How To Make Char Siu Bao (Chinese Steamed Pork Buns)

published Feb 11, 2021
How To Make Char Siu Bao (Chinese Steamed Pork Buns)

A complete step-by-step guide to making the dim sum favorite of soft fluffy buns filled with sweet Chinese barbecued pork (char siu).

Makes15 (3-inch) pork buns

Prep1 hour

Cook3 hours 40 minutes to 4 hours 20 minutes

Jump to Recipe
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bao buns sit in the container, and on a plate next to a tea set with citrus
Credit: Photo: Leigh Beisch; Food Styling: Dan Becker

One of the ways my Chinese family shows love and affection is with food gifts. It’s usually bringing a big pink box to relatives for Lunar New Year filled with dim sum, or, more often, a combination of sweet and savory baos. Bao is the Chinese word that very broadly means bread — it can mean steamed buns, baked buns, or even Western-style sliced bread. Steamed buns are usually found at sit-down or takeout dim sum restaurants, while baked Chinese buns are found at Chinese bakeries (although the lines do blur occasionally).

One of the most beloved Chinese baos is char siu bao or barbecue pork buns. The filling is a sweet-savory mix of pork in a vibrant red sauce, and the bun can be steamed or baked. Steamed char siu bao has a soft, snowy-white, pleated dough; the baked version is made with a different dough and is baked until golden-brown and somewhat resembles a hamburger bun. Children, my daughter included, love the steamed version because of its soft, fluffy texture and slightly sweet dough.

I’ve eaten char siu baos for breakfast, lunch, or even as a snack, and they’re just pure comfort food to me. It’s not a food that’s part of a traditional Chinese New Year dinner, but everything is different this year and we all need an extra dose of comfort, so I decided it was time to figure out how to make them myself. After many rounds of char siu pork, bao dough, and trying pleats of all kinds, I’ve figured out how to make these delicious buns at home. Here’s everything you need to know.

Credit: Photo: Leigh Beisch; Food Styling: Dan Becker

How to Make the Char Siu Filling

The first step is making the filling. Char siu is roasted pork covered in a sweet, sticky sauce that usually turns the outside of the meat bright red. It can be made from lean pork, but for the most flavorful, juicy filling, I prefer to use something with a little more fat, like pork shoulder or boneless country-style ribs.

The glaze for char siu is traditionally made with fermented tofu, but I’ve found a great shortcut that even my mom approves of: bottled char siu sauce. Lee Kum Kee makes a fabulous version that can easily be found at Asian markets or even online. Using the sauce for marinating and glazing the meat and also tossing it with the cooked meat keeps the ingredient list for these buns to a minimum. Speaking of shortcuts, if you’re lucky enough to live near a Chinese deli, you can skip this step altogether and purchase the char siu there.

To make char siu, marinate the pork and then slow-roast it with the glaze until the internal temperature is at least 180ºF. The pork is technically cooked at 145ºF, but cooking it longer makes the meat more tender.

To turn the char siu into filling, sauté some onion, then stir in some oyster sauce, sugar, and the char siu sauce before thickening with a cornstarch slurry. Mix in the diced char siu meat, then scoop it into smaller portions so it cools faster and is ready to get stuffed into the bao dough.

How To Make Bao Dough

Bao dough is most often made with a special kind of flour with names like Hong Kong flour, Vietnamese bao flour, or mantou flour. It’s a highly bleached flour with a low protein content that produces a white bun that’s very soft and tender. I’ve found that bleached or unbleached cake flour is the best approximation, but I highly recommend you weigh the flour. Different brands of flour measure out differently depending on how clumpy or packed the flour is. Also, different cooks measure flour differently (stirring the flour, then swiping the measuring cup to level; scooping the cup directly in the flour bin), which can also affect the measurement. Using a kitchen scale ensures that you’ll have exactly the right amount of flour, which makes all the difference in the texture of your bun. Traditional bao recipes use water and oil as the liquid, but I learned from a pastry chef when I was testing recipes for a cookbook that using some milk helps create a softer steamed bun.

When mixing the dough in the stand mixer (you can also knead by hand), set a timer for 10 minutes and check on it every few minutes to see if you need to add a tiny bit more water or flour depending on the texture of the dough. The ideal dough is very soft, almost marshmallow-like, that doesn’t stick to your hands but sticks together when pleated. Let the dough rise (it should take about an hour), cut up some small pieces of parchment paper for steaming, then get ready for shaping!

Credit: Photo: Leigh Beisch; Food Styling: Dan Becker

How to Form and Steam the Pork Buns

Shaping the dough and filling the buns is the fun part, so recruit some helpers of all ages! It’s particularly fun for young kids and the filling is cooked so you don’t have to worry about them touching raw meat. Start by dividing up the dough into small pieces, then roll each dough round into a wrapper by pressing it out with your hands, or use a small rolling pin (called a dumpling dowel) instead. The most important thing to remember is the center of the wrapper should be a little thicker than the edges so there’s an even amount of dough around the filling when it’s all sealed up.

