I have a bamboo steamer that always seems like it’s in the way. For some reason, I’ve never found an appropriate location for it in the kitchen — it blocks the food processor, the rice cooker, and a couple of other things that receive semi-regular use. They way I see it, for as many times as I’ve had to push this steamer aside in order to reach something else, it only seems fitting that I should actually put this apparatus to use every once in a while.
I originally purchased my steamer years and years ago, so that I could make steamed Chinese buns at home. Since then, I have used this bamboo steamer in phases. I will go through periods where I’ll actually use it quite a bit, and then I’ll put it away for a while (but never in a convenient location). Quite frankly, I don’t think that I have ever used my bamboo steamer for anything other than Chinese steamed buns, and I’m okay with that fact (truth be told, I’m more likely to fry something than to steam it).
For me, Chinese steamed buns have always been a textural curiosity. I enjoy the way the outer “skin” (what would have otherwise been the crust) retains a slight elasticity from steaming, while the inner dough is light and airy. As for the filling, the choices are endless: beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, and vegetables will all work well. Of course, for this recipe, I’m using up the odds and ends from my braised pork belly. In order to prepare the filling, I rough-chopped the left-over belly scraps, sauteed and glazed them, and then allowed the filling to cool.
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Even during my early attempts at making steamed buns, I’ve found that the recipe has always been pretty forgiving, so long as you are comfortable with making the dough. Having a food processor makes life a little bit easier, but I’ve found that it’s not entirely necessary. The key is to adjust the dough during the kneading process, and to not follow the recipe blindly. Unless you’re incredibly lucky, you will probably need to add flour to the dough, in order to achieve the proper texture.
Chinese steamed bun dough recipe (yields about 10 buns)
• Dry yeast, one packet
• Sugar, 2T
• Water, luke warm, 1-1/2 cups
• Coconut oil, 1T (lard and vegetable shortening also work)
• All-purpose flour, 3 cups (to start)
• Salt, 1t
• Parchment paper, 10 three-inch squares
Steamed bun method
1. Combine the yeast, water and sugar, and allow the mixture to stand for 10 minutes, ensuring that the yeast is still active (it should begin to slowly foam). For this step, it is critically important that the water is just barely warm; if it’s too hot, it will kill the yeast. When in doubt, use a thermometer: 110º F is the upper limit.
2. Sift the flour and salt into a food processor, or into a large mixing bowl. Add the yeast mixture while the food processor is running, allowing the dough to form a ball. If you’re not using a food processor, pour the yeast mixture into the mixing bowl and use your hands to combine the dough.
3. At this point, the dough should still be sticky, which means that it requires more flour. Transfer the dough to a floured work surface, and knead the dough while adding additional flour one tablespoon at a time. Ultimately, the dough should stop sticking to your hands — stop adding flour once you get to this point.
4. Knead the dough for 15 minutes, then divide it into three-ounce portions (about the size of a golf ball). Flatten each portion into a four-inch disk. Add a heaping tablespoon of filling to the middle of each disk, then enclose the filling by folding and pinching the edges together. Place each bun, seam-side down, on a parchment square.
5. To finish, place the buns in a steamer, allowing enough space for them to expand without touching. Steam the buns for 10 to 15 minutes. During this time, they should double in size. When the buns are fully cooked, they should appear light and firm. Allow the buns to cool slightly, uncovered, until their surface is no longer tacky.
6. Peel the parchment from each bun, and serve them with a dipping sauce.
[Note: You can create a flavorful dipping sauce by thinning some left-over braising liquid, or you can take the buns in a whole new direction with any other style of Asian dipping sauce.]