Recipe: chinese char siu bao (barbecue pork buns)
Fork. Stick it to me. I am done. Done with the frenzied holiday baking schedule! And just in case you might be racking your brain for a few ideas, I wanted to share some of the other items we tucked into the gift bags for Jeremy’s wonderful staff. Supporting local businesses is pretty easy if you live in Boulder. We make a point of going to Savory Spice Shop on Pearl Street for creative and beautiful gifts. This store is perfect if you are looking for a variety of little items which you can taste to help you decide. They have something to suit cooks, non-cooks, and unknowns. You can also mail-order from them.
cute little jars of two kinds of cheese sprinkles
Just a few blocks east, we stopped by Atlas Purveyors so Jeremy could grab a latte (shopping makes him drowsy like… instantly) and pick a loose tea from their impressive selection. He went with the Carrington Blend of black tea, lemongrass, orange peel, eucalyptus, and wildflowers.
citrus and floral
Of course, we had to drop a mini bar of Chocolove into each bag. They’re local, make terrific chocolates, have love poems inside the wrappers, and are all around Boulderlicious.
A few weeks ago I made a double batch of char siu pork and I’m sure some of you knew where that double batch was headed (I mean, besides mah belleh). I love char siu pork, but what I really, truly, deeply love are the steamed Chinese barbecue pork buns, char siu bao.
the revered bao
I made one filling, but tried two different doughs because I didn’t care for the first dough. The first dough was cakey and sweeter than I’m used to, although it could very well be my elevation. The second dough was spot on to what I was looking for – a yeast-based dough that is delicate, elastic, fluffy, and less sweet. Let’s start with the filling.
it’s a lot of stuff, but comes together lickity split
dice the char siu pork
everything diced, measured, and ready to go
The filling recipe comes from Fine Cooking’s February/March 2011 issue (#109). If you eat it straight (yes, I tried some) it’s on the strong side and pretty saucy. However, wrapped in a soft bao, it’s pretty much perfect to me.
add pork to sautéed onions
pour in the sauce (broth, oyster sauce, ketchup, sugar, cornstarch, soy sauce, salt, pepper)
when the sauce is thickened, stir in the sesame oil
When the filling is done, set it aside and let it cool. You can refrigerate this for up to a day in advance before using. Truth be told, I was so unhappy with the first dough and spent a couple of days searching for another dough that the filling sat in my refrigerator for 3 more days and it was fine. Nothing tasted off, no one keeled over. Now on to the dough…
round 1 dough: flour, baking powder, milk, oil, sugar, water
working the milk into the flour with your fingers
rest the dough under a damp cloth
The first dough is from the same recipe as the pork filling. I don’t consider myself an expert at baking (or anything for that matter), but I furrowed my brow when I noticed there wasn’t any yeast in the dough because all of my favorite bao had that yeasty flavor present. I thought I’d give it a try anyway.
cut the dough into segments
shape each piece into a disc with thinner edges than centers
place filling in center, pleat the edges around
I’m trying to be fair here, but this dough made me cuss. It broke when I worked with it and felt more like putty than dough. There was a little elasticity, but it was frustrating to manipulate. I kept telling myself it would be worth it in the end.
pinch the tops shut
set each bao on a square of parchment or wax paper
space them apart in the steamer (they will expand)
In the end it tasted good, but it didn’t taste right to me. Like I said earlier, the dough was cakey, dry, and too sweet. It seemed to get stuck in the roof of my mouth when I ate it. The filling was AWESOME and since I had extra, I saved it in the fridge. To be fair, Jeremy and I liked them well enough to snack on throughout the week.
steamed, but not what i was looking for
when i think of char siu bao i think of dim sum
I found another dough recipe from a Chinese Snacks book I picked up many years ago at a Ranch 99 in Southern California. It lists recipes in both English and Chinese (I can’t read the Chinese) and has the occasional Chinglish typo that makes me chuckle. I used this dough for another bao recipe, which I’ll post the step-by-step instructions for later and forward reference, but the main difference is the presence of yeast. So, let’s pick up where we wrap the filling because the treatment is pretty similar to the first dough.
much easier to work with, this dough was elastic
bring the pleats together
twist and pinch
One of the reasons I like dough #2 so much better is the elasticity. It makes it easier and faster to work the dough and wrap the bao. If you live in a dry place (like I do) then I highly recommend using a slightly damp kitchen towel or plastic wrap to cover the dough when you aren’t working with it. Once the bao are wrapped, let them sit for 10 minutes before steaming.
place on parchment squares
into the steamer
Unless you have a dedicated steamer, you may be wondering how you’re going to steam the buns. If you own a wok (I still don’t – I know, I know…) boil water in the wok and set your steam basket over the wok. The conics of the wok should ensure nearly complete capture of the steam because the cylinder (the steam basket) has a fixed diameter and the wok has a range of diameters. [If you really want to get into it, they are both solids of revolution and so have an azimuthal symmetry. There will be a point of contact no matter what the shape of the wok. -Jeremy] If you don’t own a wok, then you can do what I did, which is to place a metal rack in a stock pot that my steamer fits nearly perfectly. Set the steamer on the rack when the water comes to a boil. The whole point is to cook the bao with steam and NOT let them submerge in the water.
my makeshift steaming set up
steam for 12 minutes
Breaking open a char siu bao fresh out of the steamer is a treasure, a joy. Jeremy and I stood in the kitchen, taking our first bites of these bao in silence, smiling at each other. Kaweah was standing between us wagging, ever hopeful. The dough was soft, fluffy, slightly stretchy, not too sweet, not crumbly, just perfect. Considering how impatient I am, it’s impressive that I tried a second dough recipe, but I’m so glad I did! I didn’t even have to make any adjustments for altitude. THAT’S how awesome this is. That’s the recipe. Booyah!
