Cooking in Packets Seals in Juices & Flavor

Salmon Kleftiko PacketDuring the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Turks, Klefts were irregular guerilla fighters. Among their many feats, Klefts famously stole sheep and roasted them slowly over buried fires. This trick prevented the Ottomans from smelling meat and finding the guerillas.

Kleftiko is a lamb dish named after the Klefts’ cooking style. Traditionally, the meat was cooked in buried lamb skins or clay pots. In modern versions of kleftiko, lamb, vegetables, and seasonings are wrapped tightly in foil or parchment paper, and slowly cooked in the oven. The meat ends up succulent, with all its flavor sealed inside the packet.

Instead of using lamb, I employed the same closed-container technique to make Salmon Kleftiko. Salmon cooks quickly, so it doesn’t need to be cooked at low temperature for a long time, as does lamb.

The five main varieties of wild salmon harvested in Alaska are king or Chinook (Oncorhynchus tschawytscha), silver or coho (Oncorhynchus kisutch), red or sockeye (Oncorhynchus nerka), pink or humpy (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha), and chum or dog (Oncorhynchus keta). Having lived so long with an abundance of wild, ocean-caught salmon, I know how badly farmed salmon stands up in comparison.

I prefer kings for eating fresh, silvers for freezing, and reds for smoking. As for pinks and chums, their flesh is pale and their flavor mild. They don’t have much fat so they’re easy to overcook. Many Alaskans throw pinks and chums back in order to make their limits with higher quality fish. Yes, we’re spoiled.

Although pinks are less desirable than other species, they’re quite tasty if properly prepared. The key to making fresh or frozen pink salmon taste good is moist heat; this helps prevent the fish from overcooking or drying out.

After my husband’s recent fishing trip, we ended up with one pink salmon among the more desirable silvers; we filleted and froze everything. Yesterday, I went to the freezer for silver salmon and accidentally grabbed a packet of pink. I put on hold my plan for grilled silver salmon (pinks dry out on the grill) and decided on Salmon Kleftiko.

UPDATE: August 20, 2008

Kleftiko: Its Modern Meaning

The comments to this post included an extended discussion about the general propriety of naming a dish cooked in individual packets as “Kleftiko” and the specific propriety of referring to a fish dish as “Kleftiko.” Although I named the dish in homage to the lamb original, given the interest in the topic, here’s some additional information about “kleftiko” as that term is used by modern Greek food writers.

Aglaia Kremezi, Diane Kochilas, Vefa Alexiadou, and Rosemary Barron are four of the most prominent English-language Greek cookbook writers alive today (all but Barron are Greek and publish their cookbooks in both Greek and English). All agree that lamb cooked in individual foil or parchment packets are properly called “kleftiko.” Here’s what each said:

A. On page 159 of The Foods of Greece, Kremezi has a recipe for “Lamb Roasted in Oiled Parchment (Arni Sto Harti, Kleftiko)” and writes in its headnote: “This is a contemporary version of kleftiko lamb, a famous dish in which lamb was roasted in its skin, buried in the hot embers of a fire… Usually you will find Arni Kleftiko cooked in one big parcel, but I have found that individual [parchment] packets are easier to serve. And it’s easier to open the small parcels without spilling the precious sauce.”

B. On page 123 of The Glorious Foods of Greece (published in Greek as Η Ελλάδα της Γεύσης), Kochilas has a recipe for “Goat or Lamb with Garlic and Cheese Baked in [Parchment] Paper (Kleftiko).” Her headnote states: “The word klephtiko comes from the Klephts, or mountain rebels of the Greek Revolution, who used to cook their food underground so that no steam or aromas would escape….”

C. On page 94 of Greek Cuisine (published in Greek as Ελληνική Κουζίνα Μαγειρική), Alexiadou has a recipe for “Lamb Parcels (Arni Kleftiko)” which she says should be cooked in either parchment paper or thick aluminum foil.

