These Chinese Steamed BBQ Pork Buns (Char Siu Bao) consist of a soft and light steamed bun filled with a luscious sweet and salty BBQ pork filling. This recipe yields cracks/fissures in the buns, which is a characteristic of dim sum restaurant-style steamed pork buns.
Do you miss traveling?
I do. It's been years since we've traveled... how I took it for granted!
According to CNN's travel guide, there are 5 dishes you must order when you're dining at a Chinese dim sum restaurant:
- har gao (shrimp dumplings)
- siu mai (pork dumplings)
- chicken feet
- chee cheong fun (rice noodle rolls)
- char siu bao (bbq pork buns)
Char siu bao is indeed a dim sum favourite of ours, but you can make it at home with my tips.
It does take a little time and effort, but I promise it will be well worth it!
What is a BBQ pork bun?
Char siu bao (叉烧包) "cha siew bao" is a Chinese steamed bun filled with a slightly sweet and savoury Cantonese style roasted bbq pork (also known as char siu).
"Bao" is "bun" in Cantonese.
There are 2 versions of Chinese-style BBQ Pork Buns: a steamed version and a baked version.
Today's post is all about the traditional steamed char siu bao.
Where to find it?
Steamed char siu bao is commonly found at Chinese dim sum restaurants, Chinese bakeries and Asian supermarkets.
In dim sum restaurants, they are usually served in a small steamer rack in a set of 3 or 4 buns.
At Chinese bakeries, you can get them freshly steamed, or packaged to-go (where you can steam them at home).
You can also find char siu bao at Asian supermarkets in the refrigerator or freezer section as well.
Characteristics of the bun
The exterior of the bun is white and should "explode" or crack, with a hint of the BBQ pork filling peeping through.
In contrast, Baked Chinese BBQ Pork Buns have a golden brown exterior and a shiny sweet glaze on top.
Why this recipe works
This char siu bao recipe yields a light and fluffy bun.
It uses a pleating technique that produces cracks and crevices, which are characteristic of the buns served in Chinese dim sum restaurants.
The filling is luscious, sweet and delicious, filled with roasted pork and onions.
Tools you'll need
- small ice cream scoop
- steaming rack
- large pot/wok with a tight-fitting lid
- parchment paper/muffin liners
Ingredients you'll need
For the filling, I used the same BBQ pork filling as in my Baked BBQ Pork Buns.
It's best to make the filling a day ahead so that it has time to chill in the fridge.
For the roasted pork filling:
- roasted char siu BBQ pork: diced into small cubes; you can use a store-bought BBQ pork as well
- onions: diced, about the same size as the BBQ pork
- garlic: finely minced
- granulated sugar: you can use honey in place of sugar if your like
- 5-spice powder: is a mixture of 5 different spices used in Chinese cuisine, especially roasted meats
- Chinese rose wine: is a rose-flavoured liquor that can be difficult to find; substitute with Shaoxing wine, dry sherry, or omit
- hoisin sauce: is a fermented soybean sauce that is sweet, dark and thick
- ketchup: adds a little sweetness and tang to the filling
- cornstarch/flour: helps to thicken up the BBQ pork filling and give it that glossy sheen
- sesame oil: adds aroma and flavour to the filling
For the dough:
The bun dough consists of a starter (which is made the night before, similar to a sourdough or preferment), and then it's combined with the rest of the ingredients to form the dough.
- cake flour: the lower protein content in cake flour helps to keep these buns light, soft and not chewy; I highly recommend using cake/pastry flour for this recipe. Don't use all-purpose or bread flour.
- wheat starch: is a starch made from the endosperm of wheat grain and has a very fine, powdery texture; it's commonly used to make har gao (shrimp dumplings). This starch helps to keep the dough smooth.
- active dry yeast: only a little is needed to activate the starter
- baking powder: adds some leavening to the dough
- baking ammonia: also known as ammonium carbonate, baker's ammonia, or "hartshorn," is used as an additional leavening agent, which helps to produce the crevices and fissures in the bun. *Note: it does produce a very pungent ammonia smell, however the smell dissipates after baking or steaming. It can be difficult to find baking ammonia -- you can try online or specialty baking stores.
- granulated sugar: adds a little touch of sweetness to the dough and counteracts acidity
- whole milk: adds some moisture to the dough; you can use any milk that you like
- white vinegar: reacts with the baking ammonia and creates gas bubbles; also helps to whiten the dough
- coconut oil: use a refined coconut oil if you don't like the taste of coconut, or use any light vegetable oil
- lye water: *use food grade lye water, and use caution!* also known as kansui is an alkaline sodium carbonate solution and is commonly used in making Chinese noodles. It helps to neutralize the acidity in the dough and acts as a leavener.
How to cook the BBQ pork filling
Sauté the onions and garlic until translucent, about 3-4 minutes over medium heat.
Add in the diced BBQ pork and continue to sauté until the pork is heated through.
Next, add in 5-spice powder, Chinese rose wine, hoisin sauce, and ketchup.
