I had my heart set on making steamed buns for weeks. I was drawn to the ubiquitous dim sum item because it seemed like such a huge departure from my skill set. A true baker to the core, the oven in my kitchen gets lots of love. The bamboo steamer? It makes one appearance every year for steamed turnip cake because it doesn’t feel like Chinese New Year without a taste of this homemade treat. I really ought to learn more about steaming, one of the eight key cooking skills in Chinese cuisine.
There is much to love about traditional bamboo steamer aside from its rustic good looks (oh isn’t it photogenic?). It’s lightweight, cheap, and durable. Most importantly, it traps enough steam to create the perfect cooking environment and absorbs excess evaporation so your food don’t get soggy. Pretty amazing, really.
Most steamed bun recipes begin with the direction
Make a well with your pile of flour, pour water into the well, and gradually draw flour with your hands to the centre until dough is formed.
Okay, confession time. I run the other way as soon as I read this. No matter if your recipe promises me the world, I just cannot deal with such a tactile way of working. And the inevitable clean up! I shudder at the thought. Give me confines of mixing bowl and spatula please. Better yet, a stand mixer.
My experience with bread baking grants me more confidence on dough handling and fermentation. Gluten development, purpose of different ingredients, when to knead, and how to control variables for fermentation mean I can look at a recipe and see options. The formula remains the same but I do not have to follow directions to the letter to yield similar result.
I bookmarked Rasa Malaysia’s steamed barbecue pork buns (char siu bao) recipe after a morning of intense craving for this dim sum comfort food. The recipe looks solid with precise weight measurement. I felt more confident about the recipe as soon as I saw wheat starch and baking powder among the ingredients. Wheat flour can be processed into gluten and starch. Wheat starch 澄麵 is not often found in North American grocery stores but it is commonly used in Chinese cuisine. It is wheat starch that gives the classic shrimp dumpling (har gaow) that translucent chewy wrapper. As for baking powder, it adds extra lift to the yeast dough once the bun is heated. Baking is chemistry even if oven is replaced by steamer. I streamlined the original recipe to reflect my way of dough handling.
As soon as my first batch of buns emerged from the steamer, I could not stop smiling with glee. They looked and tasted the part. Soft and fluffy buns with savoury sweet meaty filling. Sure I need some practice with shaping and sealing but my char siu bao passed taste test with flying colour. Besides, I got to yell upstairs to Little Brother “新鮮出爐叉燒飽!” (steamy fresh char siu bao!) as if my home is a dim sum restaurant. How fun was that?
Steamed Barbecue Pork Buns 叉燒包
adapted from Rasa Malaysia
makes 16 small buns
- 280g all purpose flour
- 100g wheat starch 澄麵
- 90g icing sugar
- 10g baking powder
- 8g instant yeast
- 170g warm water (110F)
- 1/2 teaspoon white vinegar
- 30g vegetable oil
- 1 small onion, diced
- 1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 250g diced barbecue pork 叉燒, reserve 2 tablespoons of sauce
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 150g cold water
- 1 1/2 tablespoon cornstarch
- 4 drops of red food colouring (optional)
- Using the paddle attachment of stand mixer, mix together all purpose flour, wheat starch, icing sugar, baking powder, and instant yeast for one minute at low speed.
- In a medium measuring cup, combine warm water, vinegar, and vegetable oil.
- Pour liquid into mixer bowl. Switch to dough hook and mix at medium speed for 3 to 4 minutes until dough is smooth and supple. It should clear side of bowl. If the dough appears too dry, drizzle in water by teaspoons until it reaches desired texture. Round the dough into a ball by hand. Cover mixing bowl tightly with plastic wrap. Leave at warm place to rise until double in size.
- In the mean time, cut 16 2-inch squares of parchment paper. Set aside.
- To make filling, heat 1/2 tablespoon of vegetable oil in large frying pan over medium high heat. Sauté onion until softens. Stir in diced barbecue pork to mix evenly with onion. Drizzle in reserved barbecue pork sauce and sesame oil. In a small bowl, make a slurry with cold water and cornstarch. Pour slurry into pan and keep stirring until mixture thickens. Tip filling into bowl and mix with food colouring evenly if using. Set aside.
- Set up your steamer and bring the water to rolling boil. My set up is a single level bamboo steamer set on top of a pot of the same size.
- Divide risen dough into 16 equal pieces, about 45g each. Shape into balls and cover with plastic wrap. To fill buns, flatten a ball of dough with rolling pin into a 4 inch round with the circumference thinner than the center. Place a heaping teaspoon of filing in the middle. Gather the edge of the dough and pinch tightly close. Place seam side up on a square of parchment paper.
- Place filled buns an inch apart from each other in the steamer basket (I fit four in my 8-inch steamer). Spritz with a fine mist of water. Cover with lid and steam at high heat for 12 minutes. Repeat until all buns are steamed, check for water level in steamer between batches. They’re best fresh out of the steamer! Cool leftover buns on cooling rack and store in fridge. Reheat in microwave.