Let’s face it: if you’re making my delicious Char Siu Pork, you need some Chinese steamed buns to go with it, right?
To me, bao buns are the highlight of any dim sum feast. Be it plain, neatly pleated around a sticky filling or with some gorgeous morsels wedged in between the sumptuous Mick Jagger lips of the folded version.
Over the years, I’ve road tested a fair few recipes for these. And admittedly the results have ended up in the bin more often than I care totremember. Sometimes even at the dough stage. Other times the buns were perfectly edible, but far too dense to even be compared to the angelically white fluffy creations I aspired to.
So I’ve buried my head back into a plethora of books by expert Chinese chefs, and dived to the depths of the magical interweb, researching all there is to know about the best type of flour to use, how to achieve that enviable white, how long to prove the dough to get the perfect rise and how to avoid a wrinkly dimply or spotted bun (ooo-err misses).
The recipe I keep coming back to is an adaptation of a basic bun recipe from Andrea Nguyen. Andrea is a renowned food writer from Santa Cruz. She uses simple plain flour and a food processor. She also doesn’t go over the top with hours and hours of proving either. Hurrah.
It’s a pretty forgiving recipe too: One time I forgot to add the oil, so I kneaded it in by hand at the end of the dough stage before proving and it was still fine. Another time I didn’t get round to shape and steam the next batch until late evening, so the dough sat proving in my airing cupboard for at least 8 hours. It was still fine, though they admittedly didn’t rise as enthusiastically as the first batch, so they were slightly more dense.
I often make these by hand, but this time I put my brand new stand mixer to good use. Any excuse. You can use a food processor though, as Andrea does.
I still haven’t quite reached the Valhalla of the ultimate chalk-white bun, despite always putting a tbsp of vinegar into the cooking water, which is supposed to help. Mine reliably end up a homely magnolia. But I guess at least that makes them look properly homemade rather than shop-bought.
These buns can be shaped into a simple plain roll, shaped around a filling or folded over into a smiley half moon for filling afterwards.
Char Siu pork is the obvious choice of filling. But I’ve eaten sweet ones filled with a thick custard or almond cream. I’ve had lovely vegetarian ones with mushrooms and spring onions. Ones with spicy minced prawns or curried chicken. I’ve even experimented with breakfast ones. And I spotted ones with shredded confit duck, pork belly and hoisin sauce at a food truck festival in the Netherlands recently. They are also rather refreshing stuffed with my Vietnamese chicken salad. Shredded meat left over from my Nam Yue Braised Ribs was equally delicious stuffed into these
For today’s filling, I used 1/2 a batch of my Char Siu pork and some of its sticky glaze, a light cucumber kimchi (your bonus recipe below) and crunchy beansprouts. garnished with sesame seeds and Korean red pepper flakes.
The key to a satisfying rise with that trademark slight chew is the flour. It should have what they call “medium gluten”. Look on the packet. The protein should be between 9-11%. Many flours in the US and Canada are heavy on the gluten, so you may wish to substitute 1/3 of the plain (All-Purpose) flour with pastry flour (called “sponge flour” in England), which is finer and has a lower gluten content.
My plain flour this time was 10.5%, which is on the upper scale of the advised range. So I swapped 1/3 with sponge flour of 9.3%.
OK. Enough with the science already. Any tips and tricks?
Leave the buns to rest in the steamer over cold water before steaming them. And start with cold water instead of boiling water. Once the water is boiling and steam is rising, turn the heat down and steam the bao for 5 mins. No peaking. Turn the heat off when the time is up and let them sit for at least another minute or so. Then slightly set the lid ajar and again, let them rest like that for another minute before you remove them to a wire rack. This gentle heating and cooling helps to avoid wrinkly buns that have a tendency to deflate.
Unless your steamer is the size of a house, you’ll likely need to steam the buns in batches. In which case, start with cold water again for each batch.
Any steamer will do, but I have a soft spot for the traditional Chinese bamboo steamer. Mine is a simple 20 cm 2-tier one that holds 3-4 small buns in each tier.
I use silicon inserts in them to help keep them clean and hygienic. You can buy perforated paper ones too. Even with my silicon inserts, I still place each bao bun on a square of greaseproof baking parchment. Because that’s what the Chinese traditionally do. So who am I to disagree.
I set my steamer on a standard pan with the help of a metal ring that I bought on Amazon. It protects the steamer from scorching, forms a solid base for the steamer to rest on and allows me to use more water in the pan, so there is less risk of the pan boiling dry.
Last tip: you shouldn’t have too much problem with condensation if you use a bamboo steamer. But if you are concerned or use a metal steamer, you can wrap a clean cloth or tea towel around the lid. This should catch any droplets of condensation that might fall onto your buns, which could result in a dimply top.
