Cha Siu Bao (叉烧包) BBQ Pork Buns: From Scratch

Red Chasiu Without Red Yeast Rice Powder or Food Dye~~

Guangdong’s famous 叉烧包 (chāshāo bāo/caa¹ siu¹ baau¹), aka cha siu bao or “char siu bao,” are a dim sum staple!  Soft, fluffy buns envelop the chasiu—barbecue/roast pork—in these steamed bao that ooze with juicy filling.

Although I didn’t grow up in a family that made or ate chasiu, we always bought cha siu bao from Chinese bakeries. (Especially the “pineapple” bun version that took me 25 years to figure out had no pineapple whatsoever.) At home, Ma’s humble 包子 (bāozi) enclosed minced cabbage/chive and pork, a typical filling, in a simpler, denser bun. Sweet, airy bakery-made cha siu bao were a treat—we couldn’t often make it up to Chinatown from the ‘burbs.

Replacing red yeast rice powder with red yeast rice hoisin and furu

Since moving to New York, I’ve eaten more Mei Lai Wah pineapple roasted pork buns than I can count. My roommate loves chasiu, and I love cha siu bao, so naturally, we started experimenting. However, I was never happy with the recipes we tried. Even after tweaking them to my tastes, they often came out sweeter, drier and lacking in some unidentified flavor department. So to develop this recipe, I studied Hong Kong and Guangdong master chefs online to understand and learn from their techniques.

As it turns out, the heart of a great chasiu marinade begins with oyster sauce and soy sauce. I’m using The Mala Market‘s Megachef oyster sauce (gluten-free) and Zhongba light and dark soy sauces, supplemented with a very special hoisin sauce (completely new to the USA!). Many mainland chefs omit hoisin sauce altogether, but The Mala Market’s Guangwei Yuan hoisin has an important kick to it… red yeast rice powder! That’s what gives Guangwei Yuan hoisin its brown-red coloring, and it’s also the cherry-red all-natural coloring traditional restaurants use in chasiu. Red yeast rice powder is a bit of a niche ingredient however, so while you may not keep it on hand for many other uses, you’ll definitely reuse the hoisin sauce.

Old school chasiu also gets its coloring from red 豆腐乳 (dòufurǔ), known as furu, fermented soybean curd. Fermented soybeans are already in the base of our Guangwei Yuan hoisin, so adding both maximizes the gorgeous natural red coloring and umami without straying into artificial dyes. (Red furu also gets its coloring from red yeast rice.)

Selecting ingredients for the cha siu bao filling

  • Chasiu meat can come from any cut, so feel free to use whatever’s available. If you’re making chasiu to eat sliced up over rice, pork butt or shoulder are popular cuts. Both tend to be leaner cuts, with shoulder the leanest of the two (“Boston butt” has more fat marbling, so you can guess my bias). But don’t shy away from pork belly! Since this chasiu is specifically for stuffing buns, I actually prefer belly meat (skinless). Hong Kong dim sum chefs seem to prefer a 70% lean, 30% fat distribution for their chasiu. All that glorious fat makes it render down tastier and juicier. Bonus—pork belly and Boston butt are more often in regular shapes, so when you trim them you can get the pieces more uniform, meaning more even cooking.
  • The Mala Market‘s Megachef oyster sauce (gluten-free!) and Zhongba light and dark soy sauces, supplemented with Guangwei Yuan hoisin sauce, give the chasiu its gorgeous all-natural dark red coloring.
  • The red yeast liquid from red 豆腐乳 (dòufurǔ), aka furu, fermented soybean curd, flavors and helps color the chasiu as well.
  • Sugar helps the sauce caramelize while roasting. I’m partial to the rich flavor and warming Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) qualities of 红糖 (hóngtáng), black sugar/Chinese brown sugar, as well as its subtler sweetness. Hongtang is unrefined sugar concentrated from sugarcane juice with the original molasses, unlike Western brown sugar—a refined, nutrient-stripped granulated white sugar with the molasses added back later. (Rock sugars, including 冰片糖 (bīngpiàntáng) brown rock sugar bars, are formed from the recrystallization of white sugar and also refined.) At the end of the day, of course, the difference in sweetness is subtle and subjective to begin with. Use a darker Western brown sugar if hongtang is not available.
  • Use any 米酒 (mǐjiǔ) rice wine or 料酒 (liàojiǔ) cooking wine to neutralize the meat’s gamey odor.
  • A combination of potato starch and cornstarch gives you more translucency from the potato starch without cornstarch’s flavor. Tapioca starch sets clear and glossier, but is a less common pantry item. If you have it you can do half tapioca starch, half cornstarch. Of course, it’s no big deal if you only have cornstarch.
  • Adding a bit of toasted sesame oil at the very end gives the cooked filling a nice gloss and seals in moisture (oil is hydrophobic, use that to your advantage). Our small-mill, stone-ground, cold-pressed Cuizi sesame oil is unsurpassed in its irresistible sesame flavor.

