February 15, 2018

Pork Cheek Hum Bao

Steamed buns or bao are a significant staple in Chinese cuisine. Some authorities date the origin of steamed bao all the way back to the Warring States period (475–221 B.C.E.) in China, although others suggest bao is a few centuries more recent than that. Bao have relatives in various Asian countries, including Korean mandu, Malaysian pau, Japanese nikuman, and Filipino siopao.

Bao is made of flour, water, and yeast, just like any other bread. The difference is, the dough is steamed, not baked, turning it into a warm, plump bun. Bao dough is typically wrapped around a filling before steaming. Sometimes, bao is served without filling, as a sop for sauces. This is often called mantou, although some authorities define these terms differently. In terms of fillings, there are endless regional variations and creative possibilities.

The slightly sweet bao dough is forgiving, easy to put together, and extremely versatile. This easy recipe creates a dough you can transform into many different shapes, from a simple steamed mantou to a more elaborate knotted hua juan (or “flower bun”) and stuffed buns, such as hum bao. While the actual buns are petite, they should be generously plump, not deflated from oversteaming. The crust should be almost invisibly ultrathin and shiny from the gelatinized starch. The crumb should be tender, with a delicately chewy texture that’s soft enough to be easily pulled apart.

Steamed buns should be eaten warm, ideally as soon as possible after steaming. You can also refresh the buns in the steamer or fry them if they’re not consumed right away.

– Adapted from Modernist Bread

Recipe Tags

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Tips and Substitutions

  • When you see hum bao in the name of a steamed bun, that means the bun is steamed with the seam side up rather than seam side down like traditional bao.
  • If you can’t find pork cheeks, you can substitute pork belly or pork shoulder.
  • Because this is a stiff dough, mixing it in a stand mixer can cause the machine to struggle and possibly burn out. If your stand mixer is dancing on the table, it has either too much dough or too stiff a dough (or both) for it to handle. You can mix on the lowest possible speed, which will double the mixing time. You can also mix the dough to a homogeneous mass, divide the dough in half, and mix it to full gluten development in two batches.
  • When steaming, we recommend keeping the shaped/filled pieces of dough on top of the lightly oiled pieces of parchment paper on which they were proofed; the paper will keep the dough from sticking.
  • We highly recommend eating these buns soon after they are steamed because they begin to decline in quality as they cool down. Of course, they can be brought back to life by giving them a few minutes in the steam again--much better than throwing them away.

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