Chinese Steamed Buns (Gua Bao Buns)

published Jan 14, 2023
Chinese Steamed Buns (Gua Bao Buns) Recipe

Gua bao buns, or pocket-style steamed buns, are the perfect, fluffy vehicle to stuff with the flavorful offerings from your Chinese bao board - or truly anything you crave!

Makes 15 (3 1/2-inch) buns

Prep40 seconds to 45 seconds

Cook10 seconds to 30 seconds

Jump to Recipe
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Chinese Steamed Buns in bamboo steamer.
Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

If you’ve ever walked past a Chinese dim sum takeout restaurant or eaten dim sum where it’s served off of carts, you’ve probably seen clouds of steam wafting out of bamboo or metal steamers. And there’s a good chance that fluffy white steamed buns filled with everything from pork (cha siu bao) to sweet red bean paste or custard are in those steamers. The bright white buns are pillowy-soft, slightly sweet, and best eaten warm and fresh. 

This same dough is used to make pocket-style steamed buns, also known as gua bao buns. Gua bao are Taiwanese sandwiches stuffed with red-braised pork belly, peanuts, cilantro, and pickles. I didn’t grow up eating gua bao, but I did eat the plain gua bao buns many times with my Cantonese family with roast or Peking-style duck, where the crisp skin of the duck is carefully carved off to stuff into the buns with hoisin sauce, scallions, and cucumber. In fact, this fun make-your-own sandwich platter was what inspired me to create a Chinese bao board with both steamed and baked buns.

Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

How to Make Chinese Steamed Buns

There aren’t a lot of ingredients you need to make steamed buns, but do make sure you use cake flour, which is the closest approximation to a highly bleached flour that is used in restaurants and bakeries. 

  1. Warm the milk and water. Use warm milk and water to wake up and activate the yeast.
  2. Mix the dough. Mix a soft dough together with the yeast mixture, cake flour, sugar, and baking powder.
  3. Do the first rise. Let the dough rise until it’s soft like a marshmallow.
  4. Shape the dough. Form dough balls, then roll each one out into an oval. Brush the oval with oil, then fold in half to make a pocket.
  5. Do the second rise. Let the pockets rise slightly.
  6. Steam. Steam the pockets until the dough is cooked through. Definitely serve warm!

A Few Tips for Making Chinese Steamed Buns

  • Weigh out the cake flour. Using too little or too much flour can result in a dough that is hard to work with.
  • Don’t use too much extra flour. If the dough is sticky while you’re forming the dough into balls, flour your hands, not the work surface, so you don’t add too much flour to the dough. It’s OK to use some flour on the work surface when you’re rolling it out into an oval.
  • Use muffin papers. If you don’t have parchment paper or don’t feel like cutting out squares, use flattened muffin papers instead — just make sure to brush them with oil first or the buns may stick.
  • Steam gently. Steam the buns over medium heat so the buns steam up with a smoother texture. Too high of a steam may cause the dough to steam up bumpier (although still delicious!).

How to Eat Chinese Steamed Buns

Fill these soft pockets with store-bought or homemade cha siu (sweet Chinese roast pork), or even honey-sesame tofu if you want a vegetarian option. I also love putting fried slices of SPAM and scrambled eggs in the buns as a tasty and filling breakfast option, and I’m eyeing this amazing-looking Taiwanese breakfast sandwich, too. (Santou are bigger than these steamed buns, so you can probably divide the filling between two buns).

If you find yourself with leftovers buns, refrigerate them in a zip-top bag or airtight container, or freeze them. Rewarm them by steaming for a few minutes (my preferred method), or in a pinch, wrapping them in damp paper towels and microwaving them until just warmed through.

Chinese Steamed Buns (Gua Bao Buns) Recipe

Gua bao buns, or pocket-style steamed buns, are the perfect, fluffy vehicle to stuff with the flavorful offerings from your Chinese bao board - or truly anything you crave!

Prep time 40 seconds to 45 seconds

Cook time 10 seconds to 30 seconds

Makes 15 (3 1/2-inch) buns

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup

    whole or 2% milk

  • 1/3 cup

    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)

  • 1 teaspoon

    baking powder

  • Parchment paper or 12 paper muffin liners

  • 1 tablespoon

    vegetable oil, plus more as needed

Instructions

  1. Place 1/2 cup whole milk and 1/3 cup water in a small microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on HIGH until just warm to the touch, 25 to 35 seconds. (Alternatively, warm on the stovetop.)

  2. Place 354 grams cake flour, 1/3 cup granulated sugar, 1 (1/4-ounce) packet instant yeast, and 1 teaspoon baking powder in the bowl of a stand mixer and whisk to combine. Fit the dough hook onto the mixer.

  3. 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. Cover the bowl and let rise in a warm place until slightly puffed, about 1 hour. (Alternatively, cover and let rise for at least 8 and up to 24 hours in the refrigerator.) When ready, the dough should feel like a soft marshmallow.

  5. Meanwhile, prepare the steam papers. Cut out 15 (3 1/2-inch) squares of parchment paper. (Alternatively, flip 15 paper muffin liners inside out and flatten, then brush with a thin layer of vegetable oil.) Place 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in a small bowl.

  6. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and divide into 15 portions (about 1 1/2 ounces or 42 grams each). Form each portion into a smooth ball, using floured hands if the dough is sticky.

  7. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out a dough ball into a 2 3/4 x 5-inch oval that’s a scant 1/4-inch thick. Brush with a thin layer of vegetable oil, then fold in half crosswise. Place on a parchment square or muffin liner. Place on a baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough balls, the paper can overlap slightly on the baking sheet but the buns should not touch.

  8. 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).

  9. A few minutes before the buns are ready, prepare a steamer for steaming and bring the water to a boil over medium heat. Place as many buns in the steamer that can fit in a single layer without touching, although the papers can overlap slightly (we fit 5 in a 12-inch steamer). Cover and steam over medium heat (you want gentle steam) until the dough is cooked through, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, place the unsteamed buns in the refrigerator.

  10. Transfer the steamed buns to a plate. Steam the remaining buns, adding more water to the steamer between rounds if needed. Serve warm.

Recipe Notes

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 for 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.