D. On page 206 of Flavors of Greece, Barron has a recipe for “Lamb Klephtiko, Arni Klephtiko” about which she states, “In this classic dish, thick slices of lamb … cook gently in a tight paper parcel from which no juices or tantalizing aromas can escape.”

On-line sources confirm that in Greece today, the term kleftiko may refer to dishes cooked in packets made of parchment paper, foil, puff pastry, or filo. See, e.g.:

Please keep in mind there are many more kleftiko recipes, online and in cookbooks, that rely on parchment or foil packets. The above list is not intended to be exhaustive. The links are provided only to show the extent to which food baked in individual parchment or foil packets is referred to as kleftiko.

Although lamb (or goat) is the most commonly used meat in kleftiko, it is not the only one. In the modern Greek culinary community, kleftiko may refer to a specific lamb dish, but also is used to refer to the technique of cooking in closed packets. On the pages referenced above, here’s what the Greek food experts said:

A. Kremezi says, “Many variations of Kleftiko can be found today throughout Greece, some containing vegetables (zucchini, eggplant, peppers) and even tomatoes.”

B. Kochilas says, “Nowadays, klephtiko has come to refer to any food that is somehow wrapped or sealed during cooking.”

C. Barron says, “Traditionally only lamb, goat, and fish are cooked this way but this wonderfully flavorful method can also be used very successfully with vegetables.”

S. See also, “Originally klephtiko was anything baked in paper, but eventually it became a traditional way of cooking fish or meat, especially baby lamb.”

Be sure to check out the recipes mentioned in this post:


27 Responses to Cooking in Packets Seals in Juices & Flavor

  1. “Arni kleftiko” is another one of those favourite Greek dishes. I like the principles you applied from the lamb kleftiko for the salmon. And my! What a selection! We have Tasmanian salmon grown down in he very South of Australia..


    most informative post – the only salmon we get here is pink inside (is that you mean by pink?)
    i love fish and meat in the oven cooked in its own juices – much healthier way to cook than frying. the grilled salmon we buy in greece always seems to fall apart – am i doing something wrong?

  3. The resulting tomato broth from this kleftiko would no doubt bring out the bread dipping in us all.

  4. It’s amazing how much our food (and fashion) are influenced through social necessities and change.

    How lucky to have such abundant choice of wild salmon at your doorstep.

    Great, simple recipe. Love foil packets. You wonder why anyone would bother w/ a TV dinner when this hardly takes more time. (Yes, I’ve eaten TV dinners. ;))

  5. Linda Warner Constantino says:

    This sounds so delicious. Love hearing the history along with it and you write so beautifully!


  6. In Mexico there is a similar way of cooking sheep and goat burying it in the ground and sealing the flavors. We call it barbacoa. I love your blog, the whole concept of Mediterranean cooking in Alaska is so cool! I will be following it closely.


  7. Peter G – I had to look up Tasmanian salmon – it sounds as if it is a farmed product but the article I read was a little vague – are their also salmon stocks down there that have naturalized and now run wild??

    Maria – the salmon I’ve seen in Athens is farmed Atlantic salmon from Norway. It falls apart, in my opinion, because of the lower quality that farmed fish has. Many people love farmed salmon; I’m just not one of them.

    Peter M, EXACTLY right!!

    Susan, oh you made me laugh! We grew up eating TV dinners when my parents went out for the evening (though I preferred frozen chicken pot pies…). But you’re right, foil packets make it really easy.

    Thanks Linda! Thinking of you.

    Ben, that’s interesting, I didn’t know about barbacoa. So glad you like my blog, thanks!

  8. Hi Sam, thanks for your two cents – I was aware of your post and if you notice there is a link to it in my article.

    I have to disagree with you on the substance of what you say – and it may be a regional issue.

