In the realm of stuffed foods, Chinese steamed buns seem like the crown jewels. They’re made with a yeast dough, rather than the comparatively simpler flour-and-water wraps for Scratch-Made Pot Stickers, which means more waiting time. The steaming may require tools you don’t yet have in your kitchen—or some improvisation. And you’ll have the nicest buns if you master yet another rolling and pleating technique.
But the first time you bite into a homemade steamed bun, you’ll know it was worth it. The magic that happens with some basic ingredients, time, and care will keep you practicing until you’ve perfected your technique. As with all homemade dumplings, there are some shortcuts. But most of these stretch out the work rather than shortening the timeframe. It’s best to approach steamed yeast buns with a relaxed schedule and mindset.
Steamed Bun Shortcuts
Steamed buns are typically seen as Chinese and associated with dim sum restaurants. When called baozi or simply bao, they can be stuffed with any number of fillings. When pleated closed, they can be 2–4 inches across; the smaller ones are ideal for mix-and-match bites of fillings, and the larger ones can be eaten singly like hand pies. When unfilled but still roll shaped, they’re often called mantou. Gua bao resemble street tacos; the dough is steamed flat and folded in half over the filling.
These, and the many other variations, give you plenty of shortcuts. If you tire of rolling and pleating, make bigger wrappers for large buns or taco-style bao. If you run out of filling, simply shape up and steam the remaining dough; you can always break it open and slather it with jam.
Your other shortcuts for scratch-made steamed buns have more to do with spacing out the work than speeding it up, because the more time you give the yeast dough, the better the buns will taste. These stuffed treats are best broken into days, like I outlined earlier this month.
I start with the dough, spending a short time put it together and more letting it rise. A lot more. If your house tends to be cool, let the slow rise happen—it will improve the final flavor and texture. If you live in a hot climate, you’ll speed through the first rise stages but should shove the dough in the fridge. With a slow, cool rise, the gluten will relax, the flavor will build, and the buns will be beautiful. If time isn’t on your side, you can still have fun building the buns, but they may have a wrinkled surface. You might also be able to track down premade dough, but expect the flavor to suffer.
Once your dough is in the works, prep the filling. The one I share below requires minimal prep and no cooking time, so it can be made during any of the rising phases and stored in the fridge until you’re ready to use it. Of course, it’s more fun to have a range of fillings, and those left over from other dumplings or scrambled together from what’s in your fridge are an easy fit.
When your dough is ready, keep in mind that you’ll want to assemble the buns and let them rise again before steaming to get the best texture and avoid wrinkling. If you can’t wait to eat, roll a few flat, let them rise while you heat your steamer, and then steam the flat ones to wrap taco-style around your filling, letting the shaped buns sit longer until they’re fully puffed.
For steaming, a tiered bamboo steamer set over a boiling water–filled wok or skillet with sloped sides (to avoid burning the bottom of the basket) is ideal. If you don’t yet have a bamboo steamer in your kitchen, consider adding it; it can be used for vegetables, fish, and any number of other meals. I recommend picking up some extra-long cooking chopsticks too so that you can keep your fingers out of reach as you pull the steaming buns from the trays. Hacks include a metal steamer basket or pasta strainer that fits in a deep pot or any other perforated surface that you can keep suspended above the water. Steamed buns, once cooled, keep well in the fridge for a few days.
Ready to give it a try? Full details are in the recipe below, but here are the basics:
You need just 3 main ingredients plus some kitchen staples.
1. Mix and knead the dough.
2. Shape and roll wrapper circles.
3. Add and enclose the filling.
4. Steam the buns and enjoy.
Scratch-Made Steamed Buns
1-1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
560 grams (4 cups) all-purpose flour
70 grams (1/3 cup) sugar
35 grams (3 tablespoons) coconut oil or shortening
120 grams (1/2 cup) ice-cold water
20 grams (4 teaspoons) cold milk
1 cold egg, beaten
In a small glass measuring cup, measure the warm water and then sprinkle the yeast and a little of the flour and sugar over it, stirring until the yeast and sugar dissolve. Let it sit, covered, at room temperature for about 10 minutes, until the mixture is foamy. Stir in 35 grams (1/4 cup) of flour. Cover with a damp tea towel and set aside in a warm spot for about 10 minutes, until the mixture starts to rise.
In a large bowl, combine the remaining flour and sugar; mix in the coconut oil with your fingertips until it feels mealy and coated. With a fork or wooden spoon, mix in the yeast mixture until the flour clumps. In the small glass measuring cup, combine the ice-cold water, milk, and egg; blend this into the flour mixture, bringing the dough together in a soft, ragged mass. Knead the dough in the bowl, incorporating any stuck to the sides, for no more than 2 minutes, until it forms a dough ball.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead about 30 times into a soft, lopsided ball. Return the dough to the bowl, cover it with a damp tea towel, and place it in a warm spot. Let the dough rise for about 1 hour, until nearly doubled. Press a food-grade plastic sheet or plastic wrap onto the dough, punching it down slightly, and cover the bowl with the damp tea towel. Let sit in the warm spot for about 20 minutes, until it starts to rise again, and then transfer the bowl to a cool room or the refrigerator for 12–24 hours for a slow second rise. Make the filling (see below).
Turn the risen dough out onto a lightly floured surface, shape it into a rough log, and then split it in half. Roll each half into an even, foot-long log, and then slice each crosswise into 12 pieces. Set the pieces aside, spaced well, and cover them with a tea towel.
