Inspired by GBBO’s steamed buns? Here are 5 moreish bao recipes to try at home

Posted by for Food and Drink

A staple of Chinese cuisine and a street food sell-out, the world has fallen in love with light, fluffy bao buns. From sweet breakfast snacks to spicy savoury versions, these steamed bun recipes are the ultimate comfort food for cold days.

Golden-brown pies, sweet pastries and piles of steaming pasta: ‘tis the season for comfort food, and as the days grow shorter, we’re finding solace in every delicious carby recipe we can get our hands on.

If lockdown has piqued a newfound appreciation for baking, though, or you’re looking for new ways to spin delicious balls of dough, might we suggest the soul-satisfying treat that are bao buns?

Originating from Chinese and Taiwanese cuisines, bao, otherwise known as steamed buns or ‘baozi’, are light, fluffy dough balls wrapped around a savoury or sweet filling. The beautiful cloud-like texture is a result of steaming the yeast rather than baking it, while the sugared dough gives a wonderful hint of sweetness. And if you’ve ever gobbled a couple of warm bao from a street food stall, then you’ll know that they’re utterly moreish.

With the contestants of The Great British Bake Off taking on a Japanese version of the Asian staple in this week’s challenge (don’t forget to read our re-caps), we figured there was no better time to tackle the iconic steamed buns. So, we went in search of five lip-smacking recipes - and trust us, you’re going to want to make them all.

If you’re starting off simply, the lotus bao are the best place for beginners. Filled with a sweet lotus paste, these buns make an ideal snack throughout the day when accompanied by your favourite beverage.

For authentic street food flavours, the Taiwanese-inspired pan-fried and steamed baozi with its spicy pork filling is a zingy palate cleanser, while the gua bao with its sweet potato ‘belly’, briny pickle and crunchy peanuts is a delicious meat-free alternative.

Fancy something a little more unconventional? The spicy chicken sloppy Joe sliders aren’t traditional Asian fare, but its combination of pickled carrot slaw, and sticky ginger, soy and hoisin sauce is truly irresistible.

The pièce de résistance, though, has to be the char siu bao with roast pork. A Cantonese version of the pulled pork barbecue sandwich, these shiny, fluffy buns filled with tender, marinated pork are the ultimate crowd-pleaser. Save some for later, we dare you…

  • Kwoklyn Wan’s sweet lotus bao

    Kwoklyn says: “These Chinese steamed buns are light and fluffy, and stuffed with a sweet lotus paste (which can be bought in any Chinese supermarket). These would usually be served at the beginning of the meal as part of a dim sum menu to whet your appetite for the main courses, but to be honest, any time is a good time. Bao and tea in the morning; bao and coffee mid-morning; bao for lunch or even a bao and hot chocolate supper – simply delicious.”

    Ingredients

    • 560g plain (all-purpose) flour
    • 11g instant dried yeast
    • ½ tsp salt
    • 1 tsp baking powder
    • 30g caster (superfine) sugar
    • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
    • 320ml whole milk (for a vegan option use soy or almond milk)
    • 12 tbsp lotus seed paste

    Method

    For the dough, mix all of the ingredients, except the lotus paste, in a large bowl.

    Turn out on to a clean lightly floured surface and knead for 6 minutes until the dough is soft, springy and not at all sticky. Bring the mixture together to form a ball, then place into a lightly greased bowl, cover and leave for 2 hours until the dough has doubled in size.

    Turn out the dough on to a lightly floured work surface, lightly flatten and roll into a long sausage shape. Divide into 12 equal pieces and flatten each piece into a 12cm round.

    Place 1 tablespoon of lotus paste into the centre of each bao and carefully bring the edges together to form a round parcel, twisting the top to form a seal. Repeat with the remaining dough.

    Place the sealed dough balls on to a sheet of perforated baking paper in a bamboo steamer with a lid, leaving about 2cm between each one as they will grow as they steam. Steam on high heat for 10 minutes. Be careful when you remove the lid as the escaping steam will billow around your hand. Remove from the basket and enjoy warm.