Char siu bao are traditionally formed by folding the wrapper in beautiful overlapping pleats. That technique takes some practice, so we’ve used an easier method here. Pinch opposite sides of the wrapper together to form a square bundle, then gather the corners together to meet in the middle. Twist the middle where the dough meets in one direction and the bun in the other to create a pretty swirled pattern. Place each sealed buns on a parchment paper square, or go the easy route and use greased paper muffin liners.

After a brief second rise, the char siu bao are ready for steaming! Don’t crowd them in the steamer. They need some room to rise and puff impressively. Ten minutes is all it takes to cook the dough, but let them cool off for a minute or two before you bite into one. I know it’s tempting to eat them right out of the steamer, but they are hot hot hot! Savor each bite with one of my favorite drink pairings, a cup of jasmine or chrysanthemum tea.

Credit: Photo: Leigh Beisch; Food Styling: Dan Becker
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Here's how to wrap and fill the char siu bao.

How To Make Char Siu Bao (Chinese Steamed Pork Buns)

A complete step-by-step guide to making the dim sum favorite of soft fluffy buns filled with sweet Chinese barbecued pork (char siu).

Prep time 1 hour

Cook time 3 hours 40 minutes to 4 hours 20 minutes

Makes 15 (3-inch) pork buns

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

For the char siu (or purchase 12 ounces prepared char siu):

  • 1 (1/2-inch) piece

    ginger

  • 1/3 cup

    char siu sauce, such as Lee Kum Kee

  • 1 tablespoon

    oyster sauce

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    five-spice powder (optional)

  • 1 pound

    (about 1-inch thick) boneless pork shoulder steak or country style-ribs

  • 1 tablespoon

    honey

For the sauce:

  • 1/4 cup

    char siu sauce, such as Lee Kum Kee

  • 1 tablespoon

    oyster sauce

  • 1 teaspoon

    granulated sugar

  • 1/2

    small yellow onion

  • 2 tablespoons

    water

  • 1 tablespoon

    cornstarch

  • 1 tablespoon

    vegetable oil

For the bao dough:

  • 1/2 cup

    whole milk

  • 1/4 cup

    plus 2 tablespoons water, plus more as needed

  • 12 1/2 ounces

    or 354 grams cake flour (2 1/2 to generous 3 cups, depending on the brand), plus more as needed

  • 1/3 cup

    granulated sugar

  • 1 (1/4-ounce) packet

    instant or rapid rise yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)

  • 2 teaspoons

    baking powder

Equipment

  • Chef’s knife and cutting board

  • Steamer

  • Stand mixer (optional)

  • Measuring cups and spoons

  • Mixing bowls

  • Dumpling dowel (optional)

  • Parchment paper, or paper muffin liners and cooking spray

  • Baking sheet

  • Medium frying pan

  • Wide shallow bowl or pie plate

  • Aluminum foil

  • Gallon ziptop bag

  • Brush

  • Whisk

  • Timer

  • Scale

  • Wire roasting rack

Instructions

Make the char siu:

  1. Prepare the marinade. Thinly slice 1 (1/2-inch) piece ginger (no need to peel). Place in a small bowl, add 1/3 cup char siu sauce, 1 tablespoon oyster sauce, and 1/4 teaspoon five-spice powder if desired, and stir to combine.

  2. Marinate the pork. Transfer the marinade to a gallon-sized ziptop bag. Add 1 pound pork shoulder steaks and turn to coat. Seal the bag and marinate in the refrigerator at least 6 hours or up to 24 hours, flipping the bag once or twice.

  3. Heat the oven. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 300ºF. Meanwhile, let the marinated pork sit out at room temperature. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and fit with an ovensafe wire rack.

  4. Prepare the pork for roasting. Remove the pork from the marinade, let the excess marinade drip off and scrape off any slices of ginger, and place on the rack. Pour the remaining marinade into a small bowl and stir in 1 tablespoon honey.

  5. Roast the pork until tender. Roast until the pork is tender and registers at least 180ºF on an instant-read thermometer, 2 to 2 1/2 hours total. Every 30 minutes, brush the pork with the honey glaze, flip, and brush the other side.

  6. Broil the pork. Remove the pork from the oven. Turn the oven on to broil on high. Brush the pork with glaze. Broil until the top is just starting to char, 2 to 4 minutes. Flip the pork, brush with more glaze, and broil until the second side is just starting to char, about 2 minutes more. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool slightly.

Make the sauce and filling:

  1. Prepare the sauce ingredients. Stir 1/4 cup char siu sauce, 1 tablespoon oyster sauce, and 1 teaspoon granulated sugar together in a small bowl. Finely chop 1/2 small yellow onion until you have 1/2 cup (save any remaining onion for another use). Dice the char siu into 1/4-inch pieces.

  2. Sauté the onion. Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and cook until softened and starting to brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Meanwhile, stir 2 tablespoons water and 1 tablespoon cornstarch together in a small bowl.

