Chengdu Challenge #9: Bao (Steamed Foldover Buns)
Bow to the Bao~~
In my constant quest to fatten up my daughter without resorting to junk food, bao has been a go-to recipe. As a child who shuns all fried foods, most dairy and anything sweet, about the only fattening thing she loves is soft, yeasty bread. We discovered this at her first Thanksgiving dinner, when the only things she put on her plate were turkey and the Sister Schubert yeast rolls. She dug out the middle of the rolls, leaving the crusty exterior behind, and ate through as many as we’d let her. I realized they reminded her of Chinese bread, or bao.
Bao refers to steamed yeast bread, usually filled—the most famous being char siu bao, filled with barbeque pork. But in the U.S. now the word is used specifically to refer to the little sandwiches made from foldover bao, which built the fame and fortune of both Eddie Huang (Baohaus) and David Chang (Momofuku).
Not long after our yeast-roll revelation, we tried making bao ourselves, and they were a huge hit. My thin-as-bamboo child will eat the unfilled bao by the dozens with dinner or as a snack.
Everyone dwells on the pork belly and assorted other fatty and fantastic fillings for bao, and I’ve heard both Huang and Chang say that you might as well buy readymade bread for the bao. But I have to disagree with that ever since trying Mr. Chang’s recipe for bao. Oh my heavens, as Fong Chong would say, they are unbelievably tasty—and a far, far cry from the store-bought frozen kind, the same magnitude of difference as the comparison between homemade white bread and Wonder Bread.
Unlike most store-bought bao, which taste like nothing, these have rich, sweet and yeasty taste. Mr. Chang’s secret ingredients seem to be nonfat milk powder, lard and extra yeast—the recipes in esteemed Chinese cookbooks definitely don’t include milk powder and usually call for vegetable oil instead of lard. But lard makes most anything better, so I went with Chang. (I’ve since seen several recipes for steamed buns online attributed to Chang, and they are all different. Stick with this version here, from the cookbook, I’d say.)
Bao are a bit time-consuming to make, mostly due to the rising times for the dough. But, folks, these are not only easy, they are hard to mess up. I’ve never had success with Western bread, but these have worked brilliantly every time, the dough very forgiving of novice efforts. I’ve even simplified a few steps and shortened the process with no downside.
I have to say I’ve never seen a gua bao in Sichuan. When Chengdunese serve a warm meat sandwich, it’s in a type of griddled flatbread. But they do serve these yeasty buns—shaped like a lotus leaf and called lotus leaf buns—alongside their famous crispy duck, and I’ve even seen them served with twice-cooked pork. Truth be told, you can stuff just about any meat—Chinese or Western— into these and they’d be delicious. Spread bun with a little sweet wheat/bean paste or hoisin, sprinkle with some Chinese pickles or quick cucumber pickle and some scallion slivers, and you’ve got a bao worthy of the trendiest food truck in town.
Updated January 2016
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 1½ cups water, at room temperature
- 4¼ cups bread flour
- 6 tablespoons sugar
- 3 tablespoons nonfat dry milk powder
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon (rounded) baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ⅓ cup lard (preferably) or vegetable shortening, at room temperature
- Add the yeast and water to the bowl of a stand mixer outfitted with the dough hook. Add all of the other ingredients and mix on the lowest speed for about 8 minutes. The dough should start to cohere around the hook by the half-way point. If it does not, mix in additional flour 1 tablespoon at a time until it does. After 8 or 9 minutes almost all of the dough should have formed a ball around the hook. Transfer the dough ball to an oiled bowl, cover it with a kitchen towel and leave to rise two hours, or until it has doubled in size.
- While you are waiting, prepare the steamer. You can use a traditional Chinese bamboo steamer in a wok, however a modern metal steamer with two steaming layers makes for a quicker cooking process. In either case, cut parchment paper into rounds that will fit into the bottom of the steamer rack, over the holes. You will need four rounds.
- Turn dough onto a clean work surface and cut in half. Roll each half into a log and cut into 5 equal pieces. Then roll each of those pieces into a log and cut into 4 equal pieces. Roll each of the 40 pieces into a ball. With a rolling pin, roll each ball into 4-inch-long ovals. Fold each one in half. Place the buns on the parchment rounds, cover with plastic wrap and leave them to rest for 45 minutes, or until they start to puff up a little bit. (They will continue to rise while steaming.)
- Bring the water in your steamer to a medium boil. Place the parchment round carefully onto the steamer rack and cover. Steam for 10 to 11 minutes. Remove parchment round from steamer and transfer the bao to a cake rack to cool and dry, as they may be a bit damp from the steam. Repeat process, replenishing water if necessary, until all buns are steamed.