I missed the beginning of the Bao phenomenon. I must have been looking the other way or sick that day. I guess they were probably made famous throughout the western world by David Chang’s momofuku Pork Buns. Here in Melbourne, Wonderbao and Bao Now turned up around 18 months ago and have been belting out these Chinese / Taiwanese / Vietnamese steamed treats. Wonderbao sticks to the more traditional fillings, whereas Bao Now opts for an ‘international’ twist, stuffing buns with buffalo chicken, bacon cheeseburger, cheesecake and so on.
I’ve had steamed buns before. Lots of times. But I have simply known them as ‘steamed pork buns’ and didn’t think anything else of it or really care. Several weeks ago I attended the launch of lil nomnoms; Melbourne’s newest food truck, dolling out Vietnamese-inspired food. At the launch, I tried my very first Gua Bao and I loved it! I liked the beer in one hand, food in the other convenience and I liked the contrast of warm, soft, sweet dough stuffed with cold, crisp, fresh ingredients. Then of course, I noticed them everywhere.
Bao means bun or bread in Chinese (and I think Vietnamese). The universal characteristic is the whiter than white, soft, steamed sweet dough. The aforementioned Chinese Bao (also known as bāozi, bau, humbow, nunu, bausak, pow or pau) is the ubiquitous steamed bun, traditionally stuffed with char sui pork. The Vietnamese Bánh Bao (meaning enveloping cake) is also a steamed bun, but traditionally filled with minced pork or chicken meat, Chinese sausage, onion, boiled egg, mushroom and other vegetables. The Japanese also have a version called Nikuman. The Filipinos have Siopao and the Thais have Salapao. I could go on. Basically one can deduce that every Asian country has their own version.
Gua Bao originates from Taiwan and the dough is rolled and steamed to form a taco / slider hybrid. It’s traditionally filled with braised pork belly, pickled mustard greens, coriander, peanuts and Taiwanese red sugar. Tradition aside, it’s a no brainer that it also makes the perfect base for other combinations, but why you’d want to deviate from pork belly is a mystery… unless it’s duck, but more on that in Part 2.
Being the ever-inquisitive person that I am, I decided to have a go at making these for a friend’s up-and-coming dinner party. Given that there was dough involved and the more regular readers would already understand that dough and me have a strained history, I decided that there had to be several experiments to get my head around achieving perfection, or at the very least something that wouldn’t make me look inept.
Let’s start with the dough. In most recipes, it’s pretty simple; flour, water, sugar, some kind of fat, a raising agent of some description and salt. Then come all of the variants which seem countless; even when it comes to flour. High protein (12%-15%) bread flour will give a better result as it produces a light, springy dough that also stays moist and softer for longer because the protein continues to absorb moisture.
Contrary to this, there are some recipes that use cake flour, which contains less protein (7%-9%). This is what tends to happen when you do too much research. If it’s all too hard, stick to plain flour or another option is to buy ready-prepared flour from most Asian grocery stores, which already contains the required raising agents. But I guess if you want to steer clear of phosphates and sulphates, then avoid the ready-prepared stuff, which looks like this…
The quantities of sugar vary from recipe to recipe and I guess it’s up to personal choice and to an extent, your filling of choice. Most recipes call for around 25-30g (2 tablespoons) per 125g (1 cup) of flour.
You didn’t think I’d need to mention water, did you? It warrants a mention; only because most Taiwanese and Chinese recipes call for water and the Vietnamese recipes tend to use milk. My preferred recipe usues water, but it also contains milk powder.
As far as raising agents go, some recipes call for dry (instant) yeast, baking powder or both. However, I’d stear clear of baking (bi-carb) soda. In an attempt to produce a lighter, fluffier Gua Bao, I decided to modify a dough recipe to incorporate yeast, baking powder and baking soda. My Gua Bao turned an unappealing shade of light brown and after some research, I later discovered that when baking soda produces an alkaline solution in water, the alkalinity accelerates the browning reaction. Apparently this is the reason that baking soda (or lye) and a water wash is recommended for pretzels to achieve that deep brown, pretzely colour.
Some recipes call for (melted) solidified fats, like lard or some simply state to use canola oil. Whatever neutral tasting oil you have at home is probably fine. I used duck fat.
Over the course of the last couple of weeks I had succeeded and failed with a number of Gua Bao dough recipes. The first version I tried was from Gourmet Traveller; purportedly adapted from a David Chang recipe, however the recipe is very different from the original. The outcome was OK; they kinda looked the part, but they just weren’t fluffy enough and a little on the heavy side.
The second attempt was from some random blog. This is where I went a bit freestyle in the desperate pursuit of lightness and fluffiness, used baking soda and failed. Whilst they tasted OK and were a little bit lighter, the colour was a little off-putting.
Two bags of the ready-prepared flour from an Asian Grocery store ($2.20 for 445g) remain unused in my pantry, so I never got around to trialling them. Although the instructions give an indication that it required far less time to prepare the dough, the recipe didn’t contain yeast.
I doubt I’ll even get around to using the ready-prepared flour because when D-Day came along, another google search found me the original momofuku book recipe and the results were brilliant:
1 tablespoon, plus 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 ½ cups water, at room temperature
4 ¼ cups bread flour
6 tablespoons caster sugar
3 tablespoons non-fat dry milk powder (mine was full-fat)
1 tablespoon sea salt flakes
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda (I omitted this)
1/3 cup rendered fat or vegetable shortening, melted in the microwave (I used duck fat)
The first thing I noticed was the quantity of this recipe. It yields 50 (smaller) buns. The second thing I noticed was that it was an easier recipe; the yeast and water were added straight into the bowl of a stand mixer, with a dough hook attached. The flour, sugar, milk powder, salt, baking powder (I omitted the baking soda) and duck fat were all dumped into the bowl and then mixed on the lowest speed possible for 8 to 10 minutes… No waiting for the yeast to activate in the water. It was practically fool-proof.
After the required time, the dough had gathered into a smooth, not-too-tacky ball on the hook; very similar to a brioche dough. I then placed it into a lightly oiled pyrex bowl, covered it with a clean tea towel and placed it into my oven, set at 50 degrees (fan on), with the door open. The recipe suggests leaving it to prove for at least an hour and 15 minutes. I had other stuff to do, so mine was left for about twice that amount of time.
After punching the dough down, I digressed a little. Whilst the recipe called for dividing the dough to make 50 x 25g balls, I only needed 12 and upped the size to 50g, as I was serving two per person. I wrapped the rest of the dough in cling wrap and chucked it in the freezer. The balls were then left covered with cling wrap for a further 30 minutes to rest and rise. I had more stuff to do, so they again had a little more resting time (around two hours).
Before the next stage, I cut out a dozen 10cm squares of baking paper; one for each bao. Each ball was the flattened lightly by hand, before lightly rolling to make a 15-20cm oval. From previous experience, I then sprayed the dough with a little rice bran spray oil before folding over very lightly to form the bun shape and placing each bun onto its baking paper base. The third and final rise took place under some more cling wrap for another 30 to 45 minutes.
When it was time to steam (placing about ½ a cup of white vinegar into the boiling water, which apparently makes them whiter), I placed three buns into the steamer. The baking paper made it easier to transfer the buns without touching the dough and flattening them. After about 10 minutes, they were ready and I almost shed a tear; they were perfect; light, billowy, soft and more importantly, looked exactly like the ones in the Momofuku book. From there you can use them straight away, pop them in the fridge for later or freeze them for up to a week.
Stay tuned for Part 2… dinner party Gua Bao.