These steamed bao buns with pork are a delicious feast for the senses! With tender pork tenderloin, crunchy veg, and a pillowy soft bun, they're a handheld treat perfect as an appetizer or light meal.
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There are some weeks in our house when it feels like every other meal is pork. Whether that's fresh pork, bacon, or sausages, it appears in many forms.
Some favorite pork meals are as diverse as pork carnitas tacos and Vietnamese lemongrass pork to apple stuffing crusted pork chops and pork meatballs with arugula and lemon. And these steamed bao buns are definitely looking to be added to the regular list.
What are steamed bao buns?
Bao are a kind of Chinese steamed bread roll. Technically calling them "bao buns" is wrong as bao means bun, but I guess to help people know what they are in English, it has become a popular way to refer to them. It also distinguishes from "baozi," which are the same bread dough but typically closed, filled dumplings.
Bao are made with a yeasted dough, but unlike most breads, you steam them rather than bake them. This makes them very soft and light.
Bao buns are a popular street food as well as being something you would enjoy at home in China, maybe as a side to a meaty meal. They are fast becoming more popular elsewhere, in part thanks to Momofuku. I'm sure being handheld and easy to fill with a variety of tasty fillings helps.
What do you fill bao buns with?
A traditional form is "gua bao" from the Fuzhou region. In this version, the buns are filled with pork belly and typically pickled greens, crushed peanuts and cilantro. These days, however, you'll find many variations on the filling, both meat and vegetarian. The possibilities are really endless.
Here, I've made a slightly healthier take on the classic style by using pork tenderloin with char sui pork flavors. Tenderloin is definitely a favorite cut of pork as it's perfect for roasting whole, grilling or cutting into medallions. Plus it's just as lean as skinless chicken breast and an excellent source of protein, vitamin B6, and more.
Tips for cooking pork tenderloin
The first thing you need to remember with pork tenderloin is to remove the silverskin before cooking. If left on, this can become tough.
You can then add a spice rub, marinade or otherwise season before cooking. If roasting, I recommend searing the outside before roasting to achieve a nice even browning, unless you have a more liquid marinade as I use here. Here, you instead baste with additional marinade to help it caramelize during cooking.
Despite what you might think, you don't need to cook pork until it's completely white inside. With modern practices, pork just needs to reach an internal temperature of 145F to be safe to eat. With tenderloin, that means it doesn't take long to achieve a tender, juicy piece of meat.
Once it reaches temperature, remove from the oven and let it rest a minute before you slice up and enjoy. While tenderloin is very tender, I still recommend cutting across the grain.
How to make steamed bao buns
- Mix together the flour and sugar. Mix warm water, milk, yeast, oil, and pinch of sugar in a jug, then add it to the flour.
- Form the mixture into a ball. Then, either knead in a stand mixer or by hand.
- Put the dough in clean bowl, cover, and leave to rise until it doubles in size.
- Turn out the dough, flatten, then sprinkle baking powder over the top and knead it in.
- Roll the dough into a log and cut into 8 pieces.
- Form each piece into a ball, roll out into an oval, and brush the top with oil. Fold over, then put on oiled paper in a bamboo steamer.
- Repeat with the rest, then leave them to rise again (doubling) before steaming around 10 minutes until soft and cooked through.
- Rest a minute, remove from paper, then open them up and fill.
You do have a certain time investment with these, but they really are worth it. However, if you are running short on time, you can cheat a little by buying pre-made buns and then simply making the pork and carrots to go with them. Alternatively, make extra buns one time and freeze them. Then, steam a few minutes to warm through.
I have seen some recipes use wax paper to hold open the folded dough, but personally, I found it stuck and didn't cook evenly. Instead, brushing with oil really does work. It might look like it joins up, but honestly, trust me - it will open up once cooked, even if slightly stuck at the edge.
These porky buns are a delicious combination of soft bread, tender, flavorful pork and crunchy carrots. The little added cilantro adds a lovely freshness to finish them off perfectly. These would make a great appetizer, or enjoy two or three to make a meal.
