Greeks order this almost every time at the local taverna. If  you scan down to the recipe instructions you’ll be amazed at how easy this meze is to reproduce but they are many caveats – things you must be aware of and details.

Once again, “saganaki” refers to many dishes in Greek cookery (not just this cheese meze). Saganaki refers to the two-handled vessel wherein such appetizers are served in. There is Shrimp Saganaki, Mussels Saganaki, one of my own creations in Scallops Saganaki and of course the famed Cheese Saganaki (I know you want to yell OPA!).

First, it is important that you choose the right kind of cheese. It should be a Greek cheese and it should be a firm cheese – something that will hold-up well to heat. Luckily, you also have some options:

Graviera cheese is a sheep’s milk cheese, off-white to yellow in colour, not too salty and it has a slight sweetness and some of the best Graviera is produced on the islands of Crete, Naxos and Mytlini.

Kefalograviera is the cheese I like the best for Cheese Saganaki. It is again a sheep’s milk cheese that is saltier than graviera but not as salty as Kefalotyri cheese.

Kefalotyri is definitely a salty cheese, often compared in flavour to a Romano Peccorino and both cheeses are made of sheep’s milk. If you’re the type that likes piquant flavours and your cheese quite briny, you may also use Kefalotyri for saganaki.

Many Greek grocers will also carry pre-cut and packaged portions of cheese labeled as “Saganaki cheese”. The source of this cheese varies and you should ask a clerk for more info, including how salty this cheese is.

Kasseri is a mild sheep’s milk cheese that often appears on Greek tables for nibbling during dinner. It’s probably the least salty of all the cheeses mentioned here yet it also holds up well to high heat.

Halloumi cheese from Cyprus can also be used to make Saganaki. Primarily made of sheep’s milk, it is buttery in flavour, amounts of salt vary from brand to brand and it’s usually packed in a brine with some dry mint.

Those are you cheese options that are widely available and accessible in most markets outside of Greece. Inside Greece, the variery of cheeses that are available and suitable for “saganaki” are a multitude. I am now depressed just thinking of the variety of cheeses in Greece.

Now another important step is in slicing the cheese. You may choose to cut a square or triangular piece (the shape is often determined by whether you bought a wedge of cheese from a wheel or a brick). The thickness of the cheese is most important. Being stingy with the portion will only result in a cheese that will melt ito a gooey blob in your skillet. Slice your cheese to the thickness of about 1/2 inch (or width of yout index finger).

Finally, I must address the safety issue – lighting up the cheese. NEVER pour the alcohol from the bottle to the pan. Flare-ups can occur where the alcohol you poured into the pan will ignite and travel up into the bottle of booze you are holding in your hand. The SAFE way is to pour the alcohol into a shot glass and then pour it into the pan and ignite.

When lighting the alcohol on fire for Saganaki it is safest to turn off your stove, carry the hot cheese to your serving table and light away from any other heat source and for pure entertainment purposes. Also, make sure you have a high ceiling (or even do it outdoors during the warm months).

Cheese Saganaki (Τυρι σαγανακι)

1 slab of cheese, 4″ x 4″ and 1/2″ inch thick, trimmed of any rind

1 heaping Tbsp. of olive oil

all-purpose flour for dredging

1/2 shot glass of Metaxa (brandy or Ouzo)

wedge of lemon

  1. Pre-heat a heavy-bottomed skillet (a cast-iron pan works very well) to a medium-high heat. Place your slab of cheese under running tap water then dredge in all-purpose flour. Shake off any excess flour.
  2. Add your olive oil to the skillet. Add a sprinkle of flour into the pan to test if the oil is hot enough. As soon as it sizzles, add your cheese to the skillet and sear for a couple of minutes. Carefully flip the cheese with a spatula and allow to sear for a couple of minutes on the other side.
  3. Turn off your heat source and carefully carry your cheese saganaki to your table and pour the brandy ( or Ouzo) over the cheese and ignite with a lighter. Move your head back, shout “OPA” and squeeze the wedge of lemon over the cheese.
  4. Serve immediately with crusty bread, some Ouzo on ice or a Savatianno white.

If you are not reading this post in a feed reader or at  http://kalofagas.ca then the site you are reading is illegally publishing copyrighted material. Contact me at truenorth67 AT gmail DOT COM. All recipes, text and photographs in this post are the original creations & property of the author.

© 2007-2010 Peter Minakis

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© 2010 – 2011, Peter Minakis. All rights reserved. If you are not reading this post in a feed reader or at http://kalofagas.ca then the site you are reading is illegally publishing copyrighted material. Contact me at truenorth67 AT gmail DOT COM. All recipes, text and photographs in this post are the original creations & property of the author.

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35 Comments to “Flaming Cheese Saganaki”

  1. Jamie says:

    An amazing Greek version of the plain old American grilled cheese? I’ll take this any day! Fabulous!

  2. I didn’t know that the cooking/serving dish is also called a saganaki, as well as what’s cooked in it. Like “tagine”. Thanks for teaching us!

  3. Thank you for this post Peter. I have made many a flambé dish in my day. I love the explanation of Greek cheeses as well. A great resource, I am bookmarking this one for later.

