Monday, September 1, 2014

A steamed bread primer

I’ve been making lots of steamed breads lately, especially the filled buns called baozi or bao. But before I start talking about the fillings, I thought I’d provide another quick class on making your own fast-rising bread dough, talk about how to shape the wrappers, and give you a step-by-step guide to filling these buns. Baozi may seem daunting at first, but hang with me, because once you understand their little secrets, you will be making these all the time.

Making flakes
First, and as always, get the right flour. American flour is way too high in gluten to give you a tender crumb. It is so high that I have found the best way to approximate Chinese flour is to use 2 parts all-purpose flour to 1 part pastry flour. Memorize that simple recipe, because that is the key to making Chinese-style pastas and breads. You can also use Korean flour straight out of the bag, since it has around the same amount of gluten as Chinese flour, but of much higher quality. Almost all Chinese breads and pastas call for white flour, so if you want to use whole wheat, first master the basic recipe and then add the whole wheat flour in increments because it will give you a totally different texture.

Second, use the right water. I always filter my water because we have really hard tap water (meaning it’s full of chemicals that give it a harsh taste). If you have a water softener, that will make the water salty, and in that case bottled water will taste better.

Ready to knead
Third, have the right tools. The main things you will need are a very flat surface for kneading and shaping the dough, a pastry scraper, and a Chinese rolling pin. The best place to work on dough in most kitchens will be the underside of your pullout cutting board. Most people forget that the bottom of that whacked up board is smooth, which makes it perfect for this job. (If it has been marred, just sand it down and treat the surface with mineral oil, which will not turn rancid.)

If you are short (about 5’6”/168 cm tall or less), flip the board over and return it to its slot, pulling it out just far enough to give you a stable work surface. If you are tall, wet a dishcloth, place it on your kitchen counter or a very heavy table, and then set the cutting board on top of that – the cloth will help stabilize the board.

Chinese rolling pins can be purchased in just about any Chinese market, hardware store, or kitchen supply shop. If you want to make your own, buy a 12-inch dowel that is 1 inch thick. If it is not perfectly smooth, sand it evenly (including the ends) and coat it with mineral oil; after it has absorbed the oil, wipe the rolling pin dry. Never put wooden implements in the dishwasher, as it dries them out, which will in turn make them crack. Wash your wooden tools by hand, wipe them dry, and then let them air dry before you put them away.

Making pasta and bread dough

Punch it down
Note that when you add cool liquid to the flour in a bowl, you should stir it in until it forms flakes. This makes the dough much easier to work on because you will not have a bunch of wet spots and lots of flour to deal with while you are trying to knead it later on. So, first stir the water into the flour, preferably with chopsticks, which glide through the flakes easily.

The next step consists of kneading the dough. Dump the flakes of dough out onto your board and scoot them together into a pile. Knead these into dough by working them with the heels of your hands (the base of your palm near the wrist) and your fingertips – these are the cooler parts of your hands, while the palms are the hottest. If the dough needs more water, sprinkle it on, rather than pour it. If it is too wet, sprinkle on the flour and work it in. 
Fold over edges

My recipes tend to err on the side of having to need more flour worked in. There is a reason for that: This is much easier to do than to add water, and it will result in a lighter crumb.

As you learn to knead, get into the habit of holding a pastry scraper in your dominant hand to scrape up the dough, corral it into one area, and flip it over. The other hand can do the kneading and the sprinkling of flour. When the dough has come together nicely, put down the scraper and use both hands to knead the dough until it is smooth. You will know it is ready when it no longer sticks to the board or your hands. Check it by pinching a small piece – it should feel like an earlobe.

Raised dough

Fully risen 2nd time
If you are making yeast dough, clean out your work bowl, dry it thoroughly, and rub the inside with some oil. Toss the ball of dough into the bowl so that it is completely coated with a light film of oil, as this will keep the dough from sticking to the bowl. Don’t use too much oil, though, as the dough still needs to have enough traction to climb up the sides of the bowl. Cover the bowl and place it in a warm place out of any drafts.

When the dough has risen enough the first time, you should be able to poke two fingers into the center, and the dough will not immediately close up the holes. Punch down the dough down to deflate it. Then, grab the edges of the dough and fold them toward the center. Flip the dough over, cover the bowl, and let it rise a second time.

After the second rising, the dough is ready to shape. Punch it down, form it into a smooth ball or log as needed, and place it on your lightly floured board. Keep the dough covered whenever you are not working on it.

Next week: How to shape and fill baozi.


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