Thursday, February 28, 2013

Steamed breads

When I really started getting serious about cooking Chinese food, some of the first things I mastered were the steamed breads and buns of North China. The reasons were simple: I had been making bread for years and years, so yeast dough posed little terror for me. And maybe even more important, my husband grew up on these, so he'd get all misty-eyed whenever I threw some dough into the steamer, especially if there was some milk powder mixed in, just like he used to have them when he was a kid.

There's really no trick to these versatile little breads: this is straight-up bread making, only the dough is formed into little buns that are cooked in a steamer instead of formed into loaves. If you have a heavy-duty mixer with a dough hook, life becomes even simpler. And, once you master this basic recipe, you can then do all sorts of interesting things with it by changing the color and flavor, layering sesame paste or green onions in it (huājuǎn, or flower rolls), decorating the top of a big bread wheel with Chinese dates, filling the buns with sweet or savory stuffings (bāozi), kneading in green tea powder or nuts and grains, baking or frying them rather than steaming... the possibilities are endless, but over the next few months I'll do my best to make a dent in this delicious repertoire.

Shandong is the renowned center for steamed breads, and it bears its mantle well. I got to enjoy some of its many varieties when I lived on the outskirts of Taipei, as every morning a retired old soldier from Shandong would bike down my alley, singing out “Baozi mantou!” His bike was incredibly rusted and squeaky, and so I could hear him a few minutes before he hit my alley, giving me just enough time to get some cash together and rush outside. Sweet Mr. Liu would greet me with a big grin and shout out “Taitai!” (Madam) when he saw me, and his bike would lurch to a stop with a huge squeal.

Ready for kneading
Without even needing to hop off, he would turn around and fish into the wooden crate jerry-rigged behind his seat, peel back the clean white cloth that kept his steamed breads warm and fresh, and would count out into a plastic bag whatever I wanted that day: tan sweet mantou, plain white breads, the round buns filled with pork, and the triangular ones stuffed with red bean paste. I loved them all, and he would always throw in an extra one for good luck.

One day when I got back from a vacation, I ran out to buy some of his mantou and baozi as usual, and found that he was quite upset. “Where were you?” he asked, almost tearfully. “I thought you were mad at me!” And that was the way it was with all of my lovely food people; if I didn’t show up for three days, I’d get an earful the next time around.

Who needs Jewish guilt when you can have the Chinese version?

Plain steamed buns 
Mántóu 饅頭 
Makes 12 to 16 buns

2 teaspoons yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1¼ cups warm filtered water
3 cups good quality Korean bread flour, plus ¼ cup for kneading (or, 2 cups all-purpose organic flour mixed with 1 cup pastry flour, and ¼ cup all-purpose flour for kneading)
2 tablespoons milk powder, optional but good
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
Toasted sesame oil as needed 

Kneaded & shaped
1. Start this the night before, if you can, as this gives the dough time to develop more flavor as it rises in the fridge. If not, start at least 4 hours before you want to serve the mantou. Place the water in a measuring cup and sprinkle on the yeast and sugar. Give the yeast time to wake up and foam, about 20 minutes; if it is not foamy by that time, the yeast is too old and you’ll have to buy a new batch (see Tips).

2. Pour the flour, milk, salt, and the yeast mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer (see Tips for doing this by hand) with a paddle attachment. Mix the ingredients together until it forms a dough, and then switch out the paddle attachment for a dough hook. Knead the dough with the mixer until it is smooth and shiny, adding more flour if necessary.

3. Lightly dust a flat surface with some flour and turn the dough out on the board. Knead the dough for about 5 minutes; when it is as soft and supple as an earlobe, clean out the mixing bowl, dry it thoroughly, and rub a bit of sesame oil all over the inside. Place the dough in the bowl, turn the dough over a couple of times so that it is completely coated, cover it with plastic wrap, and let the dough rise either on the kitchen counter for a couple of hours or in the refrigerator for about 8 hours, or until the dough is at least double in size. Check to see that the dough is ready by inserting two of your fingers deep into the top of the dough; if the holes remain after a minute or two, the dough is ready to be punched down. Smack it with your fist to break all of the bubbles in the dough, cover it again, and let it rise again until double, this time on the kitchen counter, since the dough will be easier to work with if it isn’t cold.

4. Sprinkle the baking powder on top of the dough and turn the dough over on top of the powder so that the baking powder is completely enclosed in the dough. Turn the dough out onto a flat surface and knead it again for a few minutes, dusting the dough with a bit more flour as needed to keep it from sticking. Prepare enough 2 x 2 inch wax paper squares, flattened cupcake liners, or Chinese mantou doilies for the number of mantou you are planning to make (i.e., 12 to 16).

Fully risen
5. Roll the dough out into a long rope, either 12 or 16 inches long. Use a knife or pastry scraper to cut the dough into 1-inch pieces of equal size. You can leave the dough in brick shapes or decorate them with knotting or slicing or pinching; see the top photo for one idea. Place each piece of dough on one of the prepared pieces of paper. Cover the dough with a clean tea towel and let the mantou rise until they are double in size. While the dough is rising, prepare a double basket steamer and bring the water to a full boil under the steamer, giving the steamer baskets the chance to heat up thoroughly before the mantou are added. Place the mantou on their papers in the steamers so that they are an inch apart. Stack and cover the steamer baskets and steam them for around 15 minutes. Then, turn off the heat and let the steamer cool down for another 10 minutes, which helps keep the mantou puffy.

6. Serve while hot, or let the mantou come to room temperature. They can be refrigerated in a plastic bag or frozen; to reheat, simply steam them again until heated through. (This is preferable to microwaving them, which tends to make them tough.)


Korean bread flour works best here; regular all-purpose is all right, but makes the mantou a bit less tender, so mix in pastry flour to give it just the right amount of gluten.

