Steamed Bao (Foldover Buns, Guabao, 割包)
Published Aug 12, 2014, Updated Feb 12, 2024
Chengdu Challenge #9: Bow to the Bao
In my constant quest to fatten up my daughter without resorting to junk food, bao has been a go-to recipe. As a child who shuns all fried foods, most dairy and anything sweet, about the only fattening thing she loves is soft, yeasty bread. We discovered this at her first Thanksgiving dinner, when the only things she put on her plate were turkey and the Sister Schubert yeast rolls. She dug out the middle of the rolls, leaving the crusty exterior behind, and ate through as many as we’d let her. I realized they reminded her of Chinese bread, or bao.
Bao refers to steamed yeast bread, usually filled—the most famous being chasiu bao, filled with barbeque pork. But in the U.S. now the word is used specifically to refer to the little sandwiches made from foldover bao, which built the fame and fortune of both Eddie Huang (Baohaus) and David Chang (Momofuku).
Not long after our yeast-roll revelation, we tried making bao ourselves, and they were a huge hit. My thin-as-bamboo child will eat the unfilled bao by the dozens with dinner or as a snack.
Why You Should Make Your Own Bao
Everyone dwells on the pork belly and assorted other fatty and fantastic fillings for bao, and I’ve heard both Huang and Chang say that you might as well buy readymade bread for the bao. But I have to disagree with that ever since trying Mr. Chang’s recipe for bao. Oh my heavens, as Fongchong would say, they are unbelievably tasty—and a far, far cry from the store-bought frozen kind, the same magnitude of difference as the comparison between homemade white bread and Wonder Bread.
Unlike most store-bought bao, which taste like nothing, these have rich, sweet and yeasty taste. Mr. Chang’s secret ingredients seem to be nonfat milk powder, lard and extra yeast—the recipes in esteemed Chinese cookbooks definitely don’t include milk powder and usually call for vegetable oil instead of lard. But lard makes most anything better, so I went with Chang. (I’ve since seen several recipes for steamed buns online attributed to Chang, and they are all different. Stick with this version here, from the cookbook, I’d say.)
Bao are a bit time-consuming to make, mostly due to the rising times for the dough. But, folks, these are not only easy, they are hard to mess up. I’ve never had success with Western bread, but these have worked brilliantly every time, the dough very forgiving of novice efforts. I’ve even simplified a few steps and shortened the process with no downside.Rather than serve bao with roasted pork belly, as Chang so famously does, I decided to try it the more traditional way, with braised pork belly. As Huang explains in his book, Fresh Off the Boat, the trendy bao is based on the longtime Taiwanese street snack guabao, which uses braised pork. So I tried a classic Chinese red-braised pork belly with delicious success (recipe added September 2016!).