Asian Steamed Buns (Char Siu Bao)

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I’m pretty excited about this post.  We’re getting into prime vegetable harvest season up here, and these buns, besides being a family favorite, are the perfect companion to a quick stir-fry of fresh garden veggies.

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What are char siu bao?  Pork or beef, slow-roasted in a sweet-salty Asian marinade, shredded to bits, and wrapped up in a tender steamed bun.  In one bite, you get the sweetness of hoisin, the richness of sesame, the saltiness of soy, the pungency of garlic, and the deep caramel taste of well roasted meat.  And mellowing the intense flavor of the meat is the bun – fluffy, yet chewy – like the inside of a freshly-baked loaf of bread.

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Besides being utterly, addictively delicious, bao are inexpensive, easy to freeze, and quick to reheat.  Making them the perfect summer side to whatever veggies are growing in abundance near you.

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Making char siu bao is a multi-day process.  Meat is first marinated overnight, then slow-roasted until it falls apart at a gentle touch.  These first two steps take very little active time.  I prefer to roast the meat the day before I plan to actually assemble and steam the bao, so that everything is ready first thing in the morning and I can get right to it.

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On the day of assembly, I make a big batch of dough, stash most of it in the fridge so it doesn’t rise too fast, and get to work.  It is assembly line style work, and a bit tedious, but the convenience and deliciousness of a freezer stocked with bao more than makes up for the time spent.

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Two different folding methods

And if you’ve ever made any sort of filled buns or dumplings, you’ll appreciate this part: the dough is super fast to roll out.  I mean, I make 2 passes with the rolling pin per bun.  That’s it.  Back-forth.  Turn 90 degrees.  Back-forth.  Done.  Way, way faster than say, samosas*.  There’s no brushing with egg wash or water and folding just so – you can literally just gather the sides up and give them a good squeeze.  No need to fancy-fold them like I’ve done here if you don’t want to.  And because the filling-to-bun ratio is so small, it’s really easy to get a good seal without bursting the bun dough.

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Once you’ve assembled all your buns (look, aren’t they pretty?), pop them in your steamer** for 10 minutes.  Then, if you’re patent enough, let them cool for a couple minutes before eating.  I’m never patient enough.

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Enjoy!

 

*But I need to share my samosa recipe with you at some point, because they are one of the best things to eat.  On the planet.  And I make a lot of tasty things.

**I thoroughly recommend buying a multi-level bamboo steamer for these.  A standard two-level bamboo steamer will fit 12 bao at a time, while I can only fit 6 in my largest pot insert steamer.  I can’t recommend a brand, though.  I bought some El Cheapo thing for about fifteen bucks from Amazon.  Which would be a great price if it had stayed together.  But it hasn’t.  You can see in the pictures how I jury-rigged one of the layers with some twine to keep it from bursting at the seams.

 

Char Siu Bao

Yields approximately 50 buns

Adapted, barely, from Two Lazy Gourmets, who adapted it from Andrea Nguyen’s Asian Dumplings.

As noted above, this is a multi-day recipe.  I typically make bao over the course of three days, but you can do it in two, if needed.  Only the final day has much in the way of active cooking time.

Bao freeze excellently.  I typically make a double batch, and freeze the fully-cooked bao in zip-top bags.  5 minutes in the steamer reheats them nicely (a microwave works too).

Please Note:  The amount of filling listed will require 2-2.5 recipes worth of bun dough.  I’ve written the directions this way because most stand mixers (Kitchen Aid, etc) will only be able to handle a single recipe’s worth of dough at a time.  A more heavy-duty mixer will likely handle more.  My Bosch will take at least 4 recipes worth of dough quite happily.

 

Filling:
2 ½ lb pork shoulder or beef roast
6 T honey
4 ½ T soy sauce
4 ½ T hoisin sauce
3 T mirin
4 cloves garlic
½ t Chinese five spice
5 t sesame oil, divided
1 T cornstarch dissolved in 1 T water

Buns:
2 ½ C (325 g) flour
2 T sugar
2 t baking powder
1 ½ t yeast
¾ C lukewarm water
2 T neutral-flavored oil (I used peanut)

 

To make filling:
Trim the meat of fat and cut into roughly 2” pieces.  Mix honey through five spice, and 3 t of the sesame oil, and marinate meat in the mixture for at least 6 hours (preferably overnight).

Heat oven to 250°.

In a dutch oven or heavy, oven-safe pot, heat the meat mixture to a gentle boil.  Cover, and roast for 4-6 hours, or until meat is very tender.  Strain meat and reserve sauce.  Optionally, cool both meat and sauce overnight at this point.

Skim any excess fat from the sauce.  Add remaining 2 t sesame oil, and chop meat finely (a food processor works well for this).  Heat the sauce to boiling, and let simmer for a few minutes to reduce volume by about 25%.  Add cornstarch mixture, and return to a boil to thicken slightly.  Turn off heat, and return the chopped meat to the sauce.

To make dough:
Combine flour through yeast.  Add water and oil, and knead just until smooth – you’re not trying to develop a lot of gluten here.  Cover with a damp cloth, and let rise for about 1 hour at room temp, or until doubled in size.

Note – If you want to make a bunch of batches of dough at once, it’s best to put most of the dough in the fridge immediately after mixing, leaving only 1 batch to rise at room temp.  The refrigerated dough will still rise fairly quickly, and should be ready to use by the time you need it.

To assemble:
Cut parchment paper into 3-inch (8 cm) squares.  You’ll need about 50 of these.

Deflate one batch of dough, and divide it in half.  Divide one half of the dough into 12 equally-sized pieces, keeping the other half covered.  Shape each piece quickly into a ball.  Roll each ball into a 3-4” circle (if the circles aren’t fast to roll out, you’re probably rolling them too big).  Put a slightly heaped tablespoon of filling in the center of each circle, and pinch dough around at the top to close.  Place each bun on a parchment square, and leave to rise for 20-30 minutes.  Repeat with the other half-batch of dough.

Make more batches of dough (you should need 2-3 batches, total) until all the filling is used up.   Note that your first buns will be ready to go in the steamer before you finish forming the final ones, unless you’re super speedy.

To cook:
Once the bao have risen to about 1 ½ times their original size, place them, still on their parchment squares, in a steamer over boiling water.  Steam for 10 minutes.  Cool bao on a wire rack.

 

Variations:

  • I have a feeling that just about any Asian-inspired meat mixture would work well as a filling, as long as the flavors were strong enough.  You could even do a vegetarian version, if you took care to use veggies that wouldn’t get too mushy.
  • I love to serve these with a quick stir-fry of whatever veggies are ripe in my garden, cooked briefly over high heat in a bit of sesame oil and soy sauce.

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