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.
Steamed buns are different from breads baked in an oven. You won’t get any browning or caramelization of sugars when you steam these buns, but they’ll end up soft and moist, with a distinctive character. If you enjoy experimenting, you can try a baked version.
Vietnamese Steamed Pork Bun
According to Into the Vietnamese Kitchen author Andrea Nguyen, bao is traditionally made with yeast, but many Vietnamese Americans leaven the dough with baking powder instead, because “it’s faster and the dough is easier to manipulate.” I’ve made both versions, and she’s right.
This bun has a savory pork and vegetable filling, with a wedge of hard-boiled egg that becomes creamy in the steaming process. The dough is slightly sweet, and I find it works well for either savory or sweet fillings, but you can reduce or eliminate the sugar if you prefer. I also like to add some whole-wheat flour in the mix for fiber and flavor.
Handy for snacks or a quick to-go meal, these buns will keep in the refrigerator for several days.
Yield: about 16 large buns.
- 4-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 3⁄4 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1-1/2 cups whole or soy milk
- 3 tablespoons canola or other neutral cooking oil (optional)
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar or sake
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon white or black pepper
- 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
- 1/4 cup chopped onion
- 2 cups chopped cooked pork shoulder or 1/2 pound uncooked ground pork
- 1/4 pound shiitake or cremini mushrooms, finely chopped
- 2 cups thinly sliced napa cabbage or green cabbage
- 1/2 cup finely chopped carrot
- 1/2 cup frozen peas, thawed
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch, dissolved in 1-1/2 tablespoons water
- 4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and quartered lengthwise
Make the dough:
1. In a mixing bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, and baking powder. Add the milk and optional oil, if using. Stir with a wooden spoon or spatula, combining the ingredients to form a soft dough. Let the dough rest for about 20 minutes for the flour to fully hydrate.
2. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board, and knead for 1 to 2 minutes to form a soft, fairly smooth ball. It should feel a bit sticky; if not, dip your hands in water or milk and knead for another minute or so. Place the dough in a bowl, and cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a towel. Let rest for about an hour.
3. While the dough is resting, make the filling and prepare the steamer. Add water to your stockpot, making sure to maintain air space between the water and the bottom of the steamer insert. Bring the water to a boil, put the lid on, and keep at a simmer on low heat until you’re ready to start steaming the buns. Cut 16 pieces of parchment paper, each about 3 inches square.
Make the filling:
1. In a small bowl, mix together the soy sauce, rice vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper, and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Set aside.
2. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add chopped onion and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring constantly. If you’re using uncooked ground pork, add it now, breaking it up into small pieces. Cook until the pork is partially done, about 2 minutes. If you’re using cooked pork, add it with the mushrooms, cabbage, carrot, and peas, and stir to combine. Stir in the soy sauce mixture you set aside. Sauté for about 5 minutes, or until the vegetables are crisp-tender and most of the liquid has evaporated. Add the cornstarch and water mixture, and stir for about a minute more to thicken.
Form the buns:
1. After its hour-long rest, turn out the dough onto a lightly floured board. With a sharp knife, divide the dough into 16 pieces. You’ll shape and fill the buns one at a time, so keep the rest of the dough covered during this process.
2. Flatten a piece of dough in your hands to form a disk. Using either your hands or a rolling pin, shape the dough into a circle about 5 inches in diameter. Strive to make the dough disk about 1⁄8 inch thick at the edges and slightly thicker in the middle.
3. Hold the disk in one cupped hand. Use your free hand to pick up a heaping tablespoon of the filling, and press the filling into the middle of the disk. Place a wedge of hard-boiled egg on top of the filling. The disk will be full; keep your hand cupped so the filling stays in place while you seal the bun.
4. Pick up the edge of the dough disk and pull it toward the middle, slightly stretching it as you go. Work your way around the edge of the disk, pulling each part into the middle. Form pleats as you go, pinching them together in the center. Finally, pinch the dough closed at the top. Turn the bun over and place it pleat side down on a parchment square. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough.
5. You can refrigerate the dough, covered, for a day or two if you don’t wish to make all the buns at one time.
Steam the buns:
Depending on the size of your pot, you may be able to steam anywhere from 3 to 6 buns at the same time. Don’t crowd them, because they increase in volume as they steam. Carefully place the buns, still on the parchment paper, into the steamer insert. Cover the pot. Because you’ve already prepared the steamer, low heat should be enough to keep the water simmering briskly. Let the buns steam for 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Carefully take the lid off, pointing it away from you. Use a large slotted spoon to remove the buns. Let them cool slightly before serving.
Victoria Redhed Miller lives with her husband on a 40-acre off-grid farm in Washington. Her latest book is From No-Knead to Sourdough: A Simpler Approach to Handmade Bread.
A Bunch of Bun Options
Try experimenting with different fillings and bun sizes. Sweet steamed buns are popular as dessert or for breakfast; they contain a variety of fruit- or nut-based sweet fillings, or custard. You can also form the buns with no filling at all, and steam them to use as rolls or muffins. I made some recently about the size and shape of an English muffin, and found they were perfect for small burgers and sandwiches.
Suggestions for fillings include:
• Leftover barbecued meat, shredded
• Sweet potato, apple, and onion
• Teriyaki chicken
• Curried lentils or garbanzo beans