Uncovering one piece at a time, use a small rolling pin to roll the dough from the edges into the center, turning the wrapper with each pass until it forms a 4-inch circle with thin edges and a plump, unrolled “belly button” in the middle. Set the circle on a piece of lightly floured parchment paper, and repeat the process with the remaining dough. Rub a little flour onto the rolling pin if the dough sticks, but use as little extra flour as possible so that it will be easier to pinch closed the dumplings.
On a dough circle, place a heaping tablespoon of filling (see below) on top of the belly button. Hold the dough circle like a cup in the palm of one hand, with your thumb free so that you can tuck the filling into the wrapper as you work. Pleat the top edges with the fingers of your other hand, working your way around the rim until the entire edge is frilled. When you finish the last pleat, twist the frills in the same direction until they gather into a tight closure.
Set the bun, pleated side down, on a small square of parchment paper and then on a baking sheet. Fill and seal closed the remaining dough circles, positioning them about 1-1/2 inches apart on the baking sheet. Let the buns rise, uncovered, in a warm spot for 1 to 1-1/2 hours, until they are half again their original size.
Using a wok and bamboo steamer or another steamer setup, bring enough water for steaming to a boil over medium-high heat. Arrange as many buns on their parchment squares as you can fit on your steaming racks, ensuring about 1 inch of space between the buns and around the sides. Adjust the heat for a steady flow of steam, and steam the buns for 10–12 minutes. Carefully rotate any tiers halfway through the steaming time, opening the lid and lifting tiers so that the steam rises away from you. Steam any remaining buns, serving them hot. Makes 24 buns.
Tips & Tricks
- I weigh the ingredients because I’m lazy; it means fewer utensils to wash. But accuracy isn’t crucial, so use the cup measurements if you don’t have a scale.
- Kneading is minimal here, so I hand-mix the dough. A stand mixer with a flat paddle running at slow speed works well for the initial mixing if you’re doing multiple batches; just be careful not to overwork the dough.
- The more time you take, the better the buns will taste. In a cool kitchen, you might even double your rising times. Even so, don’t skip the long cool-rise step or the rise just before steaming; those rises produce a finer crumb and higher loft.
- The rolling and folding take practice but are worth it; leaving that hump of dough in the center of the circle makes it easier to stretch and twist the edges over the filling without breaking through the dough. Once you get the technique down, you’ll find you can squeeze more filling into each bun. As a shortcut, just cinch the dough closed so that the filling won’t leak out or roll the dough flat like a tortilla, steam the rounds, and then fold them over the filling like a taco.
- Leftovers can be cooled to room temperature and refrigerated in an airtight container, where they will keep several days. To reheat, bring the buns to room temperature and steam them on parchment squares for 8–10 minutes, until thoroughly hot.
- Instead of steaming, buns can be baked on parchment-lined baking sheets at 350°F for 10–12 minutes, until golden; rotate the trays halfway through the baking time. Use slightly less time for buns you’ll reheat later.
Twice as Tasty
There’s no end to the things you can put in your steamed buns. Pork-based fillings are traditional in many parts of China, but so are ones with bean paste, shrimp, salted egg, pickled vegetables, and sweet custards and fruit.
I originally made Deluxe Mushroom Filling for steamed buns and liked it so much I put it in Scratch-Made Pot Stickers too. We like to mix and cook chopped shrimp and grated radish with similar seasonings, again thickening with cornstarch. Instead of a traditional sweet red bean paste, give them a smear of Spiced Red Lentil Dip. A dig through your fridge may reveal plenty of other fun dibs and dabs to mix in.
Steamed buns hold up well to raw fillings too. Vietnamese Bean Sprouts, a fermented pickle from my new book, mix well with fresh grated vegetables to give texture and zing, as do Vinegar-Pickled Mustard Eggs. These raw fillings steam lightly inside the dough, melding their flavors. A variation with tofu gives the filling body and soaks up some liquid from the carrots.
Ready to give it a try? Full details are in the recipe below, but here are the basics:
You need just 2 main ingredients plus some aromatics and seasonings.
1. Drain and crumble the tofu.
2. Grate or slice the vegetables.
3. Mix and use.
8 ounces (2 large) carrots
1-inch piece of fresh ginger
1 clove garlic
3 tablespoons miso
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
1 tablespoon gochugaru (Korean chili flakes) or Anaheim chili flakes
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Drain and press the tofu like you would for pan-frying: Place the tofu on a tilted cutting board so that it can drain into the sink, and then weigh it down for about 20 minutes, until the excess liquid flows off. Crumble the tofu, placing it in a medium bowl.
Using a large-holed grater or other shredding tool, grate the carrots, ginger, and garlic into the bowl. Thinly slice the scallions; add them to the bowl with the miso, sesame oil and seeds, chili flakes, and black pepper. Stir to combine. Use at room temperature or refrigerate until ready to use in Scratch-Made Steamed Buns or another edible wrapper. Makes about 3 cups.
Tips & Tricks
- This recipe makes plenty of filling for a batch of bao dough, and leftovers can slide into other wrappers. Raw is fine; it will heat up inside its wrapper and blend the flavors.
- Korean chili flakes pack less heat than American red pepper flakes, which are mostly cayenne. Anaheim chili flakes work for a 1:1 substitution, or you can use cayenne to taste.
- I’ve included weights not for precision but to help you change up the filling and still have ample for a batch of dough. Replace some of the carrot with daikon radish, some of the tofu with hard-boiled egg, or the scallion with chives.
Need pickles to fill or offset your bao? Get a signed copy of The Complete Guide to Pickling to fill your shelves and fridge with vinegar and fermented pickles, chutneys, hot sauces, salsa, and more. At the same time, pick up the The Pickled Picnic to learn how to use pickles and leftover brine in a range of recipes. Click here to order.