Preparing the chasiu meat

There are so. many. ways. to prepare and roast chasiu. Since the end goal of this chasiu is to make it into a stuffed bun—which takes another couple hours to prep, proof, fill and steam—I’m prioritizing flavor and straightforwardness in my technique. You’ll start by preparing the marinade and meat the night before.

THE MARINADE/GLAZE:
Essentially, you want to drown chopped garlic in all the sauces to infuse the marinade. Taking care to mash the furu cube into a homogenous paste beforehand allows it to dissolve into the grand medley of spices.

By the way, this chopped garlic step works because we are not broiling the life out of this filling meat for the sake of some crispy bits. Also, the chronic re-basting in the baking step works to keep it from drying out and burning up.

  • Reserve four tablespoons of the marinade and set aside in a small bowl. You’ll use this for the cha siu bao filling tomorrow.
  • Reserve another three tablespoons of the marinade for the glaze in another small bowl (or just remember to leave it behind, and not use everything for the marinade). Mix this with the honey and save it to baste the meat in the baking step.

Keep everything refrigerated overnight.

THE MEAT:
For starters, slice up the pork butt/shoulder/belly in large “slabs,” about 1-1.5 inches thick. The dimensions should be somewhere in the neighborhood of larger-than-a-burger but not-much-larger-than-a-steak/hand (if you have petite lady hands like me, then they’ll probably be about the same size). Ultimately, it doesn’t matter too much as long as they’re all basically consistent.

Wash the raw meat, pat it dry, and throw it in a deep mixing bowl. Proceed to stab it all over with a fork to help the marinade seep in (a great tip from our affiliates Made With Lau). Add the marinade sauce and mix it all up. Gloves are nice and convenient for occasions like this. Cover the bowl and leave it in the fridge overnight. At least 6-8 hours (but no more than 24 hours, according to Daddy Lau!) seems to be ideal for getting the marinade into the meat.

Finally, the most contentious, make-or-break step of chasiu: the baking method. Most recipes call for roasting and then broiling the meat to add some caramelized, crispy bits. I do not rely on broiling, as I dislike overcooked pork (although I’m told chasiu is supposed to have this meatier, al dente mouthfeel). If you want crispy chasiu, I would recommend blowtorching it instead. With non-commercial-sized slices of meat, you do not need high roasting temperatures to achieve the same results.

An hour before you plan to bake, take the marinated meat out of the fridge to bring it back to room temperature (in the name of a more even roast). Preheat the oven to 375F (190C). Lay out the slices on a wire rack over a foil-lined roasting pan to promote air circulation, and drizzle in some water to barely coat the pan to prevent future drippings from burning. Bake for 15 minutes. Retrieve and generously baste the top side with the marinade/honey glaze. Bake for 10 more minutes, then generously baste both sides, leaving it opposite side up. Bake for 10 additional minutes. Remove from oven, stick a thermometer in and if it’s not yet at 145-150F (mine is usually done by now), reglaze and continue baking in 3 minute intervals until it reaches that range.

