Tasty, juicy filling with soft, fluffy wrappers, homemade bao buns are super comforting! This guide offers tips and tricks to ensure a fail-proof cooking experience.
Popular as street food and an everyday family dish in China, steamed bao buns (Baozi, 包子) is one of the foods I really enjoy cooking. They are not difficult to make but it can be very tricky to get them right, especially when it comes to making a nice wrapper which rises properly, has a smooth look and a soft, fluffy texture. Today, I’m sharing all the knowledge I’ve gained through trial and error over the years.
Which type of flour?
Which type of flour shall I use to make bao buns? My answer to this frequently asked question is all types of wheat flour works (regardless of the gluten level). However, you may wish to choose a particular type of flour to achieve a certain look/texture.
Do you like them fluffy and less chewy? Then use flour which has a medium to low gluten level. Check the nutrition label on your flour package. The protein content should be under 11g per 100g flour. As far as I know, common all-purpose flour in the UK and the US is within this range. It’s the type I use most frequently for bao buns.
Cake flour has 8-9g protein in 100g flour, so it delivers the least chewy texture. If like me, you don’t have easy access to cake flour, there is a simple substitute: Mix all purpose flour with cornstarch (ratio: 5:1 by weight). Sift before using. Another note: as yeast is used as a raising agent in bao buns, do not use self-raising cake flour which is commonly available in the UK.
Is special bao flour better?
Flour specifically labeled as Bao bun flour/Mantou flour is available in Chinese/Asian shops. It has a low gluten level (around 8g protein in 100g flour) so it’s good for producing fluffy Bao. However, personally I don’t like it as it’s heavily bleached and processed (that’s why it produces a whiter finished look). I’ve tried several brands of bao flour and I find them lacking in natural wheat flavour.
How to make the dough?
Unlike dumpling (Jiaozi) dough which is made from water and flour, bao buns call for the leavened dough which involves the use of yeast. The wrapper rises during the process of steaming.
My recipe for Bao bun dough requires five ingredients: all-purpose flour/cake flour; dried yeast; sugar; cooking oil, and lukewarm water.
- The flour & liquid (water + oil) ratio is 2:1 by weight. It may vary a little depending on the type and the brand of your flour.
- The water & oil ratio is 10:1 by weight. It’s better to choose the cooking oil which doesn’t have a strong taste (eg. rapeseeds, sunflower, canola, vegetable, etc.).
- For every 500g of flour, you will need 2 teaspoons of dried yeast. Add the same amount of sugar or a little less (but not more).
Why is kneading important?
Everyone loves a bao bun with smooth, even skin. Unfortunately homemade ones can easily end up with a pot-marked look. Well-kneaded dough will create even air bubbles inside the dough and therefore lead to a smoother appearance after steaming.
I’ve done a test with my six-year-old daughter. We kneaded two identical pieces of dough then rested and steamed them in the exact same way. Obviously she has much less strength and skill in kneading. So her buns had a much rougher look. Another surprising finding was that extended kneading will lighten the colour of your dough.
Here are my tips on kneading:
- You may use your hands or a stand mixer with a dough hook. Knead until the dough is very smooth.
- For me, the best practice is to initially combine the dough in the stand mixer for 5 minutes or so, then knead with hands to finish.
- After the dough has risen and before shaping the buns, you need to knead the dough again until it returns to its original size and the smooth look.
How long to rest the dough?
Fermentation takes place when you leave your yeast dough to rest. As yeast is very sensitive to temperature, the required resting time varies a lot. To double the size of the dough, it can take as little as 40 minutes if the room temperature is high (and/or if the dough is small in size), or up to 1.5 hours if it’s cold.
To accelerate this process, you can:
- Place the dough bowl in a warm room/area. For example, near a radiator or a preheated oven.
- Heat up a glass of water in the microwave then put your dough bowl inside (keep the glass in). Shut the microwave door.
- Turn on your empty drier for 2 minutes then place the dough bowl inside (I learned this trick from food blogger Nagi).
- Cover your bowl with a damp cloth as humidity also affects fermentation.
Leave the dough to rise until its size doubles. Then knead again to remove any bubbles trapped inside. After shaping the dough into individual Bao, leave them to rise a second time before steaming, about 15 minutes this time.
How to avoid collapsing?
If you have tried to cook bao buns before, you probably know how tricky it can be. The most common problem is the wrappers collapse/wrinkle/harden after steaming. I believe many of you would hold your breath (or cross your finger) the moment you remove the steamer lid. The inconsistency of the cooked wrappers used to drive me mad too. So I’ve conducted numerous trials and kitchen experiments to overcome these problems. Now I’m happy to share my findings with you.
- First of all, allow me to clarify a myth. Many recipes suggest that you should wait for 5 minutes before you uncover the steamer. This does not prevent collapsing at all. I always immediately remove the lid after I turn off the heat (as my parents and restaurant chefs do), my bao buns don’t change their look if the dough has been prepared properly.
- Make sure you include a little sugar and cooking oil when making the dough. Sugar helps to activate the yeast therefore guarantee a good rise. Oil reduces the transmission of the moisture from the filling into the dough, therefore make collapsing less likely.
- As I mentioned above, kneading affects the appearance of bao buns. Extend the kneading time and make sure the dough is perfectly smooth before shaping.
- It’s CRUCIAL to allow enough time during the dough fermentation process (two times as I explained above).
- Don’t roll your wrapper too thin (especially the middle part) otherwise the moisture from the filling might leak into the wrapper making it soggy.
- Start cooking with cold water in your steamer. The gentle rise in temperature helps the dough grow smoothly. Turn the heat down when water starts boiling. Count cooking time from this moment. I suggest no less than 15 minutes.
Make a tasty and juicy filling
I use pork and carrots as the main ingredients in this recipe. Onion and coriander are added to boost the flavour.
- Add water/stock to the pork will produce a juicy filling. You can find more tip on this topic in my post “How to make great dumpling fillings”.
- Briefly stir fry carrot and onion in a little oil. This will enhance their flavour and give the filling a soft texture.
I hope my post has made you feel more confident in cooking bao buns in your own kitchen. Check out my Ultimate Dumpling Guide if you love stuffed delicacies.
A little note: I have created a Youtube channel under the name “FlavorQuest China“. Subscribe if you often use YouTube for cooking inspiration. I’m gradually creating more video recipes and will share them on YouTube.