Prepare the cornstarch and flour slurry by adding 1 teaspoon cornstarch and 1 teaspoon flour into a small bowl with 4-6 tablespoon cold water. Mix with a spoon until the starch and flour dissolves.
Pour the slurry into the pot and stir to coat the BBQ pork mixture. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat.
The mixture will begin to thicken and become glossy.
Remove the BBQ pork filling, stir in sesame oil and transfer to a clean bowl. Cover with a lid and let cool.
Refrigerate the pork filling for at least 4-6 hours, or overnight.
How to portion the pork filling
Use a small ice cream scoop to portion out the filling, about 27-30g each.
Place each scoop onto a plate and chill in the fridge until ready to use.
Note: Don't keep the pork at room temperature until just about to assemble.
How to make the steamed bun dough
Make the starter: (do this the night beforehand)
In a small bowl, add in cake flour, active dry yeast, sugar and water.
Knead until the dough comes together.
Cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature overnight.
The next day:
Transfer the starter dough (from the night before) to a larger bowl.
Add in the baking ammonia dissolved in 2 teaspoon of water + ⅛ teaspoon lye water. (Be careful, it will smell!)
Knead in the granulated sugar until it dissolves a bit.
Add in the cake flour, wheat starch, and baking powder.
Pour in the milk, coconut oil and vinegar.
Knead until the dough comes together.
Cover the bowl with a plate or plastic wrap and leave it to rest for about 30 minutes in a warm location.
When the dough shows some bubbles and has risen a little, lightly dust the work surface with some wheat starch or cake flour and divide the dough into 10 equal portions.
How to pleat & assemble
Roll the portioned dough into a flat disc and place a scoop of char siu BBQ pork filling in the centre. (I use an ice cream scoop to make this easier).
Tip: Try not to get any sauce on the edges of the dough, or it may be difficult to seal.
Gather the dough up and form 3 edges, like a samosa. (See Step 2 in the photo above).
Gently push down the centre of the triangle, and pull up the edges. (See Step 3).
Pinch together each of the 3 seams on the sides, forming a "tulip bulb" shape.
Tip: Keep a clean paper towel nearby to wipe if you do get sauce on your fingers.
Place the bun onto a square piece of parchment paper or muffin liner.
Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.
Cover the buns with some plastic wrap and leave to rest in a warm location for about 20-30 minutes.
In the meantime, prepare the steamer.
Watch how to make the buns
How to steam the buns
Char siu bao requires high heat steaming process, which is different than the method for steaming mantou buns.
The intense heat and pressure create the fissures on the exterior of the bun, whereas for mantou or steamed buns, we want a smooth exterior.
Fill a large wok or pot (that can fit a steaming rack) with water and add vinegar to it.
Bring the water to a boil over high heat.
Once the water is vigorously boiling, place 3 buns onto the steaming rack and transfer it to the pot or wok. (Don't overcrowd as the buns will expand).
Cover with a tight-fitting lid and ensure that any steam vents are covered (I use a wet cloth), and place a kitchen towel over the rim of the lid, to help trap in as much steam.
Steam the buns for 12-13 minutes, until buns have formed cracks.
Remove the buns and repeat with the remaining buns.
Serve the buns immediately, while hot and steamy.
FAQs, tips & troubleshooting
Tip 1: There is a tendency for the buns to become yellow when steaming.
Add 1-2 tablespoon of white vinegar into the steaming water to keep the buns white.
Note: If the buns do turn yellowish, don't worry, they will still taste good.
Tip 2: Don't overcrowd the pot. Steam the buns in small batches.
Tip 3: Unlike steaming mantou, there is no need to gradually release the steam from the buns.
You can remove them right away.
Why did my buns turn yellow?
See Tip #1. You can also use a bleached cake flour if you really want the buns to stay white.
Why didn't my buns "explode?"
Perhaps the steaming heat wasn't strong/intense enough, or you may need to add a little more baking ammonia/baking powder next time.
How come my buns have an ammonia taste?
Try steaming the buns a little longer, and/or decrease the amount of baking ammonia in the recipe.
Is it healthy?
The BBQ pork filling in commercial versions usually contain additional pork fat for that smooth and luscious mouthfeel.
Homemade char siu bao can be a healthier alternative to pre-packaged or restaurant versions.
Tip: You can ask the butcher at the Chinese meat shop to give you a leaner roasted BBQ pork.
How to serve & store
Serve the char siu bao fresh and steaming hot.
Once cooled, the buns will lack that light and airy, cakey texture.
Just re-steam the buns over hot water to restore the texture.
Since these buns have meat in them, keep the char siu bao in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 1 week.
Alternatively, you can freeze steamed BBQ pork buns.
Store the buns in an airtight freezer-safe container for up to 3 months.
How to reheat
To reheat char siu bao, place the buns onto a steaming rack and into a large pot filled with water. (Usually, the buns have a piece of parchment paper stuck to the bottom -- but if not, add a piece of parchment paper to prevent the buns from sticking to the steamer).
Steam over high heat for approximately 10 minutes, until the buns are fluffy and soft.