    The way I’d put it is that “exohiko” is a form of kleftiko cooking. Here’s what Clifford Wright, an eminent Mediterranean food historian had to say on the subject:

    “Exohiko means “countryside” in Greek. Diane Kochilas, the author of [many important Greek cookbooks and the food columnist for Ta Nea newspaper in Greece] tells us that this style of food is called Klephtica or “of thieves,” in reference to the Klephts – early nineteenth-century mountain fighters agains the Ottomans – who cooked their food in buried ovens so they wouldn’t give away their positions.”

  9. Sam Sotiropoulos says:

    Oh, I didn’t click the link as I knew what the Klephts were… Thank you! 🙂

    Well, as far as the “exohiko” and “kleftiko” go, we will simply have to agree to disagree. Traditionally and to this day, “klephtiko” refers to only one type of dish and that is a lamb recipe cooked in its own special oven which developed from the buried Klepht ovens of the Ottoman Occupation. I don’t know if you have ever been to Cyprus (I have not, though I know many Cypriots), but practically every home has one of these little clay ovens. Further, because the “klephtiko” ovens have pretty much vanished from the yards of mainland Greece, including in the Peloponnese, another cooking method has been confused with the “klephtiko” which is actually referred to as “exohiko” which as I had already mentioned means ‘countryside’. Now the wrapping of foods as a cooking method goes back to ancient times when fig leaves were used to wrap various foodstuffs for cooking in conventional ovens of the time. The specific nature of the term “klephtiko” in Greek cuisine refers to one specific dish, and that is a lamb recipe done in the traditional fashion which involves a special clay oven that is usually near (if not actually in) the ground, that is sealed with mud and left to slowly roast the meat over a period that can be as long as 48 hours. So, I have to respectfully disagree with Diane Kochilas’ opinion on the matter as well, as I do not believe “exohiko” is an outgrowth of “klephtiko”, in point of fact, I believe it is likely the other way round. Variations on the “exohiko” manner of cooking also include pastry/phyllo shells which are definitely not a part of the “klephtiko” tradition per se. In any case, I am not sure what DK’s sources are so I cannot definitively dismiss her explanation, but based on my own research, I think the wrapping and oven-cooking of various foodstuffs appeared in Greek culinary tradition long before the Klephts stuffed animal skins with meat and slow-roasted them in buried ovens. But again, that is my opinion and I respect the fact that others may disagree.

  10. Bellini Valli says:

    I just had a discussion with a co-worker the other day who was asking about King Salmon which I had never heard of previously. Now I am in the know:D I love this dish Laurie, so simple and flavourful:D

  11. Sam, I agree with you about some things, but disagree with you about others. I absolutely agree that wrapping foods as a cooking method predates the klefts.

    The problem I have with the rest of your thesis is that no matter what it started out to mean, the term “kleftiko” is now commonly used to refer to lamb cooked in foil packets. As you and I have discussed before (and disagreed about before!), the world of food, cooking, and recipes is always evolving and changing. Perhaps the semantic issue we’re discussing is reflective of those changes.

    But yes, I’ll agree to disagree without a moment’s hesitation!

    Val, I’m surprised you don’t have king salmon in BC!

  12. I can never grow tired of salmon! Call it kleftiko or exohiko or fricasse or giouvetsi – I’ll eat it and won’t complain, LOL…’a rose by any other name’…salmon is damn good 🙂

  13. Kleftikos cooking with buried fire sounds like Hawaiian style imo (dug pit) cooking — of course, here it’s whole pigs instead of lamb! ; )

    That’s a clever translation of the technique to cooking for fish. You guys really are spoiled if you’re sending ANY salmon back to Neptune! Wow…

    I appreciate the tips about how to cook the different types of salmon, too. We often have frozen sockeye in the freezer so I’m going to take your advice on that.

  14. Sam and Bijoux, you are having too much fun!

    Just to clarify: the issue being debated is whether the term kleftiko is properly applied to lamb cooked in sealed packets as opposed to lamb cooked in a clay pot.

    The point of the cooking technique is to keep the juices and flavors in the meat by enclosing it in a sealed container. You can accomplish this by cooking in a sealed clay pot and you can accomplish this by cooking in sealed packets made of foil, parchment paper, or even brown paper bags.