    Note: You can also steam the bao without any filling – once you have cut the dough into equal pieces, simply roll into balls, place on non-stick paper and steam for 8–10 minutes.

    From The Veggie Chinese Takeaway Cookbook by Kwoklyn Wan (£15, Quadrille), out now

  • Jennifer Joyce’s pan-fried and steamed baozi

    Jennifer says: “One of Taiwan’s best street foods, bao dough is stuffed with pork, pan-fried and quickly steamed to cook through. It’s the best of all worlds: cloud-like dough, a golden crisp bottom and spicy meat filling. You don’t have to do all the fancy pleating; the baozi taste good no matter what your folding skills are. Serve with a roasted chilli sauce and, even better, mix in a little black vinegar.”

    Makes 16 medium or 24 small buns

    Prep: 15 minutes, plus 1 hour proving

    Cook: 10 minutes

    Ingredients

    • bao buns dough (see below) made without the oil and baking powder
    • 2 tbsp vegetable oil

    For the pork filling

    • 1 tbsp finely chopped ginger
    • 1 garlic clove, chopped
    • 6 spring onions, chopped
    • 75g savoy cabbage, very finely chopped
    • 300g minced pork
    • 2 tsp Shaoxing rice wine
    • 3 tsp soy sauce
    • 2 tsp cornflour, plus extra

    To serve

    • black and/or white toasted sesame seeds, finely chopped 
    • spring onions and roasted chilli flakes in oil, drained, and mixed with black vinegar (optional) or chilli sauce

    Method

    Mix and knead the dough as per the bao buns recipe, but don’t add the oil and baking powder. If the dough doesn’t straightaway form a ball, add a teaspoon or two of water until it does. After kneading, place in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let double in size. This can take from 1–2 hours, depending on the warmth of your kitchen.

    Mix all the ingredients for the pork filling together in a small bowl. Punch the dough down and knead for 5 minutes. Sprinkle your work surface with a little cornflour. Roll the dough into a long snake and slice into 16 or 24 pieces depending on what you want size wise. Roll each piece into a circle, about 10cm, and make sure the middle is thicker than the sides. Using scissors, cut 16 or 24 small squares of non-stick baking paper.

    Fill each wrapper with a heaped tablespoon of the filling. Start to bring up one side of the wrapper and pleat the outside so that the wrapper stretches around the filling, ‘hugging’ it. When you finish, press the pleats tightly. They won’t always look perfect, but they will taste good! Place each one on a square of baking paper.

    Heat the oil in a very large frying pan or two smaller ones with fitted lids (or use a baking sheet that covers the pan). Keeping the heat on medium–low so they don’t burn, add the buns, leaving space between them. Pan-fry for 1–2 minutes until lightly crisp on the bottom. Add 40ml water to each pan and cover. Cook for 6–8 minutes, removing the lid when the water evaporates. If the buns stick, add a little sesame oil. Crisp the bottoms for another few minutes until dark golden, then remove. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and spring onion and serve with the roasted chilli flakes or sauce.

    Note: The baozi can be refrigerated for up to 5 hours before cooking. Store on a tray lined with non-stick baking paper and dusted with cornflour. Top with more paper and then wrap in plastic wrap. Bring back to room temperature before cooking.

    Bao buns

    Jennifer says: “It’s taken me years to perfect the fluffiest bao and I can tell you it’s the second proving that makes them so soft. If you become addicted, you may want to invest in a big steamer. Asian shops sell aluminium double-stacked steamers, perfect for buns, dumplings or whole fish.”

    Makes 12 large buns or 16 smaller buns

    Prep: 15 minutes, plus 1 hour proving

    Cook: 10 minutes

    Ingredients

    • 100ml milk
    • 90ml warm water
    • 2 tbsp vegetable oil, plus extra
    • 11/2 tsp fast-action yeast
    • 350g plain flour
    • 2 tsp baking powder
    • 2 tbsp caster sugar

    Method

    In a pouring jug, mix together the milk, warm water, vegetable oil and yeast. Leave to sit for 5 minutes to check if the yeast bubbles up (it’s a good test to see if your yeast is working).