Chinese Barbecue Pork Buns (Char Siu Bao)
*filling from Fine Cooking issue #109 (I don’t recommend using the dough from that recipe, so I don’t include it below)
*dough from Chinese Snacks by Huang Su-Huei
1/2 cup low sodium chicken broth
2 tbsps oyster sauce
2 tbsps ketchup
5 tsps granulated sugar
4 tsps cornstarch
1 tbsp dark soy sauce (this is not the same as regular soy sauce)
1/2 tsp kosher salt
pinch white pepper, freshly ground
2 tbsps peanut oil
1/2 cup yellow onion, diced (1/4-inch)
1 1/2 cups char siu pork, fine dice (I did 1/4-inch)
1 tbsps Shaoxing Chinese sherry
1 1/2 tsps sesame oil
Whisk the chicken broth, oyster sauce, ketchup, sugar, cornstarch, soy sauce, salt, and pepper together in a medium bowl. Heat the peanut oil over high flame in a wok or heavy-bottomed saucepan. When the oil is hot, add the onion, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook (stirring often) until golden brown – about 6 minutes. Turn the heat to high and add the pork, stir-frying for about 2-3 minutes. Pour the sherry in from the edges of the wok (or drizzle in a circle over the saucepan as I did) and stir together. Reduce the heat to medium and pour the broth mixture into the center of the wok or pan. Stir together until the filling is thickened. This takes only a few minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the sesame oil. Let cool and refrigerate the filling. Filling can be refrigerated for a few days before using. Do not freeze.
1/4 cup sugar
1 3/4 cup warm water (105°F – 115°F)
1 tbsp yeast
6 cups flour
1 tbsp baking powder
2 tbsps shortening
In a medium bowl, dissolve the sugar in warm water and add the yeast. Let the yeast stand for about ten minutes or until it becomes foamy, floating to the top. Sift the flour (I never sift anything) into a large bowl. Add the baking powder, shortening, and the yeast liquid. Mix well. If the dough is dry, add a little water. If the dough is too wet, add more flour. Knead the dough until smooth (took me ten minutes by hand) Place the dough in a large bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise in a warm place for a couple of hours until it has tripled in size.
Do this: cut 24 squares of parchment or wax paper, 2 1/2-inches a side.
Assemble the bao : Knead the risen dough until it is smooth and elastic. Again, if it is too dry, wet your hand(s) and knead it – if it is too wet, add some flour and knead it in. Because I work on a finite area cutting board (i.e. not a long counter), I found it easiest to cut the dough into quarters and make a log from each quarter. Keep the unused dough under plastic or a damp kitchen towel to prevent drying out. Cut each log into 6 equal pieces and flatten each piece with your hand to make a disc. Use your fingers to pinch the outer inch of the disc thinner than the center. Then shape a sort of well in the thicker center of the dough. Spoon a tablespoon (or more, if you can handle it) of the pork filling into the center of the dough. Pleat the edges together, with the intent of gathering the edges to form a sort of bowl from the dough (use your thumb or spoon to push the filling down). If you care about the presentation (hey, some people don’t) then wipe your fingers clean of any filling on a wet cloth before twisting and pinching the pleats together at the top. If there is excess dough, pinch it off. Set the bao on a square of parchment. Repeat for the rest and let them stand for about 10 minutes.
Steaming: Place the buns in a steamer with at least 2 inches between them as they will expand during steaming. You will not be able to fit them all in your steamer unless you have 1) a giant steamer or 2) a million layers – so be patient and don’t cram them together, just steam in two or three batches.
If you have a wok, bring 2 inches of water to a boil and set your steamer over the wok (make sure the steamer doesn’t actually sit in the water – that would be called boiling and we don’t want that!). If you don’t have a wok (I don’t) then this is what I did: I found a stockpot that fits my generic bamboo steamer perfectly. The fit doesn’t have to be perfect, just don’t use such a large pot that the steam escapes. I filled the stockpot with 2 inches of water and then placed a small metal rack (you can find these in random Asian grocery stores) in the center. Bring the water to a boil, place the steamer on the rack.
Steam for 10 minutes. Serve hot. Makes 24.
Storage: Once cooled, you can seal these in an airtight container or ziploc bag and keep in the refrigerator for up to a week. To reheat, either steam them again for a few minutes or do the ghetto method: place the bao in a bowl, cover with a plate, and microwave for a minute or two. You can also freeze the bao in a sealed bag and reheat them by either steaming or nuking (just add more time than if they were refrigerated).