    Since both methods achieve analagous results, it is proper to call them by the same name.

    Here’s more examples: Traditionally skordalia was made in a mortar and pestle. If I make it in a food processor, it is still skordalia.

    Moussaka was traditionally made without bechamel. When a 20th century upstart started adding a layer of bechamel, thus significantly changing the character of the dish, it remained moussaka.

    Your feta analogy also applies. The EU may have ruled as you describe (for economic reasons, not semantic), but the US hasn’t. Most stores in the US sell feta that is made here or in France. It’s not feta within the EU definition (and not as good as the greek cheese), but it is tasty and to the vast majority of American cooks, it’s all they know. So if I write a recipe using feta made and purchased in the US, I still call it feta – thus communicating effectively with my readers. To take your argument to its logical conclusion, I would need to eradicate the word feta from every one of my recipes and call it “salty white cheese masquerading as feta.” Since most of my readers wouldn’t understand what I was talking about if I did this, I use the only word (feta) that is comprehensible in context.

    I’ve already mentioned that food historian/writers Clifford Wright and Diane Kochilas use of the term “kleftiko” for lamb cooked in paper/foil packets. I’ve just looked through about 50 greek cookbooks and the majority use Kleftiko to refer to meat cooked in paper or foil packets.

    George Moudiotis, in Traditional Greek Cooking: The Food and Wines of Greece (Garnet Publishing 1998), summarizes the name issue thusly: “Roasting lamb in the open air without attracting the attention of the Turks was a problem…during the Greek War of Independence…The answer was to wrap the meat in paper OR put it in an earthenware pot and seal it with mud, then cook it for hours in the smouldering embers of pine logs. This is one of the stories of the origin of this popular dish and of its name. It is knows as lamb exohiko, lamb palikari, lamb kleftiko, OR simply sto harti (wrapped in paper).”

    In other words, where A=meat cooked in a sealed container – it can be called B, C, D, OR E. And Eskimoes have multiple words that all mean snow.

    I think part of the issue may be regional. Perhaps where you have been in Greece, the term “exohiko” is mor familiar. Where I go in Greece, kleftiko is the commonly used term (and exohiko is used for a pork dish).

    Language is a flexible thing, growing and changing with the times. There is not a word in the world with a permanently cast in stone meaning. At least in my world!

    Thanks for the debate, Sam!

    Manju – I had pig cooked the Hawaiian way only one time and man oh man was it succulent. It may be the best pig I’ve ever eaten. Glad the salmon tips helped!

  15. @Sam, hi again, I do know the whole debate & controversy regarding feta cheese and the labeling of such. Thanks for the article! Much appreciated. It seems that my mother and you have something in common. You both like to think you are right when it comes to Greek recipes and food…LOL!! Me, on the other hand, I like to be creative and "christen" things what I like. So, while it's been nice chatting with you, I'm ending this debate now because I am hungry and would like to go and have some 'raw' hummus made without chickpeas. See ya! Kali orexi!

  16. Bijoux – HA!

    Wow, Sam. I hardly know where to begin. I clearly misunderstood your comments.

    I accept the criticism that Kleftiko is made with lamb and stated as such in my original article. The name of my dish is intended to be a play on the kleftiko terminology. You don’t like the idea of being playful with terminology – that’s absolutely ok. I’m different – I like using traditional ingredients and techniques in non-traditional ways.

    Isn’t democracy wonderful!

    Lemon juice and bay leaves may appear in your family’s kleftiko recipe, but they don’t appear in lots of other recipes for this dish. This is yet another example showing that the character of traditional dishes changes depending on where they are made and who makes them.

    You are lucky to have a kleftiko dish handed down in your family and that is what kleftiko means to you. But as I explained before, many others call lamb cooked in paper or foil kleftiko. There is no absolute, cast in stone, one size fits all definition of the term “lamb kleftiko.”

