Baked Chinese BBQ Pork Buns (Char Siu Bao 叉燒包)

By Charleen - July 07, 2022

There is nothing quite like biting into hot, golden-brown burnished buns filled with succulent, salty and mildly sweet chunks of Chinese barbecue pork. A perfect marriage of Western-influenced yeasty milk bread and traditional Cantonese roast pork, we seek out this inexpensive, hand-held meal whenever we visit a Chinatown -- whether in LA, Boston, Vancouver, San Francisco, New York or D.C. Imagine our delight when we first tried making these at home and they came out beautiful and totally delicious! Over the years, we have compared several dough recipes and developed a pork-zucchini version for a more balanced hand-held meal.

Our first batch of homemade Chinese bbq pork buns in 2018
It all starts with homemade char siu pork
Char siu pork in milk bread buns

Perhaps nothing is as emblematic of a perfect East-West fusion as the Chinese Bakery. Traditional Chinese homes did not have ovens, which utilize a great deal of fuel. As a result, people would go to the bakery to pick up roasted meats. Alongside the whole roasted ducks and chickens are the red-tinted slabs of Chinese barbecued pork, or char siu 叉燒, which literally means fork-roasted. The sauce permeates and roasts into the meat, leaving a finger-friendly, dry surface and tender, flavorful interior. Char siu can be enjoyed straight from the broiler or grill, and it forms the starting ingredient for a wide variety of delicious dishes. It is often enjoyed as a hand-held snack enveloped in a white, fluffy steamed bun -- a filling staple of push cart dim sum tea parlors called char siu bao 叉燒包.

Chinese bakeries, found across the US and Canada in areas with a Chinese population, may have gotten started in westernized regions of Asia such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, adding baked buns, cakes and pastries to their repertoire. 

For the past 38 years, we have enjoyed baked Chinese treats from the Hong Kong Bakery in Torrance, CA. From top left: Red-dyed char siu pork, filling of coconut bun, fruit tarts and cakes, plate with egg tart, baked char siu bao, coconut bun, steamed duck bun, sesame ball and fried rice flour pork dumpling.

The egg custard tart, a definite East-West fusion, is a bakery favorite, along with steamed Cantonese dumplings (siu mai) and steamed cakes and breads made with either wheat or rice flour. It is also possible to obtain the most delectably decorated western style layer cakes at most Chinese bakeries. However, for our family, the highlight of a trip to the Chinese bakery has always been the baked Chinese bbq pork bun, or char siu bao 叉燒包. This hearty snack features juicy cubes of pork in a sticky, salty-sweet dark-brown sauce, all hidden within soft, yeasty buns with a burnished golden-brown top.

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     Dough for bbq pork buns
     Filling for pork-zucchini buns

Versions of char siu bao

Although the steamed version of 叉燒包 that is served inside restaurants and tea parlors are delicious, they pale in comparison to the baked version. 

Whenever we venture near a Chinatown, or in suburban areas with an Asian population, we seek out Chinese bakeries just to get the baked pork buns. These golden-brown, soft yeasty buns with just a hint of sweetness can also be filled with hot dogs, or a delicious buttery coconut-laden paste for a sweet approach. Ideally, however, they are packed full of succulent salty-sweet, juicy cubes of pork. Unfortunately, some bakeries have moved more and more to a finely shredded filling visually reminiscent of sawdust. The best version we have had recently is at the Phoenix Bakery in the Los Angeles Chinatown. While there, check out their almond cookies, too!

Making our own meat filling using Grace Young's fantastic recipe for bbq pork quickly surpassed the bakery versions, and we even created a modified pork and zucchini filling for improved nutrition. It was also relatively easy to achieve the beautiful, burnished golden-brown tops of the buns, however, replicating the pillowy soft bakery texture has been more challenging. 

#1. The first recipe we tried involves making the traditional flour roux, or tangzhong 湯種) that is stirred into the dough. The recipe can be found by scrolling to the "Old Version of the Recipe" at the Woks of Life website. The yeast we used was on the old side and we really enjoyed the texture of this bread, although ironically, we did not like it as much when we made it later with fresher yeast. 

Dough #1 has a beautiful appearance, but was not quite the texture we were looking for

#2. Next we tried the milk bread recipe from the Woks of Life, which uses a mixture of bread flour and cake flour, resulting in a paler bun with more of a firm, bread-like texture. These were more elastic, and harder to wrap, resulting in a higher bread to meat ratio. 

Dough #2 mades more of a bread-like bun

We decided we need to perform a direct head to head taste test, gathering together our local Dumpling Club members to compare #1 and #2. Of course, exactly half of the group preferred #1 and the other half preferred #2. 