    In the bowl of a standing electric mixer with a dough hook, add the dry ingredients. With the motor running on low speed, pour in the liquid. Let it come together as a ball of dough and if it sticks to the bottom, then sprinkle in an extra tablespoon or so of flour.

    Knead for 10 minutes on the same low speed. You can also do this by hand using a large mixing bowl and spoon, kneading the dough on the counter for 10 minutes.

    Remove the dough and place in a lightly oiled bowl for 1 hour or until doubled in size. Cover with plastic wrap.

    Knock the dough back, knead for another 2 minutes, and then cut into 12–16 balls and place under a tea towel to stay soft while rolling. Use scissors to cut 10cm squares of non-stick baking paper for each ball. Roll each ball into an elliptical shape about 15cm long and 8cm wide. Brush the tops lightly with vegetable oil, fold over and place each on a square of paper. Add to the steamer, then place the lid on the steamer so that they are covered. Leave to rise for a second time, about 30 minutes–1 hour depending on the heat of your kitchen.

    Pour water in the bottom of a wok or if you are using a metal steamer, pour water into the bottom of the pan. Bring to a boil and then place the steamer on top. Steam for about 8 minutes or until puffy and firm.

    Note: If you want to prepare these more than 4–6 hours in advance, I would suggest freezing them cooked and then steaming again from frozen. This keeps them from going stale. You can also store in an airtight container, covered in baking paper, up to a day before using. Once open, they need to be used quickly as they go stale fast.

    From My Asian Kitchen by Jennifer Joyce (£20, Murdoch Books), out now 

  • Sasha Gill’s gua bao with sweet potato ‘belly’

    Sasha says: “Originally from Taiwan, gua bao is a popular street food whose fame has spread rapidly, thanks in part to Momofuku. Here’s my spin on it: a balancing act of succulent sweet potato ‘belly’, briny pickle and crunchy peanuts.”

    Serves 4

    Prep time: 30 minutes

    Cooking time: 1 hour

    Ingredients

    • 185ml lukewarm water
    • 2 tablespoons white sugar
    • 2 teaspoons active dried yeast
    • 300g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
    • ¼ teaspoon salt
    • ½ teaspoon baking powder
    • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
    • crushed peanuts, coriander, and Sriracha sauce, to serve

    For the sweet potato ‘belly’

    • 3 sweet potatoes, peeled
    • 6 garlic cloves, crushed
    • 4 x 2.5cm pieces ginger
    • 4 star anise
    • pinch of white pepper
    • ¼ teaspoon five spice powder
    • 1½ tablespoons rice wine or dry white wine
    • 60ml light soy sauce
    • 1 teaspoon white sugar

    For the pickle

    • 1 small cucumber
    • 1 small carrot
    • ½ teaspoon sesame oil
    • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar
    • 1 teaspoon white sugar
    • 1 teaspoon light soy sauce

    Method

    First make the bun dough. In a large bowl, combine the water, sugar and yeast and set aside until frothy, about 5 minutes. Sift in the flour, then add the salt, baking powder and oil. Knead until the dough comes together, then tip it out onto a countertop and knead for about 7 minutes, until it forms a smooth elastic ball. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with a damp tea towel and leave in a warm place to prove for about 1 hour, until it has doubled in size.

    Meanwhile, prepare the sweet potato ‘belly’. Slice each sweet potato lengthwise into four, then cut each slice in half lengthwise, giving you eight flat wedges from each sweet potato. Put into a large saucepan with the other ingredients and 60ml water, then cover and cook over low heat for about 30 minutes, until very tender.

    For the pickle, use a vegetable peeler to cut the cucumber and carrot into ribbons. Place in a bowl with the rest of the ingredients. Toss well, then chill until you are ready to eat.