So take the fun excuse to eat with your hands and enjoy all the tasty flavor in these steamed bao buns with pork. Great flavors, a great mix of textures and definitely worth making soon.
Steamed bao buns with pork
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- ½ tsp Chinese five spice
- 1 ½ tbsp honey
- 1 ½ tbsp hoisin sauce
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp sunflower oil
- 1 lb pork tenderloin 450g
For quick pickled carrots
- 2 carrots (medium)
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tbsp sugar
- 2 tbsp rice vinegar
- ¼ cup water
For bao buns
- 1 ½ cups all purpose flour 210g
- 1 tbsp sugar (plus a pinch)
- ⅓ cup warm water 80ml (note just above lukewarm, not boiling)
- 1 ½ tbsp milk
- ½ tsp instant yeast
- ½ tbsp sunflower oil or vegetable oil
- ½ tsp baking powder
- 4 stems cilantro (approx)
Marinading pork - done ahead (2 ½ hrs before eating/overnight)
- Trim any silverskin from the pork; it would be a kind of white sinew on top of the meat.
- Put the sugar, Chinese five spice, honey, oyster sauce, soy sauce, and oil in a freezer bag and mix together.
- Place the pork in with the marinade, rub it all over, then seal up and refrigerate at least two hours. Overnight is good.
To make quick pickled carrots (can be done day ahead or while pork cooking)
- Peel the carrots, then cut them julienne (in thin slices then cut the slices into small strip into medium-sized lengths). Put them in a bowl, and add the salt and sugar. Rub the salt and sugar into the carrots until you start to draw liquid and the carrots start to feel a bit more bendy. Add the vinegar and water, and leave to pickle slightly. You can make the carrots a day or two ahead of time.
To make bao buns - start approx 3hrs before eating
- Mix together the flour and sugar. Mix warm water, milk, yeast, oil, and pinch of sugar in a jug then add to flour.
- Form the mixture into a ball, adding a little more water if needed. Then, either knead it for around 10 minutes with a stand mixer or 5 minutes by hand.
- Put the dough in a clean bowl, cover, and leave it to rise in a warm, draft-free place for around 90 minutes until it doubles in size.
- Turn the dough out onto a clean surface, flatten it out, then sprinkle the baking powder over the top. Fold in the sides, then knead for around 5 minutes.
- Roll the dough into a log and cut into 8 even pieces.
- Form each piece into a ball, roll it out into an oval, and brush the top with oil. Fold over one side on top of the other, then put it on a lightly oiled piece of parchment paper (or a muffin liner) and put in a bamboo steamer.
- Repeat with the rest of the dough balls. Make sure there is a little space between them in the steamer or hold back others on a baking sheet, covered, to steam in batches. Leave them to rise again, once again in a warm place, around 1 hour until doubled in size.
- Prepare a pan large enough to hold the steamer basket over the top with around 1 inch/3cm of water at the bottom, bring it to a boil. Steam the bao buns for around 10 minutes until soft and fluffy - they will go slightly translucent.
- Let them rest a minute, remove from paper, then open them up and fill.
To cook pork (during bao buns 2nd rise)
- Preheat oven to 350F/175C. Remove the pork from fridge to come to room temperature.
- Shake excess marinade from pork but do not discard the marinade. Place the pork on a rack over a baking sheet.
- Put the remaining marinade in a small pan and bring to a simmer. Cook for around 3-5 minutes until it thickens a little.
- Once oven is ready, bake the pork for approx 30 minutes until it reaches an internal temperature of 145F/63C, basting with some of the extra marinade half way through cooking.
- Let the pork rest a couple minutes before slicing relatively thinly.
- Make up the bao buns by filling each with some pickled carrots (drained), a few slices of pork and a couple cilantro leaves. I'd recommend brushing the inside top of the bun with some of the extra marinade for additional flavor.
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This post has been sponsored by the National Pork Board. All thoughts and opinions are my own.