Homemade Baos (Steamed buns)

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There are so many variations for making steamed buns, and they vary in their complexity. Some use shortening, others use butter; some require making a dough starter, while others use regular flour. Some add milk, some even use Bisquick (!) as a starting material! Finally, some preparations take multiple days, while others can be done in an afternoon.

I’ve actually tried the Bisquick method, which works great if you’re super short on time (no need for yeast!) but the results are only so-so. I decided this time I would actually try to make a yeast-based bun from scratch.

The cookbook I was using had two methods: a home kitchen method that only took a few hours and only had 6 ingredients; and a bakery/restaurant method that not only seemed to have twice as many ingredients, it took multiple days and required making a dough starter.

Since this was my first time making steamed bread, I decided not to be too ambitious and decided to try the “home kitchen” method. The book said that the home version would create steamed bread with larger air bubbles, and thus less the buns would be less refined. The restaurant version, on the other hand, would result in a super light and delicate bun “with a delicious flavor”.

I found this home method to be pretty do-able, although it still involved several steps, a reasonable amount of equipment, and quite a few hours.


Homemade Steamed Buns (Baos)

Ingredients
1/4 cup sugar
1 3/4 cup warm water
6 cups all-purpose flour
2 T shortening
1 T yeast
1 T baking powder

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Yeast + sugar + warm water after about 10-15 minutes at room temperature

Dissolve sugar in warm water and add the yeast. Let the liquid stand at room temperature for about 10 minutes, or until it becomes foamy (see picture above). Sift flour into a separate bowl. To the flour add shortening, the yeast/sugar mixture, and baking soda. Mix well. Knead the dough until smooth and elastic. Add additional flour or water as necessary to make the dough the right consistency (smooth yet pliable).

MakingBaos
Top left and Top right: kneading dough. Bottom left: dough in plastic wrap left to warm. Bottom right: dough after rising for about 2 hours

Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap let it rise in a warm place for about 2 hours or until it has tripled in bulk.

MakingBaos2
Top Left: Post risen kneaded dough. Top Right: dough logs and sliced dough. Bottom Left: dough discs with a dab of sesame oil. Bottom right: half moon buns for making gua bao

Knead the (now tripled in size) dough until smooth. Shape into logs and slice into about 20 pieces. If you are just making steamed bread (mantou), proceed to the next step with the sliced pieces. If you want to make gua bao or other sorts of sandwich buns, lightly flatten each piece, brush with sesame oil, and fold it over on itself like a half moon.
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To prevent sticking, I like to place each bun on a square of wax paper. Let the buns rest at room temperature for 10-30 minutes. Do not let them rest for longer than 30 minutes or else they will start to deflate. 
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Steam the buns in a steamer (ideally a bamboo steamer) over boiling water for ~8 minutes. If you don’t have a bamboo steamer, you can use double layered pasta cooker (see how I’ve improvised with parts from both the steamer and my pasta maker?).
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 If you are making plain steamed buns (mantou), you can just serve with other condiments. If you are making steamed bun sandwiches (like gua bao), fill with desired fillings and then serve.

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Final Thoughts
This “home cook” bun definitely pales in comparison to any restaurant version, or any frozen supermarket version. It’s much less refined, and frankly, isn’t nearly as good. It’s a bit chewier, a little less fluffy. I almost think it’s not worth all that effort when you can get much better ones in the freezer section of your local Asian supermarket. The flavor is decent, but you aren’t going to get that nice fluffy and delicate texture that you see in the restaurant versions.

I would be curious to know if anyone else has tried a better home steamed bun recipe? Do you really have to use a multi-step dough starter method to achieve that glorious refined bakery-like texture? I’ve seen the Momofuku recipe but haven’t tried that version.

In any event, it was fun to try, but for now, I may just stick to buying bakery buns and filling it with my own braised pork belly instead of slaving away at inferior buns!

Having said that, making buns is still a fun activity at home, and the buns still taste decent. It’s definitely not a bad activity to do with kids at home. As kids, my sister and I had tons of fun making steamed bun versions of turtles, snowmen, and all sorts of characters. You can never replicate that in a restaurant. :)

Related posts
Gua Bao

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Comments

  1. Jessica says

    I really like this recipe (and all of her other Asian desserts). She uses a type of highly refined (I think ultra bleached too) flour, which is why bao at restaurants etc come out super white. And caster sugar rather than just granulated sugar help make it less dense.

    http://cornercafe.wordpress.com/2009/03/18/basic-pau-dough/

    Just the thought of ultra bleaching flour put me off of making it somewhat. Just like how adding lard to a lot of Chinese pastries puts me off baking (and eating) it. But I guess it makes sense why it’s so darn delicious

  2. tinyurbankitchen says

    Cool, thanks! I tried a similar version with butter and milk, but I still couldn’t get the texture to be super fluffy like the restaurant variety.