    When the bun dough has risen, knock it back with your fist, then tip out onto a well-floured countertop. Divide into eight equal portions, then roll out each one into an oval about 13cm x 7.5cm. Now you can either brush half of the oval with oil, or cut a square of baking paper to lay over half of it. Fold over the other half – the oil or paper should stop it from sticking. When all the buns are shaped, leave in a warm place, covered, for 20 minutes.

    Line the base of your steamer basket with baking paper and set it over a pan of boiling water. Pop three or four buns into the steamer basket, spacing them well apart. Cover, lower the heat so the water is just simmering and steam for 15 minutes, or until springy. Briefly lift the lid every 5 minutes to let the heat escape, or the dough will rise too quickly and then collapse, giving you wrinkly buns.

    To assemble your gua bao, fill a bun with a few wedges of sweet potato, some pickle, a sprinkle of sweet peanuts and coriander, and a drizzle of Sriracha. For extra flavour, dip the gua bao in a little of the sweet potato broth as you eat.

    From Jackfruit and Blue Ginger by Sasha Gill, (£18.99, Murdoch Books), out now

  • Pippa Middlehurst’s char siu bao with roast pork

    Fa mian dumpling dough

    Makes about 700g dough

    Prep: 40 minutes, plus dough proving

    Special equipment: stand mixer (optional)

    Ingredients

    For the starter dough

    • 120g low-gluten bun flour, plus extra for dusting
    • ½ tsp dried active yeast

    For the new dough

    • 1½ tsp dried active yeast
    • 200g low-gluten bun flour
    • 160g high-gluten flour (such as extra-strong bread flour, around 11–12% protein)
    • 2 tbsp caster (superfine) sugar
    • 2 tsp baking powder
    • ½ tsp salt
    • 2 tbsp neutral oil, plus extra for greasing

    Method

    First make the starter dough. Combine the flour and yeast in a mixing bowl with 60ml of water and knead for 10–15 minutes until smooth. You can also do this in a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment. Leave this to prove for 2–3 hours for it to at least double in size.

    Once the starter dough has proved, make the new dough. In a jug or bowl, mix the dried yeast with 180ml of warm water, making sure the yeast is properly incorporated. Set this to one side while you prepare the dry ingredients. Add both types of flour to a mixing bowl, with the sugar, baking powder and salt.

    Add the oil to the yeast mixture and pour the whole lot into your dry ingredients. Mix thoroughly until you’re able to bring all the ingredients together into a dough, then knead for 10–15 minutes until smooth and even-textured. Now combine the starter dough with the new dough and knead until fully incorporated. This can also be done in the stand mixer with the dough hook attachment.

    Add a drizzle of oil to a clean mixing bowl and use your hand to spread it evenly over the inside of the bowl. This will prevent the dough from sticking as it rests. Transfer the dough to the bowl and cover tightly with cling film. Leave the dough in a warm spot for about 1 hour or until it has doubled in size.

    To make and fill the dumpling wrappers, knock any air out of your dough by kneading it and then divide it into pieces (depending on your chosen recipe). Aim to work with just two pieces of dough at a time and cover the rest with a clean tea towel to stop them drying out. Take each piece of dough and roll it into a ball between the palms of your hands, then gently squash each ball into a cookie shape, to the required diameter, depending on the recipe.

    Begin rolling out a dumpling wrapper by bringing the rolling pin towards you, flattening the top edge. Rotate the dumpling by 20 degrees and repeat this rolling action. Continue to roll and turn the dough until you have what resembles a fried egg, to the required diameter, depending on the recipe. The wrapper should be thicker in the middle to support the filling, but thinner around the edges to enable you to pleat the dough. If the middle has risen, roll any excess air out with your rolling pin.

    Once you have your first wrapper, fill it with a spoonful of your filling and pleat the wrapper by making small folds and pinching them into place.

