Greek cuisine is known for many iconic dishes, and saganaki is nothing short of foundational. It is one of the best ways to showcase the variety of cheeses the country has to offer and is typically served at the start of a mezze spread.

An early version of saganaki appeared in the late ’60s at the Parthenon restaurant in Greektown, Chicago, which saw the owner bring a piping hot pan of cheese to the table, add a dash of alcohol and set it alight in front of guests. The result was a slice of cheese with a crispy outer layer, a gooey centre and a memorable flavour. It’s just one of the many interpretations of the dish, with another iteration drizzled with lemon, oregano and honey.

Hospitality talks to Ploos’ Peter Conistis and the Greekdoor Matina Spetsiotis about its prevalence in Greek venues, choosing the right kind of cheese for the job and mastering saganaki techniques.

Peter Conistis is a Sydney-based chef who has opened a raft of Greek restaurants over the years, including the latest: Ploos in Campbells Cove. People often have the wrong idea when it comes to saganaki, confusing the ingredient with the technique. “People think saganaki is the cheese, but saganaki is a word that refers to the style of cooking; it’s the pan it’s cooked in,” says Conistis of the traditional small pan which has two handles. “In the northern parts of Greece, seafood is done saganaki style with prawns and muscles.”

As for the cheese component, there are several options that can be used to make the dish. “The consumption of cheese is very broad in Greece,” says Matina Spetsiotis, chef and owner of Greekdoor in Sydney’s Balmain. “Saganaki cheese is one of the mezze items that make up a Greek spread because cheese is a part of the meal; it’s not a specific course.”

Saganaki at Greekdoor

There are myriad cheeses found in Greek cookery, but kefalotyri or kefalograviera are the most popular options and both offer distinct flavour profiles. “If you’re going with the graviera, it’s less salty, a little nuttier and works beautifully combined with fruit,” says Conistis. “I’d normally use a kefalotyri because it’s punchier, saltier and has real bite when the cheese is aged. When it roasts, it becomes the star, with honey and lemon accentuating the flavour.”

Both cheeses are a blend of sheep milk and goat milk, which is commonplace in Greece. Conistis recommends chefs try each cheese to determine the best option. “With a kefalotyri and graviera style, pan roast them and see which one is your preferred taste: do you like it nuttier and milder or do you like a real punch?” he says. “A purist will always go for a kefalotyri so they can accompany it with fruit flavours such as roast grapes or figs.”

Spetsiotis preferences a semi-soft or a semi-hard cheese, opting for talagani from Chios in the south Peloponnese at Greekdoor. “You need a stringy type of cheese for saganaki,” says the chef. “It’s all about texture and how it holds itself when you cook it. During the cooking process, it becomes nice and crisp on the outside and remains gooey and soft on the inside, which is the texture of saganaki cheese.”

Softer cheeses can be used, but there is a risk they might not hold together if measurements aren’t put in place. “With feta and other cheeses like manouri, they need a little bit of extra care in the preparation because they are so moist and soft,” says Spetsiotis. “You need to wash all the brine off and put it through flour. These cheeses need a thicker coating to keep them intact while cooking.”

Perfecting saganaki’s cooking technique starts with preparing the cheese. Conistis prefers to keep things simple. “In different parts of Greece, a lot of people might put in a bit of flour before they fry the cheese in the pan,” says the chef.

Peter Conistis

“I tend not to do that because I like to get a natural crust as opposed to the crust building from a wheat protein, but there are other ways. If you dip it into a little bit of water and coat it with some black and white sesame seeds before frying, you’re building up an extra crust and another flavour component.”

Spetsiotis preferences tapioca starch for her cheese with feta as the exception. “I don’t like using flour unless it’s for a soft feta cheese; it’s really thick and solid and can even come out raw,” she says. “The tapioca starch is very light; we put the cheese in it and dust it off. It just needs enough coating to provide protection on the hot plate and get a beautiful crispiness.”

Getting the right kind of equipment for the job is the next step in the process. “You need a pan that can heat up fast so you can get the pan nice and hot when you put the cheese into it and retain the heat,” says Conistis. “A heavy heat conducting pan is the best way to start when you’re making a saganaki cheese.”

A traditional saganaki pan can be tricky to find here in Australia, but there are alternatives. “You don’t have to have a saganaki pan, you can use a regular frying pan with a heavy base,” says Spetsiotis. “We cook it on a hot plate at around 180 degrees Celsius.”

Once the cheese is placed in the pan, it is slowly cooked until both sides are browned. There is no exact time frame, but it is estimated to take a couple of minutes. “You have to be attentive: I can’t stress that enough; you can’t just walk away from it,” says Spetsiotis. “You will see the cheese becoming crisp and golden, which is the way it should be.”

Saganaki cheese must be consumed straight after cooking, which is why it is usually served in the pan. “Saganaki is never taken out and put onto the plate, it’s always served in the pan,” says Conistis. “It keeps it hot and bubbly and you’ve also got that wonderful dressing on the bottom by the time you finish it which can enjoy with bread.”

There is no denying cheese is the star in saganaki, but seasonings, dressings and accompaniments take it to the next level. Quintessential Greek ingredients such as lemon, olive oil, thyme, oregano and honey are traditional additions, with other options including fruit, nuts, alcohol and sometimes even pastry.

“At the moment, our saganaki has a beautiful Greek honey over it, a piece of honeycomb on the side, roasted pecans on top, some fresh thyme leaves, little flowers (if we find them) and lemon,” says Spetsiotis. “It’s an ideal balance with the saltiness from the cheese, the sweetness from the honeycomb and the acidity from the lemon.”

The options are endless when it comes to additions and can be switched out depending on personal taste and seasonality. “You can use different fruits such as figs, conserves and things like relish,” says Spetsiotis. “In the past, we’ve used walnuts or sesame seeds on top.”

Matina Spetsiotis

Over the course of his career, Conistis has experimented with many different variations, but says a splash of ouzo goes a long way. “One of the purest ways I know that everyone loves, especially in Greece, is hitting it with some lemon juice, a shot of ouzo and a sprinkle of oregano,” he says.

“Ouzo is one of the best flavour combinations with saganaki cheese. It personifies Greek cuisine with that its herby anise flavour and it just adds to the cheese.”

The chef’s most popular version of saganaki is halloumi with pistachio and sesame seeds, but another version sees the cheese wrapped in fine kataifi pastry. “We roast it and it becomes really crunchy and fine,” says Conistis. “You get the crunch on the outside and soft, molten cheese on the inside. We used to serve it with roasted plums finished off in the pan with the cheese.”

If you go to any Greek restaurant in any part of the world, saganaki is almost always on the menu. It’s a dish that both modern and traditional concepts gravitate towards. “I’ve been cooking for more than 30 years and I’ve had a version of it at every restaurant,” says Conistis. “The more Greek restaurants that have opened over the years, the more saganaki I’ve seen and that’s great because people seem to love it.”

The dish is a representation of the importance of cheese within Greek cuisine and is the centrepiece of the table. “Growing up, Greek cheese was plonked in the middle of the table regardless of what you eat, and the rest finds its way around the cheese,” says Spetsiotis.

“It’s not just important for saganaki, but it’s very important in the Greek diet. For me, there wouldn’t be a menu with the style of cooking I do without saganaki cheese on the mezze spread.”