Bao – Chinese Steamed Buns (makes 12-16 DF V Vg)
Adapted from “The Banh Mi Handbook” by Andrea Nuygen, published in 2014
175 ml lukewarm water
1 1/2 tsp easy bake yeast (I used Allinson)
1 1/2 tbsp granulated or caster sugar plus 1/2 tbsp for the yeast mixture
2 tbsp rapeseed oil plus a little for oiling the bowl
2 tsp baking powder
Put the yeast in a small measuring jug with a pouring spout, together with the water and 1/2 tbsp of sugar. Let it sit for 20 mins or so or until slightly frothy. Whisk in the oil.
Meanwhile, combine the rest of the ingredients in a food processor or stand mixer bowl. With the motor running at medium-high speed if using a food processor, or with the dough hook going round at the “knead” setting, slowly add the yeast mixture to the dry ingredients.
If making by hand, make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and gradually add the yeast mixture, while you draw in the dry ingredients from the outside. Stirring in the middle with chopsticks works well to do this and adds a traditional touch if you like. Resort to your hands as soon as the liquid has gone.
Continue mixing/kneading until the dough leaves the sides of the bowl and has formed into a rough ball. Add a little more water or flour if you feel the dough needs it, but be careful not to overwet. The dough should feel slightly tacky but not be wet or sticky.
Tip out onto the work surface and knead by hand for a good 5 mins or so until the dough is smooth and elastic.
Lightly oil a large clean bowl and place the dough into the bowl. Turn it over so that it is coated with oil on all sides. This prevents it sticking to the bowl as it rises. Loosely place a lightly oiled piece of clingfilm over the dough, allowing for rising, but making sure no air can get to the dough.
Set aside in a warm place for an hour or so, or until the dough has at least doubled in size (an airing cupboard works well). It should look light and spongy.
Divide the risen dough into 2. Place one half back into the bowl and cover while you shape the other half into buns.
Roll the dough out into a log and cut into 6-8 pieces. Roll each piece into a ball, then roll each ball into an oval. lightly brush with a little oil and fold the ovals over into half moon shapes.
Place each onto a square of greaseproof paper and cover with a towel or clingfilm while you make the rest of the buns.
Fill a pan with water, ensuring the water will not touch the steam basket that will sit on top. Place 3-4 buns into each steaming basket (depending on the size of your steamer), making sure they don’t touch each other nor the sides, as they need room to expand.
Cover with the lid and place the steamer over the pan. Allow to rest for 10-20 mins or so.
Bring the water in the pan to a boil over high heat. Once boiling, turn the heat down to medium-high and allow the buns to steam for 5 mins.
When the time is up, turn off the heat, but leave the steamer in place with the lid on for at least a couple of minutes. Set the lid slightly ajar and leave for another minute or so. You can then remove the buns to a wire rack and steam the next batch, Do start with cold water each time though.
The bao buns can be used straight away, chilled for up to 2 days, or frozen for up to 3 months. Gently steam them over medium heat for a couple of minutes to reheat.
Fill them with anything and everything you like. Here are mine with Char Siu pork, cucumber kimchi, bean sprouts, sesame seeds and Korean red pepper flakes.
Quick Cucumber Kimchi (makes a 500 ml jar – GF DF LC V Vg RSF)
This is a virtually instant Korean kimchi-style fridge pickle. You can either eat it after 30 mins of chilling or leave it to slightly ferment to be more akin to a traditional kimchi.
It’s lovely with grilled vegetables, meat or fish and makes a refreshing change to traditional dill pickles on burgers and on your BBQ table.
2 cucumbers or 500 gr fresh pickling gherkins (Kirbi cucumbers)
1 tbsp coarse sea salt
3 spring onions, thinly sliced
1 tbsp Korean red chili pepper flakes (gochugaru)
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp coconut palm sugar or unrefined caster sugar
1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped or crushed
For serving: sesame seeds and extra Korean red pepper flakes.
Cut the cucumbers in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with a teaspoon. Cut the cucumber into thin 8-10 cm spears.
Add the spears to a colander or sieve and sprinkle over the salt. Fold in the salt and then let them sit over a bowl for at least 30 mins to drain off excess moisture.
Meanwhile mix together the remaining ingredients in another bowl. Squeeze any remaining moisture from the cucumber and add to the bowl with the rest of the ingredients. Gently mix to combine.
Transfer to a glass screw top jar, a clip jar or an airtight container.
You can then either refrigerate the kimchi for minimum 30 mins to use instantly. It will be fresh and still fairly crunchy if eaten this soon. Else you can let the jar sit at room temperature for up to 24 hrs. This will start a natural fermentation process. Then refrigerate.
This will keep in the fridge for up to a week, if not longer. The structure will continue to break down day by day though and the flavour will become more and more intense, so it’s all about your own taste and preference as to how long you let this settle. I like mine best after a day or 2.