Let the cooked meat rest for at least 30 minutes before slicing.

Preparing the dough

Bloom the active dry yeast in a small bowl by mixing it with a cup of the warm water and a spoonful of the sugar.  You want the water warm, but not super hot—somewhere around 105F/41C. You should be able to hold your fingertip in it for at least 5-10 seconds. The yeast is ready when it has at least doubled in size.

In a large bowl, bring together the flour*, baking powder and rest of the sugar. Gradually mix in the bloomed yeast and rest of the warm water, stirring to incorporate. Switch over to kneading with your hands once it becomes tough to stir. At the point that a smooth dough comes together and doesn’t stick to the wall of the bowl or your hands (about 15 minutes), add the room-temperature lard. Knead together until smooth again, cover with a cheesecloth and let proof at room temperature** for 15 minutes.

  • *Cake flour is ideal for restaurant-level steamed buns because the lower protein content makes the end result fluffier. But you can also substitute about 15% cornstarch or potato starch by weight to compensate with all-purpose flour, which is what I do.
  • **If you run  A/C and your kitchen temp is lower than 75F, leave it in the oven with just the light on.

Briefly re-knead the dough (about 2-3 minutes), folding it onto itself and working out any air bubbles, then cover again and let proof about an hour while you make the filling.

This method is much more friendly for one-time bao makers than the traditional Cantonese method of using a 老面 (lǎomiàn) or “old dough” starter, a sourdough mother equivalent that needs to ferment for 3+ days before using!

Making the cha siu bao filling

Dice the cooled meat. Make a slurry with the cold water, potato starch and cornstarch. Heat the oil in a saucepan and cook the onion and optional scallions/Chinese celery until it starts to brown. Discard the scallion/celery and keep or discard the onion.

Add the reserved chasiu marinade, oyster sauce, dark soy sauce and water to the pan and mix well. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat briefly to drizzle in the cornstarch slurry while stirring. Return to a boil and simmer on low heat for 30-60 seconds to thicken while continually stirring. Pour the thickened sauce over the chopped meat, mix well to coat and let cool.

Folding and steaming the buns

Set up your steamer and heat some water in the pot with a splash of white vinegar for proofing. Again, you should be able to comfortably stick your fingers in the hot water. The white vinegar helps make the buns whiter. Line each level with a cheesecloth or cabbage leaves so the buns don’t stick (you can also cut squares of parchment paper to sit each bun atop).

Knead out any air bubbles in the dough and roll it out into a wide rectangular sheet about 1/4″ thick. Roll the sheet up into a log, chop it in half and pinch off dough balls: for small buns, you’ll get about 14-15 dough balls about 30 grams each from each half (30ish buns total) or for medium buns, you’ll get about 10 dough balls about 45 grams each from each half (20ish buns total). If you don’t have a scale, you can eyeball it by aiming for the size of a pingpong ball or golf ball.

  • Keep the extra dough/dough balls covered so they don’t dry out while you fill the buns.

Press or flatten out each dough ball into a circle about the width of your palm, 3-4 inches. You want it thin enough to be a wide circle for stuffing with the filling, but thick enough to hold the filling without breaking, no thicker than a couple millimeters. It doesn’t have to be scientific or perfect, and you’ll get better as you keep going. If you’re measuring, add about 18-20 grams filling to each small bun or 30 grams filling to each large bun. If you’re a pro and can fit more filling in each wrapper, go ahead and do it! If you’re nervous about the dough breaking, start with less until you work up the skill to fold more. Pleat or otherwise seal the buns and set aside to proof in the heated steamer for 30 minutes, or until when you gently press the bun, it leaves an indentation that slowly springs back. (A permanent indentation means it has overproofed, springing back too quickly means it still needs more time.)