    If you are not a confident pleater, you can just bring the edges of the wrapper together and seal them together with one pinch, like a little money bag – they will taste exactly the same.

    Place the completed dumplings on baking paper or on a bamboo mat, spaced at least 1cm apart, and leave them to prove for 15 minutes before cooking.

    Char siu roast pork

    Serves 10

    Prep: 10 minutes, plus marinating

    Cooking: 1 hour

    Ingredients

    • 1.5kg boneless pork shoulder or leg

    For the marinade

    • 2 tbsp runny honey
    • 2 tbsp hoisin sauce
    • 1 tbsp ground bean sauce
    • 1 tbsp light soy sauce
    • 1 tsp dark soy sauce
    • 1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
    • 2 tsp sesame oil
    • 2 tsp salt
    • 50g light (soft) brown sugar
    • 1 tsp Chinese five spice powder
    • 1 garlic clove, grated
    • 2.5cm piece of fresh root ginger, peeled and grated

    Method

    Place all the marinade ingredients in a mixing bowl or large resealable plastic bag, add 2 tablespoons of hot water and combine well, making sure the sugar and honey are completely dissolved.

    Slice the pork into three large chunks. Add to the marinade and leave in the fridge overnight or for at least 3 hours.

    When you are ready to cook the meat, preheat your oven to the highest it will go. For my oven this would be around 230°C (450°F/Gas 8).

    Place the pork and marinade in a roasting tray and roast in the oven for 20 minutes or until the marinade darkens and becomes sticky. Turn the pork and baste with the marinade. Continue cooking for another 30–40 minutes until all the pork is coated in a sticky layer of marinade. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

    Char siu bao

    Makes 11 buns

    Prep: 30 minutes plus proving

    Cooking: 20 minutes

    Pippa says: “The crowd-pleaser of the dim sum table or Chinese bakery – fluffy buns filled with sticky sweet barbecue pork. Traditionally served at ‘yum cha’ (literally, ‘drink tea’), a brunch-like meal of dim sum that’s taken with hot tea and eaten at midday with family and friends for celebrations or catch-ups.”

    Ingredients

    For the buns

    • ½ quantity of char siu roast pork (see above)
    • 1 quantity of fa mian dumpling dough (see above)
    • plain (all-purpose) flour, for dusting

    For the sauce

    • 1 tbsp light (soft) brown sugar
    • 1 tbsp light soy sauce
    • 2 tbsp oyster sauce
    • 2 tsp sesame oil
    • 2 tsp dark soy sauce
    • a pinch of freshly ground white pepper

    Method

    In a bowl, mix together all the ingredients for the sauce and set aside.

    Knock the air out of the fa mian dough by kneading it, then divide into 11 equal-sized pieces (each weighing about 65g). Roll these into balls and cover with a clean tea towel to stop them drying out.

    Dice the roast pork into 1cm cubes and coat in the sauce and any remaining marinade from the roasting tray.

    Flatten a dough ball into a cookie shape and roll it into a wrapper about 15cm in diameter. Place 1–2 tablespoons of pork filling in the centre and pleat or pinch the edges of the wrapper together, then place the filled bun on a piece of baking paper and set inside a steamer basket. Repeat with the other pieces of dough, then leave the buns to rise for at least 15 minutes.

    Steam the buns in the steamer basket over boiling water for 8–10 minutes, then remove the basket from the heat, but leave the lid on for 5 minutes.

    The bao buns should be puffed up and shiny and super fluffy!

    From Dumplings and Noodles by Pippa Middlehurst (£16.99, Quadrille), out now

  • Jennifer Joyce’s spicy chicken sloppy Joe sliders

    Jennifer says: “It’s certainly not traditional Asian fare, but this much-loved, messy American sandwich, with its sticky sauce of ginger, soy and hoisin, is the perfect partner in crime for bao buns. If you don’t have time to make the buns, then just serve the chicken and slaw up in soft brioche or mini burger buns.”

