Steamed buns incl. bao, hirata… & the best filling ideas

baking, dough, steaming, steamed buns, steamedbuns, bao, hirata, chinese, japanese, hoisin, chicken, mushrooms, streetfood, street food, besthomecook, homecook, home cook, philip friend, philip friend, bake off, bakeoff, GBBO, japaneseweek, japanese week, food, foodie, recipe

I get SO much pleasure from street food, but I would say that steamed buns – whether Chinese bao, Japanese hirata – are right up there among my favourites.

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I have enjoyed steamed buns for as long as I remember and they are so easy to make. When planning my dish for Episode 1 of Best Home Cook (our “Ultimate Burger”), I almost made a version of these buns with a hoisin pork and prawn patty.

However, it was my harissa lamb burgers that just won over my thoughts at the time!

At the bottom of this post I have given my go-to steamed bun recipe along with photos of the stages for bao buns (once steamed you just gently prise them open to be filled) and the buns that are already filled before steaming so that as you bite into them you get a burst of flavour from within.

A choice of some of my favourite fillings is below.

Steam your buns!

Steaming gives the most wonderfully light, moist and slightly chewy buns as the starches in the flour gelatinise. You can make them big (think burger-size) or small (perfect for little bites):

I tend to use whatever steamers I have to hand and steam them in one go: metal, bamboo….both work well, but you can steam in batches if you are using one steamer.

I occasionally pat some poppy seeds or toasted sesame seeds on the tops of the buns before steaming.

For a quirky variation, I sometimes incorporate some cooked and puréed spinach into the dough at the start for vibrant green, iron-rich buns. Beetroot juice, replacing some of the water, also works well to give delighful pinky-red buns.

Easy filling ideas:

A rich, sticky filling is ideal for these buns and a quick filling based around a good quality hoisin sauce ticks every box for me.

For me, a chilli sauce or a hoisin sauce is often the way to go, although a punchy katsu sauce-based filling is wonderful: I will post my ultimate katsu sauce recipe shortly.

You don’t need too much sauce, though: enough to coat the meat/vegetables generously without it leaking everywhere.

Hoisin chicken: one of the simplest fillings:
  • fry off some garlic and small pieces of chicken (thigh or breast) in a little oil for a few minutes. If you want some heat, add some chopped chilli.
  • add a couple of tablespoons of good quality hoisin sauce and a couple of teaspoons of vinegar (or rice wine/white wine/cider vinegar)
  • cook gently until the chicken is cooked and lightly coated and then stir in some chopped spring onions. If you have any asparagus, pop pieces of that in there while the chicken cooks.
  • set aside until ready to fill the buns.
An easy honey & soy duck or lamb filling

For a simple sauce and glaze, heat up 3 tablespoons honey, 3 tablespoons soy sauce, some crushed garlic and a touch of freshly chopped chilli. For a bit of sharpness you can add a tablespoon or so of wine vinegar. This can all be scaled up if you want to make a larger amount: it will keep in a jar in the fridge for weeks to dive into as the need arises!

Let it simmer for a few minutes or until reduced and slightly sticky.

Brush some of this sauce over a duck leg or two and roast until crispy. A generous pinch of 5-spice powder doesn’t go amiss either!

Once roasted, shred it and mix with a little of the sauce -or go for hoisin sauce/chilli sauce.

This is equally fabulous very slow-roasted shoulder of lamb.

A gorgeous mushroom filling

Fry off slices or small chunks of mushrooms of choice with oil and garlic until the mushrooms cook down a bit.

Add your sauce of choice and cook until the mushrooms are coated and sticky.

Chilli pork belly

Slowly cooked pork belly – poached in cider or apple juice with some ginger and chilli and slowly cooked until melt-in-the-mouth before glazing…..

Left-overs are great as fillings

I sometimes use left-over roast beef or crispy roast lamb (lamb shoulder is amazing!), which I either shred or finely chop before stirred it into just enough sauce to coat.

Whenever I make Mongolian beef I set aside some just so that I have an instant filling for these buns later!

Easy pickled vegetables:

I like to pop some pickled vegetables into the buns: the sharpness cuts beautifully through the richness of the rest of the filling. They are quick to prepare and just needs to sit in the slightly sweetened vinegar to take on the sweet-sharpness while the buns rest or steam.