Also, you can re-steam the buns from frozen. Just add 5-10 additional minutes to the steaming time.
I don't recommend microwaving the buns to reheat. You can do so in a pinch, but for optimal texture, it's best to steam the buns.
Other recipes you may like
If you enjoyed this recipe, be sure to try out these recipes:
Slightly sweet and savoury, these soft and fluffy Char Siu Bao buns are perfect as a mid-day snack or as a meal.
I know I can't resist the lure of freshly steamed hot BBQ pork buns straight out of the steamer.
Pair the buns with a Chinese tea (such as oolong, or jasmine) and you'll recreate a portion of the quintessential dim sum experience.
Let me know if you try out this classic Chinese dim sum dish at home. Tag me on Instagram @siftandsimmer or leave me a comment/rating below.
Steamed Char Siu Bao (Chinese BBQ Pork Buns)
For accuracy and precision in baking recipes, use weight (metric) measurements when available.
Roasted BBQ pork filling:
- 75 g white onion diced
- 5 g garlic (about 2 cloves) minced
- 150 g char siu roasted BBQ pork diced
- 2 g Chinese 5-spice powder
- 3 ml Chinese rose wine or dry sherry
- 7 ml hoisin sauce
- 7 ml ketchup
- 2 g cornstarch
- 2 g all-purpose flour
- 60-85 ml cold water
- 2 ml sesame oil
For the dough:
- 113 g cake flour
- 2 g active dry yeast
- 15 g granulated sugar
- 62 g room temperature water
- starter dough from above
- 2 g baking ammonia dissolved in 2 teaspoon of water
- a few drops lye water
- 60 g granulated sugar
- 75 g cake flour
- 40 g wheat starch
- 10 g baking powder
- 20 ml whole milk
- 27 ml coconut oil or vegetable oil
- 15 ml white vinegar
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
Cook the BBQ pork filling:
- In a large frying pan, sauté the onions and garlic until translucent, about 3-4 minutes over medium heat.
- Add in the diced BBQ pork and continue to sauté until the pork is heated through.
- Next, add in 5-spice powder, Chinese rose wine, hoisin sauce, and ketchup.
- Prepare the cornstarch and flour slurry by adding 1 teaspoon cornstarch and 1 teaspoon flour into a small bowl with 4-6 tablespoon cold water. Mix with a spoon until the starch and flour dissolves.
- Pour the cornstarch slurry into the pot and stir to coat the BBQ pork mixture. Bring to a boil and lower the heat.
- The mixture will begin to thicken and become glossy.
- Remove the BBQ pork filling from heat, stir in a little sesame oil, and transfer to a clean bowl. Cover with a lid and let cool.
- Refrigerate the pork filling for at least 4-6 hours, or overnight.
- Use a small ice cream scoop to divide the BBQ pork mixture into 10 portions, about 25-30g each.
- Place the scoops onto a plate and chill in the fridge until just about ready to assemble. (Don't keep it at room temperature).
Make the starter: (the night before)
- In a small bowl, add in 113g cake flour, 2g of active dry yeast, 15g of sugar and 62g water.
- Knead together until it forms a dough. (It will be on the drier side).
- Cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature overnight.
Make the dough:
- Transfer the starter mixture from the night before in to a larger bowl.
- Add 2g baking ammonia dissolved in 2 teaspoon of water + a few drops of lye water. (Be careful, it will smell!)
- Knead in the 60g granulated sugar, until it dissolves a little.
- Add in the cake flour, wheat starch and baking powder.
- Add in the milk, coconut oil, and vinegar.
- Knead until the dough comes together.
- Cover the bowl with a plate or plastic wrap and leave it to rest for about 30 minutes in a warm location.
- When the dough shows some bubbles and has risen a little, lightly dust the work surface with some wheat starch and divide the dough into 10 equal portions. (About 45-50g each).
- Roll the portioned dough into a flat disc and place a scoop of char siu BBQ pork filling (about 25-30g) in the centre.
- Gather the dough up in 3 places, forming a triangular shape (like a samosa).
- Gently press the centre down, and gather the sides up, forming a "bulb/tulip."
- Pinch the 3 seams together on the sides.
- Place the bun onto a piece of parchment paper or muffin liner.
- Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.
- Cover the buns with some plastic wrap and leave to rest in a warm location for about 20-30 minutes.
Steam the buns:
- Fill a large wok or pot (that can fit a steaming rack) with water and add 1 tablespoon white vinegar to it.
- Bring the water to a boil over high heat.
- Once the water is vigorously boiling, place 3-4 buns onto the steaming rack and transfer it to the pot or wok.
- Cover with a lid and ensure that any steam vents are covered (I used a wet cloth), and place a kitchen towel over the rim of the lid, to help trap in as much steam.
- Steam the buns for 12-13 minutes, until buns have formed cracks.
- Remove the buns and repeat with the remaining buns.
- The buns are best served immediately, hot and steamy.
The nutritional information provided should be considered as approximate and is not guaranteed. Please use your best judgment to ensure food is safely prepared and/or a good fit for your diet.