Thursday, 23 August 2012

Basic Chinese steam buns

 Like the latest bunch of food-reated words added to The Oxford Dictionary including Bibimbap, Banh mi, Eton mess, California roll, muffin top, doughnut hole plus a few less known words such as Taquito and Kleftiko. The word bao should be also be made into the dictionary. After all, it was in the Song Dynasty that the bao found its meaning - filled buns, to distinguishing itself from its plain sibling mantou which obviously refers to unfilled buns.That was definitely way long before the westernize sushi came about.
I quickly discovered that bao dough was more tricky then it seems despite the fact that just a handful of ingredients: flour, yeast leavening, liquid, fat and sugar. The baking skills of Cantonese chefs are some of the most underrated and least discussed topics of Chinese cooking. Researching the internet on this recipe, I figured out, mostly it all refers to one recipe. As easy as these delights seems, they aren't that easy to master at home. Snow white, soft, light fluffy effect- unattainable. Many had tried; many had failed to produce a comparable result to what you get outside.

Good bao skin is critical for a delicious bao. I got to know that in commercial chinese kitchen, the bao masters add ingredients like ammonia, lard, double action baking powder and vinegar to get that quality baos. It's added to make the bao's texture soft, fluffy and white. 

My recipe is not the standard but rather of my experimentations. However it is, it meets the quality of soft, fluffy and white. That is what that matters, isn't it?

This bao dough recipe can be enjoyed plainly as mantou (馒头) or like what I am posting here with the addition of spring onions simply twisted to a knots, huajuan (花卷) or flower knots, traditionally eaten plain for breakfast, snacks or to mainly as a vehicle to soak up the sauce in a dish. Before we start thinking of the variety of fillings, let us talk about the bao dough first.

Water Roux made a different in the texture of steam bao. The result is extremely fluffy, soft and tender; the gluten in the flour and water mixture would absorb the moisture and become leavened. To make water roux – 1 part flour is being cooked in 5 parts of water to 65ºC. In measuring terms, 25g flour to 125g water for the bao recipe below. The water roux keeps steamed bao moist, soft and extremely fluffy.

Hong Kong Flour is a highly bleached flour. The extra bleaching makes it whiter and softer, which is preferable in making a lot of Asian doughs because it allows you to roll it thinner without fear of tearing so much. Plus it gives that very white look to the bao.

Ammonia Bicarbonate 
I've figured out that pretty much all white steamed Chinese buns require ammonia for color and lightness. Ammonia is very pungent so take note when measuring out. 

Double-acting Powder react in two phases and can stand for a while before steaming which allows the bao dough to proof for awhile before steaming. With double-acting powder, some gas is released at room temperature when the powder is added to dough, but the majority of the gas is released after the temperature of the dough increases in the steamer.

Dough starter
300g hong kong flour
1 packet instant yeast = 2¼ teaspoons
2½ tablespoon sugar
125 mL full cream milk
1 portion of water roux

Making bao is very similar to bread making. 
Add flour, yeast, sugar and water roux into a mixing bowl and pour the milk. Roughly incorporate water into the flour and set aside covered with damp tea towel for 15 mins to let the flour absorb the water. 

Mix the flour mixture to a dough, add more milk or flour if required. The dough will be a bit sticky at first, knead until it's soft and smooth. It takes approximately 20-25 minutes depend on how you knead it. Coat a mixing bowl with oil. Place dough in a mixing bowl, cover the bowl with wet cloth or cling wrap and let the dough rest for 45 minutes or until it double in size. 

I often knead by hand, but when I feel lazy, I let the mixer do the work. Regardless of method, the result is fabulous.

When dough is double in size about 45 minutes, punch air out and knead into a ball. To maximize the flavor. Proof a second time round in the fridge left overnight.

Ingredients for bao
Dough starter (recipe above)
80g Hong Kong flour
40g corn starch 
3 tablespoon lard 
½ teaspoon ammonium bicarbonate
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon white vinegar

Add all the ingredients to the dough starter. Knead well for 10 mins to form dough. Divide dough into pieces and add filling of your choice.

For huajuan (花卷) or flower knots 
Add 1½ cups chopped spring onions and 2 teaspoon salt to the above final dough. Divided and rolled in to mini logs and twisted in knots. Let the buns proof in the bamboo steamer for 20mins or until it double in size. Steam for 15mins on high heat. 

For salted egg custard buns (lau sar bao) 流沙包, click here.
For char siu buns, click here.

- till next post, ss.


  1. Hi,
    I seen all your recipes. They look wonderful. I really like to try making bao.
    But I have a few queries.
    For the bao recipe,
    Do we mix the ready kneaded and rised basic dough with the other ingredients or we mix the ingredients for the basic dough together with the remaining extra ingredients?

    And also what is custard sugar? Any replacement for it?
    Hope to hear from you soon

    1. Hi Seoyeon,
      Thanks for your lovely comments. You can mix the "Ingredients for bao" straight into the already risen dough starter. And thanks for pointing out the error - it should be custard powder instead of "sugar". readily available from supermarkets.

      Do check out the other bao post too.


  2. Hi Sandra,
    It's me again! I tried your liu she bao filling! It's awesome goodness! My family loved it!
    I have another query.
    For the basic bao dough, when u state I portion of water roux, meaning the 25g/125gm flour+water. When cooked, I use the whole of it = 1portion?
    And I can't seem to find ammonium bicarbonate in my country. Any substitute for it?
    Seo yeon

    1. Hi Seoyeon,

      I am thrilled you and your family like it.
      Yes. use the whole portion of water roux to the recipe. And the ammonium bicarbonate can be omitted if you can't find it. It's rather hard to find.

  3. hi, i have been looking for steamed bao recipe that is white & fluffy, which is similar to the one's from chinese restaurant. and also i wonder how they do the pleat "burst" style like a popcorn? please help...


  4. hello. Here's the details...the recipe requires a use a starter. The dough starter recipe requires a minimum of 12 -24 hours to culture, depending on temperature. The finish start should be foamy and doubled in size. A combination of a few drops of lye water, a strongly alkaline solution, together with baker’s ammonia to make the buns, and the results were quite spectacular – the buns rose just like the ones you see in yum cha restaurants.

    You can see the full recipe here:

  5. Hey Sandra, I'd just like to ask if it is really necessary to use lard? Can I use shortening or butter in place of it, if so which is a better replacement?

  6. Hi Jaime,

    You can use canola oil instead.

  7. Hi Sandra, I've been reading through the in Ingredient list and was wondering where I can find Hong Kong flour? What would be a good sub for that? Look forward to make this. Looks so yum.

  8. HI Sandra, Just another question. Is the full cream a milk in a liquid form or a powder form?

  9. Hi Jen Jen,

    Hong Kong flour is the best because it is finer and whiter. You can find it in most Asian Grocers. If you really can't get it, you can use plain flour but the buns will be firmer and not as white.

  10. Hi Jen Jen,

    Milk in a liquid form.

  11. Hi Sandra, I just made the pau dough and it had sort of an alcohol-yeasty smell. It was quite strong and that was before adding then vinegar. I still followed through the whole recipe and did add the vinegar later on. After steaming the buns, the smell was still there.

  12. Hi Jessie,

    Did you add too much of the yeast and ammonium bicarbonate? You might also had let the dough ferment for too long?

  13. I didn't add ammonia bicarbonate and I measured the yeast, so I think it's because I let it ferment too long but what about leaving it in the fridge to maximize the flavour like you said. Wouldn't that affect the fermentation?

  14. Hi Jessie,

    It varies with the type of yeast and also the temperature of the fridge. You might want to try adding less yeast next time.



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