For simple pickled vegetables, thinly slice/chop/shred vegetables such as cucumber, radish, red onion, fennel or carrot. Place into a bowl and add:

  • 3 tablespoons white wine, rice wine or cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon of caster sugar

Give it a stir and leave for at least an hour, stirring occasionally. I sometimes like to can sprinkle over some onion seeds.

Recipe: steamed buns – makes 8-10 large ones

Buns:

  • 250g plain flour (not bread flour)
  • 1 teaspoon fine salt
  • 1 tablespoon caster sugar
  • 1 teaspoon fast-action dried yeast
  • 100ml milk
  • 50-70ml cold water
  • 1-2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil, optional
  • a little vegetable oil for brushing over

Fillings and picklEs:

  • see ideas above

(1) Put the ingredients, using 50ml of the water first, into a bowl and mix together. Add more water if needed to give a soft but not sticky dough. Knead for about 5-10 minutes or until very smooth.

(2) Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and leave for an hour or two at room temperature to rest and slightly rise. I find an hour on a warm day is enough or 3-4 hours on a colder wintery day is about right.

(3) Turn out the dough and either roll out pieces thinly on a floured surface or roll out all of the dough and cut fromm there: go for around 5mm thick for bao buns and thinner (as in the photo below) if you want to fill the buns before steaming.  Use a large round cutter (about 9cm diameter) to cut out circles. Re-roll the trimmings to get more circles, but leave for a few minutes before cutting so the dough doesn’t shrink.

NB: I sometimes make mini bao buns using a smaller cutter (5cm diameter) which are perfect for parties and drinks. In which case, roll out the dough a bit thinner.

(4) You now either fold the dough (for bao buns – below) or fill them before forming sealed buns (also below) before leaving to prove a little and steaming. Pat sesame seeds or poppy seeds on the top before proving, if using. I prove them on little pieces of greaseproof (to prevent them sticking in the steamer).

NB: they don’t need to be doubled in size as with traditional yeasted bread rolls/buns and the like. They will puff up in the steamers.

(5) I steam for about 10-14 minutes for bao buns (depending on their size) and about 20 minutes for the filled buns or if making steamed burger-style buns.

NB: you can use metal or bamboo steamers. If you have one steamer you can steam in batches, as the dough will wait quite happily while the others steam.

(6) Remove from the steamers and remove the greaseproof. For bao buns, gently prise apart and fill – don’t forget the picked veg, too! For filled buns, you can drizzle over some chilli oil when serving; I think the rusty-red colour of the oil on the white buns looks wonderful.

For bao buns:

(1) For bao buns, brush lightly with the vegetable oil and fold the circles over in half neatly and lightly pat down.

(2) Place on small pieces of greaseproof and pop into a large plastic bag or bin liner to prevent the dough from drying out on top.

(3) Leave for about an hour, after which time the dough will have slightly risen.

(4) Place in steamers on their greaseproof and steam with the lid on for about 14 minutes. I tend to go for 2 or 3 of the larger ones per steamer, as they expand somewhat while steaming, and I often use several steamers, stacked.

For filled buns:

(1) Take a small piece of dough (about the size of a large walnut) and roll out fairly thinly to an approximate circle.

(2) Spoon the cooled filling over the centre.

(3) Bring the dough up over the centre and pinch to seal. Turn over so the sealed bit is underneath. Alternatively, as you bring the dough over the filling you can pleat it and leave a small hole of top, leaving it to prove and then steam that way up.

(4) Place on greaseproof pieces, leave to prove until slightly risen and steam for about 20 minutes.

NB: you can sprinkle over poppy seeds or toasted sesame seeds before proving if you wish, patting them down gently.

Author: Philip

Finalist on Britain’s Best Home Cook (BBC Television 2018). Published recipe writer with a love of growing fruit & veg, cooking & eating.

5 thoughts on “Steamed buns incl. bao, hirata… & the best filling ideas”

  1. LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE THIS POST! Sorry, did I shout? But truly, I adores steamed buns, and it is embarrassing to admit I’ve never made them

    that could change in the near future, thanks to you….

    Like

  2. I had a street vendor in Santa Cruz CA that made amazing Bao buns, (to dream about) years ago. Since then I have ended up with serious gluten allergy issues. Is it at all possible to make a bun made with other grain flour that could work in place of wheat, spelt, Kamut, etc? I truly would appreciate any ideas. Thanks Phil, you truly are a master baker!

    Like

    1. you should be able to yes, but I would start with a commercial gluten-free standard plain flour which for standard baked buns works fairly well and hold their shape.

      Like

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