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What Ingredients Do I Need to Cook Greek Food?

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Local grocery store

Produce at my local grocery store

Photo © Jim Stanfield
Question: What Ingredients Do I Need to Cook Greek Food?
Do I need any special kinds of ingredients to cook Greek food, and if so, are they hard to find?
Answer:

A comparison of your refrigerator and kitchen pantry and mine would most likely reveal that we have the same or similar foods, herbs, and spices on hand. And if not, your local market carries most of them. The secret of great Greek foods is the combination of readily available and simple ingredients with herbs, spices, and flair to create the wonderful dishes that are favorites of Greek and non-Greeks alike.

Traditional Greek cooking makes use of what grows and is raised here. While we may go out and pick our wild greens, the same or similar greens are available at the grocery store. Our tomatoes may taste better than others because of the soil, but they're the same varieties of tomatoes that can be found in local markets outside Greece. Check the Greek Food Photo Galleries for a closer look at what we buy here in Greece and how it compares with what you find when you shop.

The meats, poultry, fish, and seafood served in Greek homes are, again, those that can be found locally. Beef, lamb, goat, pork, poultry, and game are all home favorites. Fish and seafood include cod, red mullet, mackerel, sea bass, sole, whitebait, smelts, eel, squid, octopus, bivalves, soft-shell varieties, lobster and many others.

There are, of course, a few ingredients that are specific to Greece or to Greek cooking. For example:

  • Olive oil: Olive oil is made around the world; however Greek olive oil is a true treasure, and the taste cannot be duplicated.

  • Sugar: All sugar made in Greece is made from sugar beets. If you make a recipe directly from a Greek-language recipe or cookbook, unless cane sugar is specified, the sugar is beet sugar. Does it make a difference? Some say no. Some say yes.

  • Butter: Most original Greek recipes call for olive oil (even in pastries like Baklava), lard, or margarine, although there are a few that call for butter. Butter from cow's milk is a fairly recent addition to Greek markets; traditional butter is made from sheep or goat milk.

    • olive oil is widely available and its nutritional value and taste are highly prized, and
    • pure creamery butter (sold in jars as a viscous liquid) is more expensive than olive oil.

    This doesn't mean butter can be substituted in every recipe that calls for olive oil, but it can be used in some instances. Here on the site, "or butter" is usually indicated.

    One notable exception is the baked goods that are made at Greek Orthodox Easter. Easter is the most significant observance in the Greek Orthodox faith and it has been tradition to create Easter foods with the best (and most expensive) ingredients - and those often include butter.

  • Salt: Traditional Greek cooking relies on sea salt. While some sea salts are very expensive, the lower-priced kosher sea salt is eminently acceptable, and Greek sea salt is available in some markets and online shopping resources. I recommend staying away from table salt when cooking. It does make a difference.

  • Cucumbers: The cucumbers generally available all over Greece are what are called "Kirby" or "English" cucumbers in the U.S., and are often found at the market wrapped in plastic wrap. These cucumbers generally have fewer and smaller seeds than other varieties, meaning they are less bitter, and a dull skin. If you can't find them, simply peel and remove the seeds from another variety.

Visit the photo galleries to see cheeses, olives, seafood, herbs and spices, and other ingredients to see how similar our foods are to those you find at your local market. Where an ingredient may be hard to find, recipes here on the site include suggestions for substitutes. Generally, however, if there's a Greek, Mediterranean, or Middle Eastern market within reach, even the few hard-to-find items can be purchased, and organic grocers often carry Greek products, including some of the lesser known cheeses.

Have a question? Post it on the Greek Food forum or email me.

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