When you’re ready to steam the buns, bring the water to a boil and steam over high heat for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave the buns alone to rest for a couple minutes before you take them out of the steamer. Enjoy immediately or let cool completely before refrigerating or freezing for later!

filling of chasiu bao

We love to make a big batch of steamed buns and set aside some in the refrigerator for enjoying in the next 3-4 days and the rest in the freezer for enjoying in the weeks and months to come.

For more steamed bao recipes, check out Michelle Zhao’s regional Yunnan Posubao post!

Cha Siu Bao (叉烧包) From Scratch

Kathy Yuan | The Mala Market | Inspiration & Ingredients for Sichuan Cooking

Equipment

  • Steamer

Ingredients

Chasiu Marinade/Meat

  • 4-5 cloves fresh garlic, peeled, smashed and roughly chopped
  • 3 tablespoons light soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
  • 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine or other liaojiu (rice cooking wine)
  • tablespoons dark soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
  • tablespoons oyster sauce (Megachef preferred)
  • tablespoons hoisin sauce (Guangwei Yuan preferred)
  • 1 cube red furu (fermented beancurd)
  • tablespoons liquid from red furu (fermented beancurd)
  • 4 tablespoons hongtang (black sugar/Chinese brown sugar) if unavailable use Western brown sugar, preferably dark
  • teaspoons ground five spice
  • ½ teaspoon ground fermented white pepper
  • ¾ teaspoon kosher salt more or less to taste
  • 1 tablespoon honey or maltose
  • 3 pounds pork shoulder or skinless pork belly between 30-50% fat

Bao Dough

  • 10 grams active dry yeast (approx. 3 teaspoons)
  • 80 grams powdered sugar, divided (approx. ⅔ cup)
  • 300 grams lukewarm water, divided (approx. 1¼ cup)
  • 600 grams cake flour (approx. 5 cups) to sub AP flour, use 15% by weight potato starch or cornstarch, i.e. 510 grams AP + 90 grams potato starch
  • 8 grams baking powder (approx. 2 teaspoons)
  • 20 grams lard, room-temperature (approx. 1 tablespoon)
  • splash white vinegar for steaming

Cha Siu Bao Filling

  • ½ cup cold water
  • 2 tablespoons potato starch
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • tablespoons oil
  • 1 small yellow onion, chopped
  • 3 scallions or Chinese celery
  • 4 tablespoons reserved chasiu marinade
  • 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
  • 2 teaspoons dark soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
  • cup warm water
  • teaspoon toasted sesame oil (Cuizi preferred)

Instructions

Marinade/Glaze

  • For the marinade, drown the chopped garlic in all the sauces and spices except the honey. Be sure to smash the furu cube into a paste, mixing until the marinade reaches a smooth consistency with no furu chunks. Set aside 4 tablespoons of the marinade now in a small bowl for tomorrow's cha siu bao filling.
    Reserve another three tablespoons of the marinade for the glaze in another small bowl (or just remember to leave enough behind after marinating). Mix this with the honey and save it to baste the meat later.
    Refrigerate until needed.

Chasiu

  • Section the pork butt/shoulder into thick slabs/steaks, about 1½ inches thick. If it's pork belly, cut it into long square strips.
    Wash the raw meat, pat it dry, and throw it in a deep mixing bowl. Proceed to stab it all over with a fork to help the marinade seep in. Add the marinade sauce and mix it all up. Cover the bowl and leave it in the fridge overnight or at least 6-8 hours (but no more than 24 hours).
  • An hour before you plan to bake, take the marinated meat out of the fridge to bring it back to room temperature.
    Preheat the oven to 375F (190C). Lay out the slices on a wire rack over a foil-lined roasting or sheet pan to promote air circulation, and drizzle in some water to barely coat the pan to prevent future drippings from burning. Bake for 15 minutes. Retrieve and generously baste the top side with the marinade/honey glaze. Bake for 10 more minutes, then generously baste both sides, leaving it opposite side up. Bake for 10 additional minutes. Remove from oven, stick a thermometer in and if it's not yet at 145-150F (mine is usually done by now), reglaze and continue baking in 3 minute intervals until it reaches that range.
    Let the cooked meat rest for at least 30 minutes before slicing.

