Have you guys ever tried bao? If you have, I think you know why this is one of life’s most special foods. If you haven’t, the way I would describe them to the average American would be to say “bao are a type of bread, kind of like a hamburger buns, only they’re steamed instead of baked, they’re a little bit more dense, and they often have fillings at their center, kind of like stuffed donuts.”
Of course, you’re no Average American. So if I were to go a little more in-depth on the subject I would say that bao originated in China, sometime around the years 200-300 AD. Nowadays, steamed buns have spread over to many Asian cuisines, where they’re now popular in Cantonese, Vietnamese, and Taiwanese culinary traditions. In fact, one popular Taiwanese adaptation, known as gua bao, is what we’re making today; gua bao differs from banh bao, a round steamed bun with fillings in the center, as gua bao folds around its fillings more like a taco than a stuffed donut.
If you’ve never ate one before, then it’s your duty to find one and put it in your mouth before you even contemplate making this recipe. Why? Because bao have a very specific texture and shape, and if you’ve never ate one, you won’t know how to hit the mark while making this recipe!
If you’re familiar with bao, then you’re probably under the impression that they’re not the easiest things to make, and you would be right. I mean, any yeast dough requires patience, instincts, and an eye for what’s right, but if you’ve made a handful of bread, donuts, or cinnamon rolls in your time then this won’t be anything out of the ordinary for you. The only asterisk in this project is that you will need some special equipment – particularly a steamer. Not just any steamer will do the trick though because we need to steam more than a handful of bao at a time, which would easily fill up the floor of one steamer. The solution? A multi-layered steamer. Such steamers aren’t all that expensive, plus there’s a cheaper, more traditional option to metal steamers: bamboo steamers. You can typically find them in Oriental markets around ten dollars or you could just get ’em off of Amazon. In fact, I found the exact same one we bought at a local Oriental market on Amazon for just $17, so I’ll just leave that link right here for ya.
As far as fillings go, the traditional choices are far from from vegan; the most popular choice is slow-cooked pork belly with hoisin sauce, cucumbers, and scallions, made famous by David Chang. Because it’s fall and we are indeed vegan, we figured we’ll make use of those special fruits in season for a short period of time: winter squash. As we said in a previous post, most winter squashes are interchangeable, but to stick with the Asian theme we got going on we’re using kabocha squash for this application, which is also known as a “Japanese pumpkin.” Other fillings are kept minimal with thinly sliced fresh cucumber and a caramelized allium marmalade, which is really nothing more than heavily caramelized onions, shallots, and garlic blended into a paste. Talk about an umami blast.
We hope you guys find it in your hearts to experiment in the kitchen this Fall. Sure, steamed buns aren’t the quickest meal to make, but when you’re biting into those impeccably fluffy, moist, and chewy buns with crispy squash, fresh cucumber, and the most umami-rich spread you’ve ever tasted, you’ll know deep down that you leveled up as a home cook.
Get That Dough,
Fluffy Gua Bao with Beer Battered Kabocha Squash, Fresh Cucumber, and Caramelized Allium Marmalade (vegan)
A rewarding meal for a patient cook.
- 360 g (3 c) all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 tbsp powdered sugar
- 1 1/2 tbsp charcoal (optional)
- 1 tsp instant yeast
- 3/4 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp melted coconut oil
- 4 oz soy milk
- 3.5 oz water
Caramelized Allium Marmalade
- 2 medium yellow onions, finely diced
- 2 shallots, finely diced
- 8 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 3 tbsps sesame oil, divided
- 1 tsp salt, divided
Beer Battered Squash
- 1/4 japanese squash, skin removed and cut into slices about 1/4 inch thick
- 75 g all-purpose flour
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp baking powder
- 1/8 tsp white pepper
- 6 oz light beer (Asahi, Stella, or Kirin work well)
- 1/4 c tapioca or cornstarch
- thinly sliced fresh cucumber
- Sriracha sauce (optional)
- Bao: Heat coconut oil, soy milk, and water in a small pot over low heat until warm to the touch (about 115° F). Whisk together dry ingredients in stand-up mixer bowl. Add in most of wet ingredients and knead on low speed with a dough hook until dough comes together; it should be moist but not so sticky that it clings to your fingers. If it’s too crumbly or dry to the touch, add the rest of the liquid. Boost speed to medium and knead for 10 minutes on medium speed.
- Unhook dough, form into a bowl, spray down bowl with a touch of oil, and allow to rise until doubled size; about 45 minutes.
- Gently push air out of the dough and roll it into a log. Using a scale, cut 45 gram chunks of dough off the log (yes, you really do want to be specific here). Shape each chunk into a ball then press and roll each ball into a round about 3 inches in circumference.
- Place each bao on a small parchment square about 3 in x 3 in. Fold each bao over on itself, thus folding it in half, and press down lightly so that they don’t unfold later. Lay out the bao and their parchment squares in a layered steamer – preferably bamboo – and let them rise until doubled in size; about 20 minutes.
- Find a pot about the same size or a little bit smaller than your steamer and fill it up with a couple inches of water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Place steamer on top, reduce heat to medium-high, and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and store in steamer for at least 10 minutes before serving.
- Caramelized Allium Marmalade: In a medium-large sauté pan, cook onions with 2 tablespoons of oil and 1/2 teaspoon of salt over medium-low heat for 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so. Reduce heat to low and cook for another 15 minutes.
- Add in shallots, garlic, rest of oil and salt, and cook until onions are deep brown, greatly reduced, and very sweet; another 30-45 minutes.
- Blend in a personal blender cup or mini-food processor until mostly smooth; add a touch of water if needed to get blender to spin.
- Beer Battered Squash: Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add in squash slices and cook for 6 minutes. Transfer squash to a boil of ice water to shock then set aside.
- In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together flour through white pepper. Add in beer and whisk until batter just comes together and is mostly smooth; don’t over-mix.
- Dredge squash in starch, shake off excess, dip in batter, shake off excess, and fry in 375° F oil until golden brown; about 1 min 15 sec. Work in small batches to ensure the temperature doesn’t drop drastically; 3-4 batches should do.
- Transfer to a draining rig and sprinkle with a pinch of salt.
- Assembling: Open up bao, spread a little allium marmalade on one side, place a slice or two of squash and cucumber in the middle, and top with a touch of Sriracha if desired. Enjoy while fresh! Store bao in the fridge for up to 4 days and reheat in the steamer until warm.