    Serves 4

    Prep: 15 minutes

    Cook: 20 minutes

    Ingredients

    • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
    • 2 celery stalks, diced
    • 1 onion, finely diced
    • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
    • 1 tbsp grated ginger
    • 500g boneless skinless chicken thighs, chopped
    • 2 tbsp hot chilli sauce
    • 100ml hoisin sauce
    • 2 tbsp light soy sauce
    • 2 tbsp rice vinegar
    • 1 tbsp tomato paste (concentrated purée)
    • steamed bao buns

    For the pickled carrot slaw

    • 2 carrots, julienned
    • 3 tbsp rice vinegar
    • 1 tsp salt
    • 1 tsp caster sugar
    • finely chopped green part spring onions, to serve

    Method

    Place the pickled carrot slaw ingredients in a bowl and mix together. Refrigerate, covered, until serving.

    In a large frying pan, heat the vegetable oil. Add the celery, onion, garlic and ginger. Season well and saute for 10 minutes until soft and golden.

    Place the chicken in a food processor. Puree for 1–2 minutes until it is finely minced, When the vegetables are soft, add the chicken and saute until browned, about 5 minutes.

    Add all the remaining ingredients, apart from the buns, along with 2 tablespoons water and cook for about 10 minutes until the sauce thickens.

    Just before serving, drain the pickled carrots.

    Serve the chicken mixture in the bao buns topped with the carrot slaw and spring onion.

    Bao buns

    Jennifer says: “It’s taken me years to perfect the fluffiest bao and I can tell you it’s the second proving that makes them so soft. If you become addicted, you may want to invest in a big steamer. Asian shops sell aluminium double-stacked steamers, perfect for buns, dumplings or whole fish.”

    Makes 12 large buns or 16 smaller buns

    Prep: 15 minutes, plus 1 hour proving

    Cook: 10 minutes

    Ingredients

    • 100ml milk
    • 90ml warm water
    • 2 tbsp vegetable oil, plus extra
    • 11/2 tsp fast-action yeast
    • 350g plain flour
    • 2 tsp baking powder
    • 2 tbsp caster sugar

    Method

    In a pouring jug, mix together the milk, warm water, vegetable oil and yeast. Leave to sit for 5 minutes to check if the yeast bubbles up (it’s a good test to see if your yeast is working).

    In the bowl of a standing electric mixer with a dough hook, add the dry ingredients. With the motor running on low speed, pour in the liquid. Let it come together as a ball of dough and if it sticks to the bottom, then sprinkle in an extra tablespoon or so of flour.

    Knead for 10 minutes on the same low speed. You can also do this by hand using a large mixing bowl and spoon, kneading the dough on the counter for 10 minutes.

    Remove the dough and place in a lightly oiled bowl for 1 hour or until doubled in size. Cover with plastic wrap.

    Knock the dough back, knead for another 2 minutes, and then cut into 12–16 balls and place under a tea towel to stay soft while rolling. Use scissors to cut 10cm squares of non-stick baking paper for each ball. Roll each ball into an elliptical shape about 15cm long and 8cm wide. Brush the tops lightly with vegetable oil, fold over and place each on a square of paper. Add to the steamer, then place the lid on the steamer so that they are covered. Leave to rise for a second time, about 30 minutes–1 hour depending on the heat of your kitchen.

    Pour water in the bottom of a wok or if you are using a metal steamer, pour water into the bottom of the pan. Bring to a boil and then place the steamer on top. Steam for about 8 minutes or until puffy and firm.

    Note: If you want to prepare these more than 4–6 hours in advance, I would suggest freezing them cooked and then steaming again from frozen. This keeps them from going stale. You can also store in an airtight container, covered in baking paper, up to a day before using. Once open, they need to be used quickly as they go stale fast.

    From My Asian Kitchen by Jennifer Joyce (£20, Murdoch Books), out now 

Photography: India Hobson; Magnus Edmondsen; Phil Webb; Sasha Gill; Sam Folan

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Christobel Hastings

Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ and lore.