I don’t know what magic was at work, but apparently, I once had all the time in the world. I know this because I have vivid memories of spending countless hours in the kitchen happily infusing oils, kneading dough, hand-making fussy little morsels without a care. Case in point: I went through a phase of making dim sum—every sort of Chinese dumpling from deep-fried wontons to char siu bao (steamed bbq pork buns)—from scratch on a regular basis, like I was someone’s Chinese grandma.
In need of some kitchen inspiration recently, I pulled out some of my old dim sum recipes, but was instantly put off by how time-consuming they were. Clearly, times have changed. Alas, the bee had entered my bonnet and, like it or not, I was making Char Siu Bao for my family, but I had to find a quicker way.
The traditional filling—pork in a rich, salty-sweet sauce—requires an overnight marinade and long, slow cooking on a barbecue. Marinating was easy enough—mixing up seasonings and meat (I had cleverly asked the butcher to cube the meat for me) and refrigerating overnight—but there was no way I was going to tend a barbecue all day. Instead, I transferred the marinated meat to a slow cooker and let it cook all day. When done, the meat was fork tender and to my delight, it even had those delectable blackened bits in places where the meat was sticking out of the liquid during cooking.
Then there was the bun. My old standby recipe required a 12- to 15-hour cold rise. I opted instead for a quick-rise recipe that included baking powder. After some testing, I settled on a 1-hour countertop rise. To simplify things even more, instead of filling the buns prior to cooking, I made “fold-over” buns—empty buns ready to be stuffed to taste by diners. This not only saved me the effort of filling and forming each bun, it also meant that I could make the buns while the meat and sauce were finishing.
From start to finish, the active time for this char siu bao recipe—including meat, sauce, and buns—is less than 40 minutes, with the first 10 (marinating the meat) done the night before. Is it worth it? Tooootallllly. Now if only I could get back all those wasted hours of my youth.
For the filling
- ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons honey
- 4 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 4 1/2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
- 3 tablespoons shaoxing or mirin rice wine
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 3/4 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
- 2 ½ pounds boneless pork butt, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
For the buns
- 1 envelope (1 ½ teaspoons) active dry yeast
- ¾ cup warm tap water, plus additional as needed
- 2 tablespoons plus a pinch sugar, divided
- 2 tablespoons neutral flavored oil such as grapeseed, sunflower seed, or safflower, plus more for oiling the bowl
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 ½ cups (12 ½ ounces) all-purpose flour
- 4 scallions, thinly sliced
- Hot chili oil
- To make the filling, combine the honey, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, garlic, and five-spice powder in a large bowl and stir to combine well. Add the meat and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight. Transfer to a slow cooker and cook on low for 10 hours or on high for 6 hours, until the meat is very tender.
- When the meat is cooked, transfer it from the slow cooker to a bowl using a slotted spoon. Spoon off excess oil from the sauce in the slow cooker. If you have time, transfer the sauce to a glass container and chill it in the refrigerator or freezer to help the fat separate out of the sauce (cover and refrigerate the meat as well if it won’t be served for more than 30 minutes.) Spoon off and discard the layer of fat that solidifies on the top. Transfer the sauce to a saucepan and bring to a boil. Let simmer for several minutes to reduce the sauce a bit. A few minutes before serving, add the cornstarch and water mixture to the boiling sauce and cook, stirring, until the sauce thickens, about 2 minutes. Add the reserved meat to the sauce and cook, stirring, until heated through.
- To make the buns, in a glass measuring cup with a spout, combine the ¾ cup warm water, yeast, and pinch of sugar. Stir to combine. Let sit for 10 minutes or so, until the mixture is frothy. Stir in 2 tablespoons oil.
- Combine the flour, baking powder, and the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer, Cuisinart, or a large bowl and mix to combine. With the mixer running (or while stirring by hand) add the yeast mixture in a slow, steady stream, mixing until the dough comes together in a ragged ball. The dough should hold together and be a bit sticky to the touch. If needed, add an additional 1 to 4 teaspoons of warm water while mixing. Turn the dough out onto a board and knead by hand 3 or 4 times to form a nice, smooth ball.
- Oil a large bowl and place the dough in it, turning once to coat with oil. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap directly onto the dough. Set in a warm place, such as on your kitchen countertop, and let rise for 1 hour, during which time it should at least double in size.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and split it into to 2 roughly equal-sized pieces. Roll each piece into a log and, using a knife, cut each log into 8 roughly equal-sized pieces. Roll each piece into a ball and then, using a rolling pin, roll each into an oval about 3 inches wide by 4 ½ inches long and ¼-inch thick. Fold each oval in half to make a semi-circle. Set each bun on a small square of parchment paper.
- To cook the buns, place them in a steamer basket (Don’t crowd the basket as the buns will puff up as they cook and will stick together if they are too close. You may need to cook them in several batches. If you have stacking bamboo baskets, you can stack 3 baskets at a time.) Set the steamer over boiling water and cook for about 10 minutes.
- Serve the buns with the meat and allow diners to fill their own. If desired, offer sliced scallions and/or hot chili oil to garnish.
- Note: The meat can be made a day or two ahead and kept in the refrigerator, or it can be frozen for up to 3 months. Heat up on the stovetop before serving.
- The buns can also be made ahead and refrigerated for up to 2 days or frozen for up to 3 months. To serve, steam them until the are soft and hot throughout. Microwaving is not ideal, but if you wish to heat up one or two buns quickly, it will do. Wet the buns slightly, wrap in a paper towel, and microwave on high for about 30 seconds.
Amount Per Serving Calories 670 Total Fat 44g Saturated Fat 12g Trans Fat 0g Unsaturated Fat 29g Cholesterol 122mg Sodium 1927mg Carbohydrates 24g Fiber 2g Sugar 10g Protein 38g