  3. tinyurbankitchen says

    Hi Jessica,
    Thanks for the interesting tip. I did notice that the homemade ones were much more tan than restaurant variety. I bet the special flour, sugar, and lard make all the difference!

  4. says

    It’s too bad the recipe didn’t give you the results you were expecting. It still looks pretty good, and I like chewy bread so I suppose I wouldn’t have the same issue with it. I have never tried steamed buns…what is the reasoning behind it?

  5. Nick says

    If you’re shooting for chinese restaurant style bao zhi and whatnot, I’d suggest you try rice flour. They sell bags of premixed rice flour with leavening included, you just add warm water or milk and they bake up almost perfectly (just like @ dim sum!) or you can buy the rice flour alone and experiment with leavening.

    I think there’s less gluten in rice flour so they’re less tough, and handling the dough less will always result in a more tender product. And the rice flour should get you the color you want too

  6. tinyurbankitchen says

    Hi Nick, thanks for the tip! I personally love rice flour already and I might even have some at home. Yum . . maybe that will be my next project – mochi baos!

  7. tinyurbankitchen says

    I think steaming is just the traditional way Chinese people cooked most stuff. Most Chinese did not have ovens back in the day, and relied on steaming for most things that would be baked in the Western culture.

  8. Dkkee says

    here’s a tip, use a tsp to tbsp of white vinegar in your water that your using to steam the bao in. It will make the bao colour more white

  9. says

    I haven’t tried making them from scratch yet, but I recently saw some recipes that use a flour that is specific to making bao. Sure enough, I went to my chinese grocery store and found small bags of the flour that come with instructions that don’t look too hard. So you might want to try that.
    Also for an ultra quick shortcut, pillsbury dough, when steamed, tastes very similar to the chinese buns which I discovered recently. I’ve done them twice now. Once using regular pillsbury biscuit dough. Another time, using the honey flavored biscuit dough. I liked the honey one better because it’s a little sweet, like traditional chinese bao.

  10. Laura says

    Hi Jen,
    Have you ever tried the ones from Asian Dumplings by Andrea Nguyen?  I absolutely love this book and know that you would find these steamed buns as well as lots of dumplings in there to try at home (even xiao long bao).  Her instructions and descriptions are excellent.

  11. Amy says

    I used the momofuku steamed bun recipe all the time, and the flavor was really good.  My 10-yo kid, already a foodie, would demand these buns and wouldn’t eat the frozen ones from Asian market.  I used buttermilk instead of the powdered milk (and water) called for in the recipe.  However, the buns were not as white (of course) sometimes not as fluffy but I think I let the buns rest too long after shaping. 
    What’s the rationale behind not letting the buns rest too long after shaping do you know?

  12. jentinyurbankitchen says

    I think normally you rest the dough to allow the gluten (which forms strands/cross links during kneading) to relax & loosen up. If the dough rests for too long, it’s possible that the gluten can break down, and then you lose even more structure. 

  13. Richard Lee says

    Nice start.

    I am still refining mine.  But I have a few tips after making steam buns for almost two years.  

    1. Basic ingredients are 3 cups of all purpose flour, 1 cup of warm water, 1 teaspoon sugar, and one teaspoon of yeast.  A little cooking spray on the bowl is used for resting the dough.

    2. The rest are all about timing and handiness.  Ok, amount of water will affect the how hard or soft of the bite.

    I read somewhere that the real steam bun does not require the first raise to double the volume like bread.  When I skipped this step the texture was more coarse.  So keep the hour long raise.

    Punch down or a thorough kneading is a good thing before shaping because you want bubbles to be fine and uniform.

    Some kneading and shaping before cutting into shape will give the dough more … structure, or it would kind of become all soft.  My experience is go straight to the steamer with cold water.  Again waiting too long will loose the shape and “Q”.

    Do not overheat the steamer, or the dough go dead.  You will know when that happens, it turns dark and hard.  After steaming for 10 or 12 minutes, turn off the stove and let the buns sit for 5 minutes before opening the lid.  If will minimize the “deflating” bubbles.

    Well, good luck.  Making steam buns is like… making love.  The more you do it, the better it gets.  :-)

    http://hungrytigr.blogspot.com/2011/05/chinese-steamed-bun-looking-back.html

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