Basics of Asian Steamed Bao

Basics of Asian Steamed Bao
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What is a steamed bao?

Pronounced “bow,” steamed bao is a bread or roll that is steamed and filled with meat and/or vegetables.

Alternative names for steamed bao?

Mantou = plain steamed bao with no filling, sometimes tinted a color due to the addition of sweet potato flour, pumpkin flour, matcha powder
Char Siu Bao = Steamed Cantonese BBQ Pork Buns
Xiao Long Bao = XLB = Shanghai dumplings with soup meat filling
Taiwanese Bao = bread/ bao steamed into a taco shell with savory and fresh fillings (think Asian taco)
Dou Sha Bao = Sweetened Red Bean paste bun, often available at dim sum
Nai Wong Bao = Egg custard Bao filled with a bright yellow milk and egg custard filling, often available at dim sum

Are baos also dumplings?

Bao and dumplings are related, but generally baos are closer to a stuffed bread, with the distinction that the dough is leavened.  Dumplings typically also have a filling, but the exterior or skin is not leavened. 

What makes bao unique?  How is bao cooked?

Bao are cooked differently than most other breads where the bread/ dough is steamed (instead of baked – dry heat).  The wet heat creates a smooth skin on the exterior surface of the bun.

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What is the texture of bao?

Baos should be soft, tender, fluffy bite of bread with no chew.  Steamed bao are unique from most breads, due to the cooking process involving steam. 

How do you ensure the bao is soft, tender and fluffy?

  • The addition of oil or fat provides tenderness in the dough
  • Corn starch disrupts the formation of gluten for a more tender bite.
  • Baking powder helps create the pockets for steam to build small bubbles into the steamed bao crumb
  • Even though the texture when cooked is not chewy, kneading allows the gluten formation to form when the dough is proofing for a smoother texture

Why are steamed buns so hard to make?

There are so many difficult and changing variables to make steamed buns, the biggest being the use of steam for cooking.  There is a lack of consistency in size of steams, amount of water, how many racks or basket layers when steaming, size of bao and more.

How to steam the buns – hard rolling boil vs. simmer vs. start from cold water?

Buns will cook and steam under all the conditions – hard rolling boil vs. simmer vs. start from cold water. I do find that steaming the buns on a simmer or from cold or warm water or the combination allows the steamed buns to puff up into a more tender bite.  Preboiling the water can sometimes lead to a firmer texture if the bao has not fully leavened or proofed.

I also find that most baos will need 10-25 minutes of steaming depending on the size and which rack the baos steam on.

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How do you know when steamed bao is done cooking?

My elderly Asian instinct on cooking steamed bao to perfection is pretty poor, so I use an instant thermometer.  I probe the top part of the bao and look for 195F/ 90.5C.

Should the bao filling be raw or pre-cooked

After many many tests, my preference is to have fillings pre-cooked.  For vegetables, the filling must be precooked, or else the insides will be soggy and flavorless.  For meat, I prefer the filling to be pre-cooked, otherwise the meat tends to become firm or becomes a giant meatball on the inside. I also find you may have to steam your buns longer to ensure the inside filling is cooked.  The statements above are MY opinion, try it out and see what you prefer!

How can I prevent the bao from collapsing after steaming?

The warm wet environment, steam, helped the bao rise.  If you remove the lid too quickly, the baos may deflate due to the cooler temperatures.  After the bao has been cooked, I will turn off the heat to the steamer and allow everything (steamer lid, baskets, bao, etc) to sit undisturbed for ~10 minutes.

How to reheat steamed buns for tenderness? (Baos will become firm and hard when cooled)

Place in a microwave with a cup of water and reheat for ~30 seconds or re-steam for 5 minutes.

Recommended storage for cooked steamed bao

Store in an air tight container in the fridge up to 3 days or in the freezer for longer term storage.

How to fold steamed bao (the easy way)

How to Fold Steamed Bao

Follow this link for Asian/ BBQ fusion recipe for Jalapeno Popper with Brisket Steamed Bao, or as I like to call it Texas Twinkie Steamed Bao.

Steamed Bao

SmellaQue Perfected Basic Steamed Bao/ Mantou

Basic steamed bao recipe for your desired filling


Bao/ Mantou Dough

  • 1 ½ teaspoon instant yeast
  • ¾ cup /175g warm water 110F
  • 2 ¼ cup 348g white unbleached flour
  • ¼ cup white sugar more to taste
  • ¼ teaspoon table salt more to taste
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ¼ cup /39g cornstarch
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 3 cups of seasoned and cooked meat or/and vegetable filling


Prepare Bao / Mantou Dough

  • In a measuring cup, add warm water and instant yeast together to start. Yeast will start to foam in about 10 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, in a large food processor or stand mixer with dough hook, pulse or mix together flour, white sugar, table salt, baking powder and cornstarch.
  • Pulse canola oil into the dry ingredients in the food processor.
  • While food processor or stand mixer is running, slowly pour in the yeast water mixture, ensuring all contents are added mixed in.
  • Wet sticky dough should form. Knead for 5 minutes
  • Place dough into a large bowl in a warm area of the kitchen, cover and allow to proof 1 hour.
  • Once the dough has doubled in size, place dough onto floured surface and divide dough into 8 equal pieces (for jumbo bao/ buns) or 12 or 16 equal pieces.
  • Place each dough piece onto a small parchment square, cover again and allow to proof 1 hour.

Bao Folding and Steaming

  • Gently flatten dough and roll out edges, allowing the middle section to be slightly thicker than the edges (1/8” thick).
    Steam Bao Folding - thinner edge than in the middle
  • Place flattened dough in the palm of your less dominant hand.
    Steamed Bao Folding - place flattened dough in palm of hand
  • Place a spoonful of the filling into the center of the bao, pinch the center bottom edges together.
    Steamed Bao Folding - pinch center bottom edges together
  • Bring outer edges to the middle to pinch downwards into the middle.
    Steamed Bao Folding - fold in outer edges downwards in the middle
  • Continue to pinch outer edges to the middle in downwards motion.
    Steamed Bao Folding - fold in outer edges downwards in the middle
  • Seal the top of the bao in towards the center downwards.
    Steamed Bao Folding - seal the last remaining opening downwards into the center
  • Place filled bao onto parchment and into steamer.
    Steamed Bao Folding - Seal opening
  • When steamer basket is full, steam for 20-25 minutes or until the dough registers 195F on an instant read thermometer.

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