Sunday, June 7, 2015

Char Siu/Xa Xiu Bao

You say char siu (Cantonese), I say xá xíu (Vietnamese).  You say baozi, I say bánh bao.  You say awesome pork buns, I say...well, awesome pork buns.

There's a general class of yeast-leavened, no-butter, no-egg, steamed dough that is prevalent in a lot of Asian cultures; their common ancestor is likely mantou, a simple steamed dough made from flour, water, and yeast.  Though the dough is not new in any way, I would argue that David Chang's famous Momofuku pork buns have played a huge role in shepherding Asian steamed buns into today's hip food scene.

Another popular dish is char siu, which is basically marinated roast pork (some might call the marinade a form of Asian barbecue sauce) with a caramelized honey (or maltose) glaze.  Char siu and its variants are used in a bunch of dishes, including char siu rice, bánh mì xá xíu, chāshū ramen, and many others.

So today, we're going to combine the two and make char siu bao from scratch.  Let's go!


Char Siu
2.5 lb pork shoulder, cut into 1" slabs
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup sugar
1 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp hoisin sauce
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp onion powder
1 tbsp sesame oil
2 tsp five spice powder
black pepper

Char Siu Glaze
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup water

Baozi Filling
~1 lb chopped char siu
1/2 cup onions
1 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce

Baozi Dough
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp (or 1 packet) active dry yeast
1 cup warm water
2 tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp double-acting baking powder
1/2 tsp kosher salt
sesame oil for coating

The char siu recipe is largely adapted from The Art of Cooking, which is an amazing YouTube channel on cooking Chinese and Chinese/American food.  Seriously, check it out.

The baozi dough recipe is a combination of recipes from Wikibooks and the kitchn.  By the way, I really like Baker's percentage notation, where ingredient mass is expressed relative to the amount of flour used.

Part I: Char Siu

Cut your pork shoulder into ~1in thick sheets.  Diffusion into meat is very slow, so the thinner the cut, the higher the % marinade penetration will be.  But don't go any thinner, or else you'll just have stir fry.

I was doing this to use up leftover pork shoulder, so I ended up with enough to make a half batch of char siu, a little over a pound.  However, you should definitely make a full batch!  Use some to make buns, and eat the rest with rice.  You won't regret it.

Place in a large bowl...

...and add the sugar.  Some recipes will tell you to rub the sugar on the surface of the pork and wait a bit.  I'm lazy not sure how much this contributes to juiciness, so I decided not to do this.

Start adding the rest of the ingredients, including the soy sauce...

...and oyster sauce.  Free advertising here for Lee Kum Kee's Premium Oyster Sauce, because it's the best oyster sauce I've ever used, and totally worth the extra few bucks. (the Lee Kum Kee "Panda Brand," however, sucks.)

Add the rest of the char siu marinade ingredients, mix, cover, and put it in the fridge for at least 3 hours.

Part II: Baozi

While the char siu's marinating, let's start the dough!  Add 1 cup of warm water to a large bowl.

I'm going crazy trying to figure out an optimal water temperature for proofing yeast since there's conflicting information everywhere, from 80-140°F.  I ended up starting on the cooler side at 80°F, but if I did this again I'd aim a little higher, maybe 100°F.

Add the yeast and leave it alone for 10-15 minutes—you should see some bubbling by then.

Add the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt...

...and start incorporating everything.

When the dough is dry enough to handle by hand, scoop it out onto a lightly floured surface...

...and knead for 5-10 minutes.  This is a fairly dry dough, so you'll get a good workout from this.  Don't fret, just put on some Miles Davis (the cool jazz era stuff) and chillll.

After kneading, you should get a semi-smooth surface like this.

Form the dough into a ball, place in a lightly oiled bowl, and let it ferment for ~1.5 hours.  If your kitchen is cold, I like to turn on my oven for a minute, then turn it off and place the bowl in the closed oven.  You want a comfortably warm atmosphere, maybe 70-80°F.

Geek-out side note: why do we use both biological (yeast) and chemical (baking powder) leavening here?  My guess: when we steam this later, we'll get expansion of existing CO2 gas bubbles from yeast as well as further creation of  COfrom the heat-activated reaction of sodium aluminum phosphate and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) from the double-acting baking powder.  This wouldn't work with other breads, but because this dough is particularly tough, it's capable of trapping more CO2.  The result?  Really fluffy steamed buns.

This is also why it's important to use double-acting baking powder, because the first activation (triggered by moisture) is completely wasted when we let the dough sit there for hours after mixing.  All we want is that second activation (triggered by heat).  Isn't food science fun?

Part III: Putting it All Together

Back to the char siu!  After marinating, preheat your oven to 350°F and roast the pork for 15 minutes, then baste with more marinade and roast for 10 more minutes.

While that's roasting, make the glaze by heating equal parts honey and water until fully dissolved.

 After those last 10 minutes of roasting, take the char siu out, crank up the oven to 450°F, glaze the char siu, and put it back in the oven for 10 minutes to caramelize.

After those 10 minutes at 450°F, the char siu is done!

Cut it into slices for char siu rice, or continue to cut those slices into small chunks for baozi filling.

 Awwww yeah.

My filling is pretty simple, although you can definitely find fancier ones online: sautée chopped char siu and onions for a few minutes until onions are translucent.  Add oyster sauce and soy sauce, toss together and cook for 1-2 minutes.

Once the dough has about doubled in size, punch it down a bit and form it into a thick disk, as seen here.  Separate into 8 pieces (keep in mind I'm doing a half batch).

Spoon a few tablespoons of filling on a piece of dough, and get ready to pleat!

I like to start by grabbing an edge and pinching it...

...then, using my fingers as a guide for the size of each pleat, I start pinching adjacent sections together...

...until I get this open star shape.

Then twist everything together and pinch the top to seal!  Keep in mind this creates a few large pleats—if you want many small pleats, check out this video of someone making pleats better than I ever will:

Repeat until you're out of dough.

I don't have a steamer, so here's a nifty trick for those of you like me:  fill a dutch oven with an inch or two of water, then ball up some aluminum foil and let it sink to the bottom.

Place a plate on top of the aluminum foil balls, and now you have a steamer!  Bring the water to a boil, place the bao on the plate, and cover everything with a lid.  Steam for 15 minutes.

After 15 minutes, the surface of the bao should be a bit harder, but the bulk should still feel airy and soft to the touch.  Just don't touch it straight out of the steamer unless you like burning your fingers.

Enjoy fluffy, porky goodness.

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