Some whole wheat flour can be added (as in the picture at the top) to give it extra flavor and color.

Buy yeast at a busy store and check the expiration date. Then, store it in the fridge. If you don't make a whole lot of bread, buy small envelopes of yeast as you need them.

To make this by hand, follow the directions for Silver Thread Rolls up to Step 2.


  1. Hello, I'm so glad I found your blog - what a wonderful site!
    How much wheat flour would you add to make whole wheat mantou? Have you ever tried making mantou with taro root?
    Thank you so much!

    1. You can use as much whole wheat flour as you like, but do remember that the more whole wheat you use, the denser the bread will be. I would start out with half whole wheat and see how you like it.

      Taro steamed bread is the bomb! Should I post a recipe for that?

    2. Oh my gosh, yes please! I would love that. Taro steamed bread is hard to find here. And thank you so much for the whole wheat instructions, I can't wait to give it a try.

    3. Also, will the mantou recipes be in your book? I can't wait until it comes out! It's difficult to find good recipes in English (although maybe if if food vocabulary had been taught in Chinese language classes instead...) - thank you again!

    4. Actually, I think that food vocabulary should be one of the first things that is taught in language classes, especially when it comes to Chinese. I knew one student in Taipei who existed on beef noodle soup for months because it was the only dish he could say in Mandarin.

      Yes, the mantou will be in the cookbook, and I'll post a taro steamed bread recipe before long. Thanks for the idea and the kind words. Keep in touch...

  2. Hi can I ask how long does steamed mantou last in e fridge? Tq in adv

    1. I'd guesstimate around 3 days if the mantou were completely cooled first.(This cuts down on the surface moisture that encourages mold.) Enclose in a clean, dry bag before refrigerating. Longer than that and I would strongly suggest freezing them, either raw or already steamed.

  3. I tried to look for the Korean bread flour but only found Daehan all purpose flour and Baeksan all purpose flour thus far. I will try Korean markets. Any difference between Daehan and Baeksan? The Daehan AP flour has a bear but a lady in the left hand corner - is this the right brand? Thank you for your help.

    1. Excellent research here. Both are very good and seem pretty interchangeable to me. Let me know what you think.

    2. Correction - it's Baeksul AP flour. Lower priced Baeksul was still clumpy after sifting and would unclump after using a spoon as opposed to the higher quality clumpless Daehan's Gompyo AP flour.

      I would like to make Tang Zhong from this blogger's receipe She listed bread flour - would I use American bread flour or Korean AP flour? If Korean AP flour, would I need to tweak and add any other flour? Same question for french bread and zucchini bread using bread flour. Thanks for your help!

    3. I showed the picture of your Korean flour to a Korean lady and she said it was AP flour.

      The following website discusses the flour. It is hard to discern the Korean words in your picture.

      강력 밀가루 is Bread flour

      중력 밀가루 is AP flour (I have this Gompyo AP flour).

  4. I'm curious about the use of baking powder in Mantou - I'm only a sporadic baker and don't know much about the science behind it. I've read a few different Mantou recipes and they vary in their use and quantity of baking powder. Some omit it entirely, some mix it in with the dry ingredients, and some knead it in just before forming. Tropp states explicitly that it should be mixed in immediately before forming and no earlier, as your recipe does. Also, the recipe here uses half the baking powder of the one printed in AUH. One comment I read somewhere suggested that baking powder would lead to more dimpled Mantou. That seems consistent with my experience - I've made two batches of Mantou so far and they've been very tasty but not perfectly pretty compared to pics I see online. How do you decide how much baking powder to use and when to incorporate it? Does it depend at all on whether the dough will be baked as straight Mantou or be used in Baozi or other buns?

    1. Excellent questions. First, baking powder is added just before forming because it is actually called "double acting baking powder," which means that it starts to bubble as soon as it gets wet, and then again when it is heated. So, if you add the baking powder too early, it fizzes out quickly.

      The amount is not really that important, and you certainly can omit it if you like. Traditional recipes don't include it because it's a Western ingredient that made its way to China comparatively recently. What it does is help give more rise to the mantou or baozi, and sort of guarantee more lightness to the breads.

      There might be more dimpling in the breads because you have more rising action going on as the breads are steamed, and especially if the baking powder is not fully incorporated into the dough. As you might imagine, any crystals in the dough would explode in the heat, causing tiny bubbles.

      Pictures can sometimes be deceiving, thanks to Photoshop! :) Commercial mantou are especially uniform and pretty, but they lack good texture and flavor, so there's a payoff.

      The amount I use depends on experience. I write down what works and play around with the recipe as I go. It's definitely something you should do, too. I like your thoroughness, and thank you for reading AUH. :) The recipes here on the blog do differ from the book simply because the recipes change as I go. Nothing really hard and fast is necessary for any recipe, except for pastries and candies, which are more about chemical reactions than anything else.

      This dough is great steamed, pan-fried, baked, or even deep-fried.

      Let me know if you have any more questions.

  5. Thanks for the insights. I'll give the next batch a try with 1 tsp instead of 2 tsp and see how the results compare.

    That's certainly a good point about Photoshop and food photography in general. And for baking bread in particular, there's often a trade-off between pretty and tasty. I picked up a bag of Chinese flour especially for buns in my last Chinatown trip - it's got little mantou pictured on the package. Looks blindingly white compared to the Korean AP. I'll give that a try some point, but won't be surprised if it loses a little wheaty flavor.

    1. Yeah, I try to avoid the super white flours because, of course, they've been bleached and so have very little flavor. I also am concerned with those overly processed flours since preservatives and GMO wheat and all sorts of questionable things wind their way into the bag. So far the Korean brands have been of excellent quality. Good luck in your baking adventures!