Dough #1 on the left, and #2 on the right

#3. We also tried the bun recipe from the Omnivore's Cookbook, although we did not try her filling. This dough will stick to your hands in the beginning, but becomes easier to handle once you have a light coat of oil on your hands. Like pizza dough, you can use gravity to help stretch out the circle. These buns did not have sufficient strength, and filling ruptured out of many of them as they baked. 

Dough #3 was easy to wrap, but did not brown well and was too fragile to hold the filling
Dough #3 yielded the soft texture of bakery buns

There are additional dough recipes that we have not yet tried, including that of Carolyn Phillips, but for now, we have made some modifications to the milk bread recipe and are happy with it. 

Making baked Chinese BBQ pork buns

Making Char Siu (Chinese BBQ Pork)

As a shortcut, you can buy char siu from a Chinese bakery, but it is so easy to make in the home using Grace Young's Chinese Barbecued Pork recipe. 

As described in a previous post focusing on Char Siu, the meat is not only fragrant, juice and tasty eaten fresh from the broiler, but also highly verstatile as an ingredient to elevate a variety of other dishes.  Some recipes call for a small 4 oz (w) portion, but I most often prefer to add 8-10 oz (w) of cut up char siu.  For 24 medium size bbq pork buns, you will need about 12-14 oz (w) of cooked pork.

The key to great char siu is getting the proper sauces, cutting the slabs thin enough that they will be cooked through, and cooking at least twice as much as you think you will need! 

In addition to dark and regular soy sauces, there is the sweet dark red-brown hoisin sauce and brown bean sauce. The brown nutty toasted sesame oil, ground white pepper, and honey rounds out the flavor profile, along with either Shaoxing rice wine or a dry sherry. Some recipes call for some five spice powder, but that is not a flavor profile I associate with bbq pork.

The recipe below supports a 3-4.5 pound pork shoulder. While the pork is in the broiler, I simmer the marinade in a small saucepan until it is thick enough to form a nice sauce. 

Char Siu Pork Recipe (modified from Grace Young)
3.5-4.5 pounds of bone-in pork shoulder (3-4 pounds of meat)
2 Tbs sugar
2 Tbs soy sauce
Tbs hoisin sauce
2 Tbs dark soy sauce
2 Tbs Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
2 Tbs Chinese bean sauce
2 tsp sesame oil
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
Optional: Honey for drizzling (~2 Tbs)

1. Cut away the meat from the bones and slice into roughly 1-inch thick slices or slabs. Trim excess fat if desired. Rub meat with sugar and set aside.
    Optional - make cracklings from the fat to snack on. Filter the rendered lard through cheesecloth or paper towels and place in freezer for future use. Freeze the bone for stock, or marinate and roast along with the meat. 

2. In glass baking dish mix the next 6 ingredients from soy sauce to white pepper. Add the meat in a single layer, turning to coat both sides. Marinate for 4 h to overnight, turning the pork a few times.

3. Let pork come to room temperature for at least 1/2 hr. Place broiler rack about 4 inches from the heating element. Preheat broiler to high. Add water until it just covers the bottom of a half-sheet pan. Place pork in a single layer with a bit of space in between each piece on top of a wire rack. 

4. Carefully transfer to the oven. Broil for 10 minutes. Carefully remove from oven remembering the hot water in the pan. Turn the pork over and drizzle with honey. Broil for an additional 7-10 minutes until the thickest piece is cooked to 155°-165°F. 
    Meanwhile, simmer the sauce in a wok or saucepan until it is as thick as you like. 

5. Let cool for 10 min, slice and serve warm or at room temperature with rice and the sauce made from concentrating the marinade.

Freeze leftovers into 8 oz (w) packages for Barbecued Pork Lo Mein from Stir-frying to the Sky's Edge, or into 4 oz (w) packages for Auntie Betty's Cellophane noodles, mushrooms and bbq pork from The Breath of a Wok, or 10-12 oz packages for char siu bao bbq pork buns. 

Making Dough for Baked Char Siu Bao

This recipe is based on the milk bread recipe, with a few key changes. It is unclear which change has now made this dough our favorite. The first change, is that we simply used all-purpose flour, but found we had to add an extra cup of flour. The second is that we used a stand mixer, and the third is that we let the dough rest for longer than the hour in the recipe, while we ate BBQ pork and baby bok choy lo mein, before wrapping and letting it rise for a second hour. This last factor undoubtedly helped the dough relax enough that it was easy to roll out large circles to facilitate wrapping.

