It's always more fun to DIY. Every week, we'll spare you a trip to the grocery store and show you how to make small batches of great foods at home.
As any Chinese auntie can tell you, steamed buns (called mantou when plain and baozi when stuffed with filling) are a Chinese staple. That much is clear from their endless variations: From Cantonese char siu bao and egg custard lau sa bao, to the works of art that are these steamed scallion rolls (huajuan), steamed buns are ubiquitous in Chinese cuisine.
More: Joanne Chang's Hot and Sour soup is the perfect accompaniment to Chinese buns.
One of my favorite takes on the bun is a Shanghainese specialty called shengjian bao, made by taking regular pork-filled steamed buns and pan-frying them in gigantic woks. The result is a fantastically crisp and flavorful bottom crust paired with a bun that is still as fluffy and soft as ever.
This recipe begins with a blank canvas for plain mantou, based on my mother’s recipe. It’s beautifully simple, with just six ingredients.
From there, you can do a few (or a lot of) things. If you’re just looking for a side of rolls with dinner, you can stop after the dough has had its first rise, roll it into a long cylinder, slice it into 1-inch pieces, and steam as is. (I used a traditional bamboo steamer for these, but you can also use a metal steaming tray fitted to a pot or a steamer tray for a rice cooker or slow cooker. In a pinch, you can even set a metal colander with feet inside a pot of water or use another makeshift steaming method.)
Or, you can follow the recipe below to make pork and vegetable steamed buns, with an option at the end to fry them at the end and turning them into my favorite shengjian bao.
Finally, if dessert is more your speed, just replace the pork filling with some of this red bean paste, or any sweet filling you desire. (Peanut butter and jelly steamed buns, anyone?) Finally, a note on flour: For the purest white steamed buns, use bleached flour. For a finer, fluffier bun, replace one cup of all-purpose flour with cake flour.
Makes 18 to 24 buns
For the dough
2 1/4 teaspoons (1 packet) active dry yeast
1 cup milk (any kind will do)
1 tablespoon oil
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 to 4 tablespoons sugar (less if you prefer a more savory dough)
For the filling
1 pound ground pork
1 cup chopped leafy vegetables, like cabbage or bok choy
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon shaoxing rice wine (if unavailable, you can use sake or mirin)
1 teaspoon grated ginger
2 stalks green onion, minced
2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons cornstarch (optional)
Warm the milk and oil in a pot over low heat until it is lukewarm but not hot. The milk should feel comfortable to the touch. Remove the pot from heat and pour the mixture into a bowl. Sprinkle the yeast over the liquid and let it sit for 8 to 10 minutes.
Sift together the flour, salt, and sugar. Slowly trickle the yeast liquid into the flour, mixing with a spatula or a chopstick as you go. (You can also just alternate between pouring and stirring.) Once all the liquid has been poured in, knead for 10 to 15 seconds until the dough comes together.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead it until smooth, at least 4 to 5 minutes. Place the dough in a large, greased bowl, cover, and let it sit for 1 to 2 hours, or until doubled in size. I prefer a slower, cooler rise, but you can do whatever you’re used to.
When the dough is almost done with its rise, mix together the ingredients for the filling -- pork, vegetables, sugar, soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine, ginger, green onion, garlic, and cornstarch -- until well-incorporated.
Next, punch down the risen dough. Turn it onto a floured surface again and knead for just a few strokes. If the dough is too sticky, add more flour. Pinch or cut off a ping pong ball-sized piece of dough and roll into a flat circle about 3 inches in diameter. Place about a tablespoon of the pork mixture into the circle and fold the dough up around the filling, pinching and pleating in a concentric circle until the top is sealed. It doesn’t have to be perfect -- you can always place it seam-side down for a smooth and uniform top. I’m far from a pleating expert! In my experience, a thinner dough is easier to pleat, but will, of course, result in a thinner bun.
Place the finished buns on a baking sheet and cover with a damp towel to keep them from drying out as you fold the others. You can let the buns proof again at this point if you like, but I find that the second rise is somewhat built into the process -- since pleating the buns takes some time, the buns I prepare first have usually had time to rise again by the time I’ve finished pleating the last ones. On top of that, you’ll likely have to steam these in several batches, so even the buns you prepare last will have proofed by the time the first ones have steamed.
When you’re ready to steam the buns, line your basket or steaming tray with a circle of parchment paper. Place the folded buns at least two to three inches apart inside the tray. They will expand significantly, so give them some room. I only steamed about three or four per tray.
Fill a wok (or pot or rice cooker, depending on what you’re using) with about an inch or two of water and bring the water to a simmer over medium heat. After the water has begun to simmer, set the basket over the water, covered, and steam for about 15 minutes, or until buns are resilient when touched and the filling inside is cooked. Make sure to refill the water between batches, as it will likely evaporate during the boiling. You may also need to adjust the heat to low as the water boils -- a low simmer is all you need.
To fry: Pour a generous amount of oil into a large wok or saucepan -- enough for at least 1/4 inch of oil at the bottom. Turn the heat to medium and wait a few minutes to let the oil heat up. Turn the heat down to medium-low or low and place the steamed buns in a single layer in the wok and let sizzle for 2 to 3 minutes, or until golden brown.
If the oil is sizzling too violently, turn the heat down or off for a couple of minutes until it calms down, and keep a close eye on the bottoms of the buns. I like to keep the heat lower because it doesn’t matter if the buns take a bit longer to fry up, but it’s a bummer if they burn. Once they are browned on the bottom, remove the buns from the pan and drain them on paper towels. Let them cool slightly, then eat while still crisp and warm.
Serve with an optional dipping sauce: My favorite is a simple sauce made from 1 part soy sauce and 1 part chili garlic sauce, but you can use whatever you like best.
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Photos by Cynthia of Two Red Bowls