  3. Finish the sauce. Add the sauce mixture and cook until simmering. Add the cornstarch slurry and cook until the liquid thickens considerably and sticks to the onion, about 30 seconds.

  4. Mix in the char siu. Remove from the heat, add the char siu, and stir to combine.

  5. Scoop and chill the filling. Divide and scoop the dough out onto a baking sheet or large plate in 15 portions (about 1 1/2 tablespoons each). Refrigerate uncovered while you make the bao dough, or refrigerate overnight if making buns the next day.

Make the bao dough:

  1. Warm the liquids. Heat 1/2 cup whole milk and 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons water together in the microwave until just warm to the touch, about 20 seconds. (Alternatively, warm on the stovetop.)

  2. Mix the dry ingredients. Place 354 grams cake flour, 1/3 cup granulated sugar, 1 (1/4-ounce) packet instant yeast, and 2 teaspoons baking powder in the bowl of a stand mixer and whisk to combine.

  3. Mix the dough. Fit the dough hook onto the mixer. Turn a timer on for 10 minutes. Turn the mixer on to the lowest speed and slowly pour in the milk mixture. Check the dough after 2 minutes of mixing -- if it has not formed a ball, add more cake flour a teaspoon at a time (let it mix for a minute before adding more) until it forms one. Stop the mixer and timer and squeeze the dough after 5 minutes -- if it does not feel soft and supple and stretch easily, mix in a teaspoon of water (the dough may separate but will come back together after a minute or so). Continue timing and mixing until the 10 minutes is up. The dough should not stick to the bowl but should be smooth, soft, and supple.

  4. Let the dough rise. Cover the bowl and let rise in a warm place until slightly puffed, about 1 hour. When ready, the dough should feel like a soft marshmallow. Meanwhile, prepare the steam papers.

Fill and steam the bao:

  1. Prepare the steam papers. Cut out 15 (3-inch) squares of parchment paper. Alternatively, flip 15 paper muffin liners inside out to flatten slightly and coat lightly with cooking spray or brush with vegetable oil.

  2. Divide the dough. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and divide into 15 pieces (38 to 40 grams each). Form each into a smooth ball (it’s best to pinch off a piece of dough and form immediately into a ball).

  3. Form the wrapper. Fill and form one bun at a time, keeping the remaining dough balls covered under a damp towel to keep them from drying out. Press a dough ball into a 3 1/2-inch wide disc (if the dough is sticky, dust your hands with cake flour). Pick up the disc and place it flat in your non-dominant hand. Gently flatten and stretch the edges with your other hand until the disc is about 4 inches wide with a slightly thicker center. (Alternatively, roll the dough out with a dumpling dowel.)

  4. Fill the bun. Place the wrapper on the work surface. Spoon a portion of filling onto the center of the wrapper, piling it high.

  5. Form a bundle. Bring up two opposite sides of the wrapper up and over the filling to meet in the middle. Pinch the dough together. Bring up the flat sides of the wrapper up and over the filling to meet in the middle. Pinch together to form a bundle with 4 corners.

  6. Fold in the corners. Pull two opposite corners of the bundle to the middle and pinch the dough together. Repeat with the remaining two corners and pinch to completely seal in the filling.

  7. Pinch and twist to seal. Pick up the bun in your non-dominant hand. Pinch the dough where all the pleats meet and twist this part toward you while at the same time twisting the bun away from you with your other hand. This will make the folds take on a more swirled look. Gently round out the bun with your hands if you’d like, then place on a parchment square. Repeat filling the remaining buns.

  8. Place the first round of buns in the steamer. Place as many buns will fit in a steamer with at least 2-inches of space between them (5 in a 12-inch steamer). Leave the rest of them on the counter or on a baking sheet.

  9. Let the buns rise. Cover the buns loosely with plastic wrap or a damp kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place for 30 minutes (they may puff a little but will not rise much).

  10. Prepare a steamer. Prepare a steamer for steaming and bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat.

  11. Steam the buns. Uncover the buns in the steamer. Cover with the steamer lid and steam until the dough is cooked through, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Steam the remaining buns, adding more water to the steamer between rounds if needed. Serve warm.

Recipe Notes

Char siu: You can skip making the char siu and purchase it from a Chinese deli instead. You'll need 12 ounces or 2 cups diced.

Make ahead: The filling can be made and refrigerated up to 2 days ahead.

Making the dough by hand: Mix the flour mixture and milk mixture together with a wooden spoon until a shaggy dough forms. Turn out onto a work surface and knead until smooth and shiny, about 10 minutes. If the dough is too dry, knead in more water 1 teaspoon at a time. If the dough is too wet, knead in cake flour 1 teaspoon at a time.

Storage: The steamed buns can be refrigerated in an airtight container up to 4 days or frozen up to 2 months (thaw overnight in the refrigerator before reheating). Reheat in a steamer until heated through, about 3 minutes.

Credit: Kitchn