Fine Cooking (February/March 2011)
Growing up in the small-town South, our Chinese food options (at least in the 1980s and 90s) were pretty limited. The kinds of Chinese places in our hometowns were bland, strip-mall eateries with long buffets filled with steaming trays of overcooked brown noodles; limp, watery vegetables and greasy, fried egg rolls. (And because it was the South, you were just as likely to find trays of fried okra or mac 'n' cheese alongside the Beef Lo Mein and General Tso's.)
It's not that those suburban Chinese buffets were bad food. It's just that they weren't really anything special.
But our entire notion of Chinese-American cuisine got turned on its ear about four years ago, the first time we ate at Shun Lee West on New York's Upper West Side. It's not that Shun Lee is the most authentic Chinese place in New York -- it's dozens of blocks from Chinatown, and the original Shun Lee Palace only opened in 1971. But it's the first time we ever realized that Chinese food could be upscale and made well, that Chinese cuisine could highlight fresh, great-tasting ingredients. (By the way, our other life-changing Chinese food experience was House of Nan King in San Francisco. Absolutely phenomenal.)
That's a long-winded way of saying that you need to make these pork buns, and you need to make them today.
If you've never had pork buns, these are going to change your opinion of Chinese food as much as our first trip to Shun Lee West. And if you are familiar with these heavenly morsels, we bet you've never realized how easy they are to make at home.
First things first, though: You really need a bamboo steamer for this recipe. We debated whether this recipe justified violating our long-standing-yet-frequently-broken pledge against buying new kitchen gadgets, and we decided it was worth it. We do have a steamer insert for a 2-quart saucepan, but it's so small we would only have been able to steam two pork buns at a time. So we picked up a stacking 10-inch steamer very similar to this one. We happened to buy ours at an Asian supermarket.
Making these pork buns actually requires a fair amount of steps, but none of it is that hard and you can do a lot of it days in advance. Yes, you have to mix up a marinade and soak the pork for eight hours, and, yes, you then have to roast it for 40 minutes and then broil it, let it cool, and dice it before you can even start the filling. And, yes, the dough requires 12 minutes of kneading and an hour of resting before you roll it out, cut it up and start to form the actual buns.
So just know that this isn't a quick-fix recipe. But if you plan accordingly -- and especially if you've got helpers in the kitchen -- it's not hard at all. And filling and forming the actual buns is a fun group activity.
The only aspect of this recipe that isn't perfectly straightforward is the one that drew us to it in the first place -- making the pork buns themselves! And Fine Cooking has a terrific video of chef and author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo walking you through the steps of forming the dough into shells, scooping in the pork filling, and folding the dough into perfect little buns. (As you can see from comparing our photos to Eileen's below, our bun-making skills leave a lot to be desired. But we'll just have to keep practicing!)
After you've finally got your little pork buns all assembled, steaming them is a breeze. And 15 or 20 minutes later, these little bites of heaven are ready to eat!
As we said, these pork buns are incredibly tasty. The savory-sweet pork filling is full of terrific Asian flavors. And the buns -- oh, the buns! They embrace the pork in soft, pillowy clouds that are subtly sweet and light as air. They're ineffably soul-satisfying.
And they just may change the way you think about Chinese food, too!
OTHER POSTS YOU MIGHT LIKE:
Yields 16 buns
For the filling
- 1/2 cup lower-salt chicken broth
- 2 Tbs. oyster sauce
- 2 Tbs. ketchup
- 5 tsp. granulated sugar
- 4 tsp. cornstarch
- 1 Tbs. dark soy sauce
- Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper
- 1 recipe Chinese Barbecued Roast Pork (recipe below)
- 2 Tbs. peanut oil
- 1 small yellow onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice (1/2 cup)
- 1 Tbs. Shaoxing (Chinese rice wine)
- 1-1/2 tsp. Asian sesame oil
For the dough
- 10-1/8 oz. (2-1/4 cups) bleached all-purpose flour, preferably Gold Medal; more as needed
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 3-1/2 tsp. baking powder
- 6 Tbs. whole milk, at room temperature
- 2 Tbs. melted lard or peanut oil
Make the filling
In a medium bowl, stir or whisk the broth, oyster sauce, ketchup, sugar, cornstarch, soy sauce, 1/2 tsp. salt, and a pinch of pepper. Finely dice enough of the barbecued roast pork to yield 1-1/2 cups (about 6 oz.). Heat a wok over high heat for 30 seconds. Add the peanut oil and swirl to coat. When a wisp of white smoke appears, in about 30 seconds, add the onion. Reduce the heat to medium low and cook, stirring often, until golden-brown, about 6 minutes.
