Homemade Steamed Buns: Take a Bao

Tired of the same old bread recipes? Rise to a new level with this no-bake favorite.

Photo by Victoria Redhed Miller

Steamed buns, also known as bao (pronounced “bough”), hum bao, and other names depending on the part of the world, are fun to make and handy for a quick meal or snack. Almost endless variations are possible in the type of filling, method of cooking, and size.

Baozi is the collective term for a wide range of leavened steamed buns. In parts of China, these buns are sometimes made without any filling, and called mantous. Steamed buns date at least as far back as the Northern Song Dynasty in 11th century China. Over time, Chinese immigrants brought the tradition to other Asian countries, where the buns were adapted and became part of the local food culture. Baozi are now made with an amazing variety of fillings, mostly savory, but also sweet. The buns can be made with or without meat, and some are baked

Baozi and mantous are mainly eaten for breakfast and snacks. They’re a popular street food, small enough to carry and easy to eat on the go. Da bao (“big bun”) and xiao long bao (“little basket bun”) are the most common sizes, with diameters of 4 inches and 2 inches, respectively. In restaurants, they’re usually accompanied by soy sauce, rice vinegar, or garnishes, such as cilantro or a spicy chile-garlic paste.

These buns are typically steamed rather than baked, because for centuries, in many different cultures, the working class rarely had the means or space for an oven. The only way to cook was with a large pot over a fire. A bamboo steamer basket is traditionally used to make steamed buns, but I make do with equipment I already own, and I’ve found that our 12-quart stockpot with a metal steamer insert works fine.

I highly recommend placing a small square of parchment paper under each bun to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of your steamer and the other buns. Parchment paper also makes it a lot easier to remove the buns from the hot steamer once they’ve finished cooking. I can reuse the same pieces of parchment several times, because the moisture from steaming keeps the paper from drying out and becoming brittle, as it would during normal baking.

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