The first time I tasted Bao buns or “baozi” (Chinese steamed buns), they were filled with a sweet red bean paste. It was unusual, to say the least but the hot soft pillowy dough was lightly sweet and good unlike anything I had ever tasted before. It was the first and not the last time that I discovered that in Asia, red beans are turned into all sorts of desserts! Red bean ice cream, moon cakes for Lunar year celebrations, mochi filled with red beans, you get the idea. It grows on you after a while!
Steamed buns can also be prepared with all kinds of delicious savory fillings like mushrooms, ground vegetarian meat, marinated jackfruit, and many more options. They make a great lunch with a green salad. In a way, it is the Chinese version of the Italian calzone! They are best served hot.
Truth be told, steamed buns are not exactly fast food, they do take some time to make (mostly for the dough to rise), assembling and stuffing each bun and steam them. But you can do this with friends and family to speed things up. Once you have the filling and the dough has expanded you can invite everyone to participate. It is kind of fun because everyone will end up making different looking buns both in size and shape. This way you can proudly stand by your creation when it is time to eat them!
The best flour to make steamed buns
To achieve light and soft buns you want a flour that has medium to low gluten levels. Luckily, all-purpose flour fits the bill perfectly! Forget about self-rising flour since the buns are yeasted.
Making the buns
Buns can be round like a mound, twisted at the top like a small purse, or folded in half. If you choose to do the half fold, you can steam the dough on its own, then add the filling before serving.
NOTE: you must make sure to keep the middle of the disc much thicker than the edge otherwise you risk exploding your buns. No worry, it takes a little practice to create smooth, uniform buns. I remember my first few batches were small, I went for the little purse by squeezing the top, that’s the easiest way to make them at first. One bun exploded because I made it too thin but they all tasted great. So don’t be hard on yourself, this isn’t a contest, just have fun and you will get the hang of it in no time.
The great news is that if you make extra buns you can freeze them. The best way to do this is to place each bun (with its parchment paper square) on a small baking sheet and freeze. Once they are frozen you can throw them into a bag. Don’t skip this step or you will end up with one giant bun made of many stuck-together small ones! Then all you need to do is steam the frozen buns for 15 minutes and you are good to go!
If the filling in your buns is well seasoned you may not need any dipping sauce. But it is always nice to have some. Some of our favorite sauces are sweet chili sauce, sweet ginger soy sauce, buffalo sauce…
We love to make larger savory buns for lunch with a green salad and small sweet ones for dessert. This way you can tell them apart!
Savory Steamed Buns
- Bamboo or metal steamer
- Parchment paper
- clean towel
- 1 tbsp active dry yeast
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup warm water
- 1 medium onion finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 2 cups mixed mushrooms cubed
- 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 2 tbsp tomato sauce
- 1 cup minced cilantro or leafy greens
Prepare the dough
- Combine 1 tablespoon active dry yeast with 1 teaspoon white sugar, ¼ cup all-purpose flour, 1 tbsp vegetable oil and ¼ cup warm water. Stir and set aside for 10 minutes until you see the mixture expanding.
- Add 1.5 cup of all purpose flour, and start kneading until the dough is smooth and elastic. This will take anywhere from 3-5 minutes of kneading.
- Place the dough in an oiled bowl and cover with a clean damp towel. Rest the dough until it doubles in size (40-120 minutes) depending on the temperature in the kitchen.
Prepare the filling
- Chop the onion, mince the garlic and the ginger.
- Pan fry the onion, garlic and ginger in a little oil.
- Add 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar, 2 tbsp soy sauce, 2 tbsp tomato paste, and cup of vegetable ground round
- Optional: add a cup of chopped fresh cilantro or leafy greens.
- Cook until most of the liquid has evaporated. Set aside to cool down.
- When the dough has doubled, remove from the bowl and punch down to remove all the bubbles that have formed during the rising process.
- Sprinkle some flour or baking powder on the working surface.
- Work the dough for 2-3 minutes. Using your hands, make a hole in the middle, then cut 12 equal parts.
- Flatten each ball with your palm, and a roller, working only on the edges making sure to keep the middle thicker so that the buns don’t turnout soggy after being steamed.
- Place one or 2 tbsp of filling in the middle.
- Hold the disc in the palm of one hand and start folding/pleating with the other while turning the bun until completed. You can leave a small hole in the middle or close the buns until it forms a nice spiral on top.
- Cut small squares of parchment paper. Place each bun on one of them. Let them rise another 15 minutes. Don't skip that step!
- Place each bun in the steamer leaving some space in between each bun and on the edge of the steamer because they will expand when they cook.
- Pour cold water in a frying pan large enough to hold your bamboo steamer. Add the bamboo steamer with the buns and cover.
- When the water starts to boil, bring the heat down to medium and start the timer. You should steam the buns 15-18 minutes.
- Serve immediately. Drizzle with some chili oil.