    As for the rest of your post, you and I have a dramatically different approaches to food cooking and writing. That is a good thing – the more points of view the better. I think it isn’t possible for you and I to agree on this, but I’m glad for the vigorous debate! Thanks for your most interesting comments.

  17. Sam Sotiropoulos says:

    @Laurie, I always enjoy discussing these matters with you and I think it shows. 🙂 As for our approaches and writing styles, you are right, they are different and that is indeed a good thing. For, at the very least, it gives us something to discuss! lol And how boring a place would the internet be if everyone took the same approach in expressing themselves. With respect to “democracy”… let me just say that we likely have very different views on it as well. 🙂 Be well and continue coming up with your great dishes.

    @Bijou I am certain your mother is a lovely woman! I am also certain that there have been many times when you realized that despite your contrary opinion, mother did in fact know better. 😉 Take care!

  18. ooh I can imagine how good this would taste especially with your delicious Alaskan salmon!

  19. Mariana Kavroulaki says:

    Hi Laurie,
    What an interesting discussion!!!
    Kleftiko (Central Greece), Ofto (Crete), Krias sto homa (Kozani)etc. refer to the same method of baking. In past, animal theft was not an uncommon practice, so the cooking smell could bring not only the Ottomans but also the police or the owners of the stolen animals. In Cretan mountains animal theft was popular until 70ies; unfortunately was even thought as a form of affirmation of some shepherd’s masculine identity. According to kleftiko, ofto etc. method, a hole must be dug out and filled with pieces of wood. Then the woods will be fired up. The coals must be removed and the unskinned animal will be placed in the hole covered with soil and very hot coals until done. Ofto tou voskou (Psiloritis Mountain/ Chania/Crete) is a stomach filled with pieces of lamb or kid. Originally, it was also roasted in a hole covered with soil and hot charcoals. In the 19th century, the method was familiar to the inhabitants of Sterea Hellas as Dagli’s pot (Daglis was a famous thief). However, the 19th century cookbooks mention another recipe under the name kleftiko. Roast lamb a la palikar or roast lamb a la kleftika or lamb ala Graeca “is a dish that reminds us of our immortal heroes who roasted the lamb in this way, under the thick cover of a tree, celebrating our great feasts.’’ The lamb is skewed onto a wooden spit along the length of its spine and roasted over slow fire. It should be brushed frequently with butter and sprinkled with lemon juice, salt, pepper and occasionally with oregano. (1892)
    Today, kleftiko refer to several methods of baking, all of which require sealing the food and letting it cook slowly.
    Lamb exohiko, lamb in paper (arni sto harti) and lamb in baking sheet (arni sti ladokolla) is a version of kleftiko, created by the emerging middle class culinary standards (early 20th century). The cookbooks of early 20th century mention that the arni sti ladokola was prepared by hotel-restaurants as following: the flesh of the lamb was cut into pieces, topped with kaseri or kefalotyri and wrapped in baking sheet. In modern exohiko vegetables can be added according to the personal preferance.The 70ies cookbooks include the exohiko under a 4th name: yioulbasi or gioulbassi. The name could derives from the turkish word “yılbaşı” = 1st day of New year. However I am not quite sure if it is not come from the turkish kulbasti. And kulbasti is a sort of kebab which is roasted and then cooked with onions and spices.


    goodness gracious, laurie, i think you’ve just cooked something that doesn’t exist, in the minds of some.

    how on earth you managed to do that, despite the evidence to the contrary (photos, food sources, methods), i cannot say. dare i say, have you just created something… ORIGINAL?!?!?!?