Add the pork, increase the heat to high, and stir-fry to combine, 2 to 3 minutes. Drizzle the wine from the edge of the wok into the pork mixture and stir well. Reduce the heat to medium.
Make a well in the center of the mixture and pour in the sauce. Stir until the mixture thickens, about 3 minutes. Add the sesame oil and mix well. Refrigerate until cool.
Make the dough
Mix the flour, sugar, and baking powder on a clean work surface and make a well in the center. While slowly pouring the milk into the well, use your fingers in a circular motion to pull the flour mixture into the milk until it’s absorbed. Make another well, add 3 Tbs. room-temperature water, and continue to use your fingers to work the dough. Add the lard or peanut oil and, using your fingers and a dough scraper or bench knife, work the dough until thoroughly combined.
Gather the dough with the dough scraper in one hand and begin kneading with the other. Knead the dough for 10 to 12 minutes—it should feel smooth, pliable, elastic, and slightly tacky to the touch. If the dough is too sticky to work with, sprinkle a little flour on the work surface and your hands as you knead it. If the dough feels dry, lightly wet your hands with water and continue kneading. When the dough is smooth and elastic, shape it into a ball, cover with a slightly damp cloth, and let rest at room temperature for about 1 hour. (The dough must be used within 2 hours of the time it was made. It cannot be frozen.)
Portion the dough
Have ready sixteen 2-1/2-inch squares of parchment or waxed paper.
Lightly flour a work surface. Roll the prepared dough into a 16-inch-long log. Cut the log into 16 equal pieces and then roll each piece into a ball. Cover the dough with the damp cloth.
Make the buns
Working with one piece at a time, shape a dough ball into a cup that’s about 1-1/2 inches deep and about 3 inches in diameter. The sides of the dough cup should be thinner than the bottom. Hold the dough cup in one hand and spoon about 1 Tbs. of the pork filling into the center. Gather the edges of the dough and pull them up and over the filling, using your thumb to push the filling down as you pleat with your fingers to cover the filling. It may seem like a tight fit at first, but the dough will stretch as you pull it around the filling. Twist the top to seal the bun and pinch off any excess dough. Put the bun, knot side up, on a parchment square and set aside. As you gain confidence, you may use 1-1/2 Tbs. of filling in subsequent buns. Repeat until 16 buns have been made, cleaning off your thumb on a damp cloth after making each bun.
Divide the buns (still on their parchment squares) equally between 2 bamboo steamers, spacing the buns at least 2 inches apart. Stack the steamers on top of each other and cover.
In a wok, bring 6 cups of water to a boil over high heat. Set the stacked steamers over the boiling water and steam the buns until they look fluffy and their tops have opened like flowers to slightly reveal the filling, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the steamers from the wok, put them on platters and serve the buns immediately, straight from the steamers.
make ahead tips
The filling may be made up to 1 day ahead; keep refrigerated and do not freeze. Cooked buns will keep in an airtight container for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator or 4 to 6 weeks in the freezer. To reheat: If frozen, let the buns thaw and come to room temperature; if refrigerated, let them come to room temperature. Then steam the buns in bamboo steamers until very hot, 5 to 7 minutes.
Yields about 1-1/2 lb.
- 1 (2-lb.) boneless pork loin roast
- 1/2 cup honey
- 1/4 cup oyster sauce
- 1/4 cup hoisin sauce
- 3-1/2 Tbs. double dark soy sauce or double black soy sauce
- 3-1/2 Tbs. light soy sauce
- 3 Tbs. Shaoxing (Chinese rice wine)
- 1-1/4 tsp. five-spice powder
- Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper
Cut the pork loin lengthwise into 4 equal strips. Using a small knife, pierce each strip 4 times to help the marinade penetrate the meat. Put the pork in a shallow bowl.
Combine the honey, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, double dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, Shaoxing, five-spice powder, 1/2 tsp. salt, and a pinch of white pepper in a small bowl and pour over the meat to coat well. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight.
Position a rack in the top third of the oven and heat the oven to 450°F. Line a small heavy-duty rimmed baking sheet with heavy-duty foil. Put the meat on the baking sheet and spoon some of the marinade over it. Roast until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the middle of the pork registers 165°F, 30 to 40 minutes. During cooking, baste the meat with the juice from the pan and flip it 4 times.
Position an oven rack about 4 inches from the broiler and heat the broiler on high. Broil the pork until it’s slightly charred in places, about 2 minutes.
make ahead tips
The pork may be refrigerated for up to 5 days or frozen for up to a month.