Chinese Bakery Bread Recipe (modified from Woks of Life) - makes 24 buns
1 cup (237 ml) heavy cream (room temperature)
1.5 cup plus 1.5 Tbs (375 ml) milk (room temperature)
1.5 large eggs, beaten (room temperature, beat 2 and weigh out 3/4 of it; use remainder for egg wash)
112.5 g of sugar
6-7 cups of all-purpose flour
1.5 Tbs active dry yeast
2 1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp water to blend with remaining egg for egg wash
Optional: sesame seeds

1. Add first 7 ingredients in order (cream to salt, but only 6 cups of flour to start) to a stand mixer bowl. Using the dough hook, stir for 15 min, occasionally stopping to push dough down sides. If necessary, add more flour, a quarter cup at a time if dough is too sticky.
2. Cover the bowl with a damp towel and allow to proof in a warm area for 1 h. 

3. Place dough back in mixer and stir for 5 min to remove air bubbles. Weigh the dough and divide by 24 buns. It should be about 70 g per bao.
4. Roll each 70 g portion of dough out into a circle on a lightly floured surface, concentrating on getting the edges thinner than the center. Place 40-50 g of filling in the center of the circle, being careful not to touch the edges. Start pleating the edges, following around as the opening shrinks until you can pinch it closed. If you have trouble closing it, use less flour when rolling out.
5. Place seam side down on a half-sheet pan that has been greased or covered with parchment paper or Silpat.  You will be able to fit 8 on each pan to give room for rising.

6. Allow to rise for 1 h. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350°F.

7. Brush the tops with beaten egg wash and sprinkle optional sesame seeds on top. 

8. Bake for 15-20 min until golden brown. The first batch will take the longest, so watch subsequent batches carefully.

Making Filling for Baked Char Siu Bao

While most of us love the baked char siu bao, my daughter felt it was too heavy in meat. Over the years, I have found that zucchini has a nice neutral flavor that makes it very versatile for adding vegetables to all kinds of food, from my dad's chili mac recipe to char siu bao.  At the above mentioned bread taste test party, I chopped up zucchini into similar sized cubes as the char siu and it was a hit! 

Char siu pork, zucchini, red onion filling

Baked Char Siu Bao Filling with Zucchini
Cooking oil
1 small red onion, chopped (3/4 cup)
1/2-1 medium zucchini, diced
3 Tbs sugar
2 Tbs soy sauce
3 Tbs oyster sauce
1.5 Tbs dark soy sauce
2 Tbs sesame oil
1 cup water
4.5 Tbs flour
12-15 oz char siu roast pork, diced

1. Heat 1-2 Tbs oil in a wok or large skillet over medium high heat.  Cook onion for a few minutes and then add zucchini. Cook until onions are translucent and zucchini is tender. 

2. Add sugar, all sauces and sesame oil and cook, stirring, until it is bubbling. Add the stock and then sprinkle on the flour. 

3. Reduce heat to medium to medium-low and cook, stirring, until thickened. Remove from heat and stir in roast pork. Let cool and then weigh. Divide into 24 portions (~40-50 g) 

Wrapping and Baking Char Siu Bao

Once the dough is ready, you can start wrapping the buns. 

1. Weigh the proofed, punched down dough and divide the weight by 24 (~70 g). Keeping the dishtowel over the unused dough to prevent it from drying out, shape small balls of dough at this weight.

2. Pinch, rotate, and shape into a circle. Using a rolling pin, roll around the edges to spread into a 4.5-5 inch circle, keeping the center thicker.  The edges can be thinner as they will be pinched together.

3. Place the weighed filling in the center, avoiding the edges. For right handers: Starting at the right edge, stretch the dough upwards, and gather a little pleat to squeeze with it. Lift away from the filling but towards the center, as you pleat around counterclockwise.  The opening will shrink as you go around until you can gather all the edges to encase the filling.

4. Place buns on the baking sheet at least 1 inch apart. Allow to rise for 1 h.  

5. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350°F.  Grease or place parchment paper or silpat on 2-3 large half-sheet baking sheets or broiler pans. 

6. Brush top of buns with beaten egg and sprinkle with optional sesame seeds. Bake for 15-20 min until buns are golden brown.  Let rest for at least 5 min and serve warm or at room temperature.  

Love2Chow Tips:
🐾 It works well to use leftover char siu barbecue pork, as you can enjoy eating the freshly roasted (broiled) pork, and then on the day of wrapping, you just have to make the dough, make the filling while the dough is proofing, wrap, bake and eat!

🍃 There are several possible culinary treasures you can make from parts normally discarded from the pork shoulder. If you choose to trim off some of the thicker fat, make cracklings in a small frying pan, drain, sprinkle with seasonings of choice, and snack on them!  I usually pour the contents of the pan through a metal funnel supporting cheesecloth or paper towels into a small glass jar.  The filtered lard can be placed in the freezer, and it stays soft enough to scoop out without much thawing. Freeze the bone along with any trimmings from vegetables (onion, celery, carrot ends, mushroom stems, etc) to make stock in the future.


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