  21. “The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star.”
    Jean-Antheleme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826)


    please excuse me for forgetting to mention that the commentators know their greek well: the terms KLEPHT and EXOHIKO are common greek words whose meanings are clear.
    as for that word TRADITIONAL, clearly salmon klephtiko doesn’t fit into the tradition: where on earth would an arcadian find salmon?
    and if an arcadian of the foregone klepht era ever managed to get one, i wonder whether they would ever think to cook it klepht style?
    no, they couldnt possibly have put it in their head to do so – it just wouldnt be TRADITIONAL (les kai kollousan sto noima tis lexeis)
    if i were an arcadian in the late 1800’s and i were given a gift of salmon, i would definitely have cooked it klepht style, because i wouldnt have wanted even the NEIGHBOURS to find out what delicacy i was cooking…
    what on earth is the traditonal method of cooking salmon in arcadia anyway???


    i recently did a post (2 whole months ago) on regional cooking which shows just how traditional a dish is judged to be, merely by the origin of the village of the cook (all within a 50-kilometre radius in the same province of Hania):

  24. Sam Sotiropoulos says:

    Laurie, I have absolutely no doubt that the dish is as tasty as it looks! I have tried several of your dishes (as I have stated in comments in the past) and they have all been excellent. So we disagree on acillary points which are not actually germane to the food itself, it does not mean that I have any issues with the flavours coming out of your kitchen. I have learned a great deal from your blog and will continue learning from you and trying those recipes which strike my fancy. And yes, I will definitely give your Salmon “kleftiko” a try! How could I not at this point? 🙂 Don’t mistake my zeal for discussion as malicious in any way, it is not intended in that vein.

    Be Well,



    the creators of klephtiko did something original – surely their descendants can be just as creative as they were with their food.

    sounds to me like some people have simply got stuck in time – a bit like my parents who took 1960s crete to new zealand, and upon returning to the patrida, found that the country had ‘lost’ its traditions

    the patrida had actually ‘developed’, not ‘lost’ them – my mother (in particular) preferred the stagnant version of Greece, which was what she was used to. that was what traditional meant to her

  26. Mariana Kavroulaki says:

    Consumers may associate traditional foods with quite different qualities: ‘old-fashioned’, ‘rustic’, ‘natural’, ‘exotic’, ‘gourmet’, ‘nostalgic’, are some of them. These qualities are important to take into account because traditional foods are exchangeable commodities with market value. The EU tries to protect products and their characteristic qualities in their own special environment, which would otherwise have been imitated by industry, in many cases even in their country. In this process of protection the precise geographical area, the ingredients, the techniques of production and the organoleptic qualities must be defined. Of course, EU referes to artisan products (cheese, cured pork, drinks etc.etc), not to food as a result of cooking or to culinary methods. However some exceptional products have been lacked of protection because they don’t fit the European law (i.e. feta from Rethymno/Crete, katsohoiri, Hraklio/Crete, etc). This is where information from other organizations or state should help the small producers.
    The traditional foods and cooking methods are major outputs of sociological and historical context. But at the same time tradition is affected by changes because society, politics, economics, availiability, even personal preferences and knowledge change. Thus ‘traditional’ can vary according to chronological period and to consumer type or cultural, economic, even religious profile. Can you imagine that shrimp and curry pilaf is a traditional dish of Ithaca? However it is, Ithacian sailors brought it to the island.
    My dear Laurie, as Rousounellos has already noticed you have a Greek heart; and a remarkable sense of gastro-gusto, I would added. Personally, I would be proud if a recipe of my country could ispire a foreigner and drive him/her to translate it into his/her own culinary language.
    How wonderful the migration of foods is!

  27. I am an American living in Cyprus with my Greek Cypriot husband. We go out and get Kleftico alot. It is lamb cooked in a special oven for up to 48 hours. It is so tender the meat melts in your mouth. It is only available certain times of the year. They put alot of onions in it too and olive oil. Its delicious. I was told it means theives meat from the time the Greeks were fighting the Ottomans.
    My husband makes it at home in a clay pot he seals it with dough and it heats up the whole house in winter so we are warm and full at the same time. I am going to get some copies of those wonderful books you all mentioned.
    I don't mind calling salmon in foil Kleftico. It is the same idea really. Here though you couldn't ask for it and get anything but lamb. Yaisou!

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