  4. Wait one second while I put my tongue back in my mouth. I just don’t know what to say… I want to eat my computer right now.

  5. I haven’t eaten saganaki in such a long time, and I’m a total cheese freak! So something’s wrong here.
    I will be making this soon! Looks fantastic Peter!
    Magda

  6. I like when my food is served to me in flames. It never gets old, I guess I am a big kid inside.

  7. mmm, cheese flambé..so easy and delicious with ouzo!
    Where can one buy a saganaki?

  8. Rosa says:

    OMG, that is totally to die for!

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  9. I would prefer kefalograviera too but it’s no where to be found here in Portland! I’ve never actually made saganaki – I really need to do this soon… be a gastrosexual and impress my date ;)

  10. Jon says:

    The dudes at my local Greek Fest used Cognac for their alcohol. I forget the cheese, but it was quite good.

  11. Foodycat says:

    I have eaten saganaki in many restaurants in Australia and I have never seen it flamed before! It looks wonderful. I still have some homemade halloumi in my freezer, so I may have to give this a shot!

  12. Simona says:

    Very nice description of some really good Greek cheeses. You know, Peter, your posts should come with warnings. For example, this post may cause fainting in a cheese lover. Just kidding, of course. While the top photo really gives a sense of the dish, it’s the last one that made my heart lose a beat. A rather roundabout way to say: great post!

  13. jasna says:

    Very interesting and informative blog. My ‘roots’ are very close to Greece; I like to say that it’s place where east meets west – and it shows in ‘our’ food, culture, music…

  14. Barbara says:

    That’s amazing! I’m drooling.
    Love the info on cheeses, too, Peter.

  15. I actually bought your favourite one for this dish at our local Italian store when some Greek visitors were buy it because they cannot get it easily in BC where they were from. (I am from Alberta – the neighbouring province). I bought it, and it seemed so dense and too heavy for this – so I am so pleased to have your recipe to try it with. And, are you squeezing the lemon over it in the photo? That is always what they do here.
    :)
    Valerie

  16. Saganaki cheese is my old time favorite (next to a good greek salad) of greek food. And maybe the waiters here are not so adventurous as I have never had any flaming saganaki cheese! I will have to try this myself!! Looks so good!

  17. this is the first thing that was done when I had dinner at a Greek restaurant and even though the cheese was a bit salty, it was magical. the cheese tasted like what we call kashkaval. Great tips.

  18. Cherine says:

    oh my, i’m drooling here!!

  19. Sinfully delicious! My kind of food. :)

  20. Vasiliki says:

    You are so mean!!!!! Its only 12:00 and i have to wait 3 whole hours until i get home…..

  21. Delicious! I have a large piece of halloumi in the fridge….hmmmmm….:)

  22. Foodjunkie says:

    This saganaki has my name on it. Next time try it with mastello from Chios. It is really nice, because it is not so salty.

  23. Lori Lynn says:

    Great post, great tips, great photos. That yellow flame is amazing, I don’t think I’ve seen that before.
    LL

  24. I’m a sucker for flaming food! I have never been brave enough to make cheese saganaki at home, but I always go for it on a menu. You have inspired me to try it myself!

  25. I’ve seen this, but not had this before. So I should be looking for a firm sheep’s milk cheese huh? I don’t have ouzo but I do have some brandy so I think I’ll have to try this some day.

    OPA!

  26. Joan Nova says:

    Saganaki 101 – a great tutorial here. I didn’t know the ‘saganaki’ was the name of the pan. One of my favorites is garides saganaki. Your pics are mouth-watering.

  27. Larry Dunham says:

    I had the “flaming cheese” in Chicago at a Greek place……..loved it! To me it was warm salty cheese with fresh lemon on it…………YUM!

  28. [...] cheese on the chicken from Toumba had to be a Kefalotyri (a sharp cheese often used for grating or Cheese Saganaki) but for this recipe, I’ve decided to use a milder cheese in a grated dry Mizithra cheese. Dry [...]

  29. [...] vessel that it’s served in and there are many varieties of saganaki dishes. Think beyond the “flaming cheese”. fishing as the sun sets over the Thermaic [...]

  30. [...] that is set on fire table side.  A lot of people complain that this dish is too salty, but this website provides excellent information on the different types of cheese (with varying levels of saltiness) [...]

  31. [...] is often enjoyed in the style of “saganaki”, that is to say it’s fried in the two-handled vessel and often flambeed with Tsipouro (local [...]

  32. laura says:

    We used to run to Greektown just for some saganaki, wine and crusty bread! Oh I miss living in Chicagoland…OPA!!

  33. mary says:

    just had some in tarpon springs florida had to look on line how to make it. It is romantic turn the lights low.

  34. Jerry Moore says:

    Discovered Saganaki in a Greek Restaurant years ago. Rarely go to a restaurant to order any longer, their price is terrible. Just go to the local Greek Food Shop and buy a LARGE CHUNK to prepare myself. It’s just as easy as you say. Water, flour, lemon juice, slices in hot pan with olive oil/butter. Also flamed with Sambucca. Awesome dish any way you fix it. Thanks for sharing.

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