Dough

  • Bloom the active dry yeast in a small bowl by mixing it with a cup of the warm water and a spoonful of the sugar. You want the water warm, but not super hot—somewhere around 105F/41C. You should be able to hold your fingertip in it for at least 5-10 seconds. The yeast is ready when it has at least doubled in size.
  • In a large bowl, bring together the flour, baking powder and rest of the sugar. Gradually mix in the bloomed yeast and rest of the warm water, stirring to incorporate. Switch over to kneading with your hands once it becomes tough to stir. At the point that a smooth dough comes together and doesn't stick to the wall of the bowl or your hands (about 15 minutes), add the room-temperature lard.
    Knead together until smooth again, cover with a cheesecloth and let proof in a warm, draftless place for 15 minutes. Briefly re-knead the dough (about 2-3 minutes), folding it onto itself and working out any air bubbles, then cover again and let proof about an hour while you make the filling.

Making the filling

  • Dice the cooled meat. Make a slurry with the cold  water, potato starch and cornstarch. Heat the oil in a saucepan and cook the onion and optional scallions/Chinese celery until it starts to brown. Discard the scallion/celery and keep or discard the onion.
    Add the reserved chasiu marinade, oyster sauce, dark soy sauce and water to pan and mix well. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat briefly to drizzle in the cornstarch slurry while stirring. Return to a boil and simmer on low heat for 30-60 seconds to thicken while continually stirring. Pour the thickened sauce over the chopped meat, mix well to coat and let cool.

Wrapping the bao

  • Set up your steamer and heat some water with a splash of white vinegar for proofing (again, you should be able to comfortably stick your fingers in the hot water). The white vinegar helps make the buns whiter. Line each level with a cheesecloth or cabbage leaves so the buns don't stick (you can also cut squares of parchment paper to sit each bun atop).
  • Knead out any air bubbles in the dough and roll it out into a wide rectangular sheet about 1/4" thick. Roll the sheet up into a log, chop it in half and pinch off dough balls: for small buns, you'll get about 14-15 dough balls about 30 grams each from each half (30ish buns total) or for medium buns, you'll get about 10 dough balls about 45 grams each from each half (20ish buns total).
    If you don't have a scale, you can eyeball it by aiming for the size of a pingpong ball or golf ball. Keep the extra dough/dough balls covered so they don't dry out while you fill the buns.
  • Press or flatten out each dough ball into a circle about the width of your palm, 3-4 inches. You want it thin enough to be a wide circle for stuffing with the filling, but thick enough to hold the filling without breaking, no thicker than a couple millimeters. If you're measuring, add about 18-20 grams filling to each small bun or 30 grams filling to each large bun. If you're nervous about the dough breaking, just start with less until you work up the skill to fold more. Pleat or otherwise seal the buns and set aside to proof in the low-heated steamer for 30 minutes, or until when you gently press the bun, it leaves an indentation that slowly springs back.
  • When you're ready to steam the buns, bring the water to a boil and steam over high heat for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave the buns alone to rest for a couple minutes before you take them out of the steamer. Enjoy immediately or let cool completely before refrigerating or freezing for later!

Kathy Yuan

Kathy is a first-gen, twenty-something daughter of two Sichuan immigrants who cooked her way back to her parents’ kitchen during the pandemic and is now helping Ma (you can call her Mala Mama) keep generational family recipes alive. All photos shot and edited by her.

2 Responses

  1. Cheryl says:

    I am eager to try making cha siu bao at home! I always look for them in the freezer section at our local Asian market – they often are not available ;( But if I can make them myself – that will be wonderful!

    • Kathy Yuan says:

      Hi Cheryl, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. It is a project, so if you make a lot at once, you can freeze them just the same! Hope you get a chance to try.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *