how-make-bao
Recipes

How to make perfectly soft bao buns, according to Bao’s founder

Pillowy soft Taiwanese bao buns are perfect bite-sized treats. Make them yourself with tips from Bao founder and culinary director Erchen Chang. 

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Is there anything more satisfyingly delicious than perfectly steamed pillowy bao buns? The bite-sized treats are something you can master at home and pull out when you want to impress at your next alfresco dinner party this summer.

One person who knows a thing or two about bao (or gua bao as it’s known in Taiwan) is Erchen Chang, the founder and culinary director at BAO, a Taiwanese street-food stall turned cult London mini-chain which makes around 3,000 gau bao a day.

Gua bao was a go-to snack for Erchen, who grew up in Taiwan before moving to London at 14: “I remember clearly going to the market after school and eating a bao and a broth for a quick meal before English class. I’d get stuffed so quickly.”

Gua bao are steamed buns, typically eaten for lunch and dinner in Taiwan. “In Taiwan, the gau bao are a lot bigger, usually a burger size, and have a much chewier texture,” says Erchen. “They’re filled with one big slab of pork because a lot of Taiwanese love the ratio of melting fat and soft meat in one mouthful.”

Erchen, along with her husband, Shing Chung, and his sister, Wai Ting, who both founded BAO with her, took nearly two and half years to perfect their bao recipe. It’s inspired by bao they tried at Lan Jia Gua Bao in Taipei and dough they ate at a family-run baozi (enclosed meat bun) shop in the Taiwanese mountains. “We imagined the soft, fluffy dough at the baozi together with the mellow, sour stretchy pork and fermented greens at Lanja Gau Bao and thought wouldn’t it be so, so good together. It was an epiphany moment.”

Here Erchen shares her tips and tricks for making bao buns at home, as well as her mother-in-law’s recipe to make a Taiwanese classic: braised pork gua bao.  

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Classic Braised Pork Gua Bao recipe      

Ingredients

  • Gua bao
  • Soy braised pork belly
  • Fried fermented mustard greens (this should be prepared a week in advance)
  • Chopped coriander
  • Peanut powder

Makes around 20.
Preparation time: 20 minutes, plus at least 1 hour 30 minutes resting time.

Gua Bao

  • 500g plain flour 
  • 2 tsp yeast
  • 145ml warm water
  • 2 pinches salt
  • 50g sugar
  • 15ml vegetable oil, plus extra for brushing
  • 145ml milk

Method

1. Mix the flour, yeast and warm water together in a bowl. Cover and leave for at least 30 minutes in a warm place until doubled in size. Add the remaining ingredients and mix until it comes together as one.

2. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead for 10 minutes – it will be sticky but gradually become more elastic.

how to make gua bao
Knead the gua bao dough until it becomes more elastic.

3. Break off the doughs to 40g doughs. Give each one of them a strong knead and roll them into tight balls. Cover with baking sheets to prevent drying out. 

4. Flatten the balled dough with your hand and use a rolling pin to roll it into an oval shape. Roll it out until around 2-3mm thick and brush one side with vegetable oil. 

how-to-make-gua-bao
The gua bao dough is rolled into balls.
how-to make gua bao
Use a rolling pin to to roll the dough into an oval shape.

5. Fold one side over onto the other and press down gently so it forms an oyster shell shape. Place on greaseproof paper in a warm bamboo steamer (or in whatever you use to normally steam vegetables) and leave to rest for 15 to 20 minutes at a warm place to rise again

6. Steam for 15 minutes on medium-high heat. Once ready, take them out of the steamer. Eat one straight away or let it rest at room temp until the steams are fully evaporated and the buns are completely cooled down. Store them in the fridge. It will keep for five to seven days. Or freeze them and it will last for a month. 

how to make gua bao
Fold one side of the dough over to make an oyster shell shape.

Soy Braised Pork Belly

  • 1kg pork belly
  • 50ml light soy
  • 40ml dark soy
  • 60ml shaoxing wine
  • 2 sprigs of spring onion
  • 1 garlic clove crushed
  • 20g ginger sliced and crushed
  • 1 star anise
  • 20g rock sugar
  • A pinch of garlic powder
  • 4 pieces of whole dried red chilli
  • 6g cinnamon bark
  • Water to fill

1. Cut the pork belly into manageable block sizes so that it can fit into your pot nicely, around two inches by two inches. Blanch them first to get rid of any impurities and place into a casserole pot or large saucepan. 

2. Measure out all your ingredients and place them into the pot with the pork belly. Add water so it just covers the ingredients. Bring the pot to boil and turn it down low. Let it simmer for three hours. The simmer should be very low with small bubbles on the surface.

3. Take the braised pork belly out to cool and bring the braising liquid up to boil on high heat to reduce to a light sticky consistency.

4. Once the pork belly has cooled slightly, chop into rough cubes around 1cm. Add the chopped pork back into the reduced sauce and give it a good stir. Put on medium heat for 10 minutes to let the sauce and pork incorporate once again and then it will be ready to serve.

Peanut Powder 

  • 200g deshelled peanuts
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C and roast the peanuts until golden, roughly 20 to 25 minutes.

2. Let it cool down completely and pulse blitz in a blender until it becomes a fine powder. It is best to do this in small batches as peanuts have a lot of fat content and can turn into peanut butter in no time.

3. Mix caster sugar with peanut powder and set aside. 

Fermented Mustard Green 

  • 1kg Chinese mustard greens
  • 20g salt 
  • 1 teaspoon doubanjiang (spicy fermented broadbean paste easily found in Chinese supermarkets)
  • Few drops of rice wine vinegar
  • Vegetable oil

1. Wash the mustard greens thoroughly, then chop up the greens into one inch pieces. Sprinkle the salt sparsely and evenly over the greens. Work your hands through the greens to ensure the salt is properly mixed in. 

2. Sterilise a glass jar and fill the jar with the salted mustard greens, packed as tight as possible. After time, the salt will draw out the liquid from the mustard greens. This liquid should cover the greens, if not, make sure you place something heavy on top to make the greens submerge in its own brine.

3. Let it ferment for at least 7 days, but the longer the better. 

4. Once the mustard greens have fermented, drain the liquid and finely chop.

 5. In a frying pan, put in 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil on medium-high heat. Add a teaspoon of doubanjiang and let it fry. 

6. Once the doubanjiang starts to colour the oil red, add in the chopped fermented greens and stir fry for five to 10 minutes until the mix is super fragrant and wilted. Season the greens with a few drops of rice wine vinegar.

How to serve gua bao

how to make gua bao
How to serve your finished pork gua bao.

Steam the gua bao on high heat for about 10 minutes. To check it is steamed all the way through, press the gua bao with your finger and if it bounces back nicely it is ready.

Wash and chop the coriander finely.

Wear heat resistant gloves and assemble the bao with piping hot sticky pork, fried fermented mustard greens, a big pinch of chopped coriander and dust with the golden sweet peanut powder. 

Erchen’s tips for making perfect gua bao   

Understanding the dough

“The hardest bit to get to grips with is the dough,” says Erchen. The dough used to make bao buns is very different from other bread. “If you try and make bao with the same concepts as breadmaking, it won’t work.”

When you’re kneading the dough, make sure it’s as tight as possible and there are no air pockets or the bao will grow irregularly.

Perfect the proving

For the perfect prove, make sure you adjust your proving time according to temperature. “In hot weather when your kitchen’s hot you’ll probably leave the bao to prove for a shorter time, but in cold weather, you might need to allow more time.”

Rolling your dough

When you portion your dough and form it into balls, it’s very important to make them tight and smooth before rolling out. “It takes a bit of practice,” says Erchen, “but it will give a better bao overall.”

What to look for during the steaming

It should take around 15 minutes to steam the gua bao. Test to see if it’s ready by poking it lightly with your finger. If it bounces back fully it’s cooked through. You should also look closely at the colour of the bao. If it still looks matt, it won’t be ready yet. “You want a nice satin sheen,” says Erchen.

Find your perfect flour

If you buy flour from a Chinese supermarket it will be finer and give you a lighter, softer bao. However, you can use plain flour too. “I also like using whole grain and locally ground flour which gives a lot of flavour,” said Erchen.

In Taiwan, people knead different vegetables into the dough to make it moist and give the bao a different colour. “You can knead pumpkin into the dough to give it a yellow colour and a very, very light hint of pumpkin flavour,” suggests Erchen. “Or you can use spinach juice for a green boa”.

Don’t be afraid to experiment

“Gau bao is a vehicle for so many different fillings,” says Erchen. “I like to put scrambled egg in bao. They both have a soft texture so they work well together and it’s a nice simple breakfast.”

You can also make a classic Chinese dish using honey-glazed ham. “It uses a thin layer of ham with a honey glaze and then a layer of crispy bean curd,” says Erchen. “It’s served in a thin piece of bao, so you’ve got the crisp bean curd, soft meat and the sweetness from the honey. I like the elegance of it.”

You can also make sweet bao. “If you roll the dough into a hotdog shape, leave it until it’s come to room temperature then you can deep fry it. The sugar in the dough caramelizes and tastes great with ice cream.”  

BAO workshops at Cafe BAO in Kings Cross, where you can learn the art of making gua bao, are coming soon. Find more recipes and tutorials at The Curiosity Academy

  • Erchen Chang, founder and culinary director at BAO

    Erchen Chang bao
    Erchen Chang is the founder and head chef at London mini-chain Bao

    Erchen Chang founded BAO with her husband Shing Chung, and his sister Wai Ting in 2012. Beginning life as a street food stall in Hackney’s Netil Market, BAO now has six restaurants across London, including its original site in Soho and a new noodle bar on Shoreditch’s Redchurch Street.