Thank you to Bob’s Red Mill for sponsoring this post!
If you’ve ever eaten Peking duck at Cantonese restaurants, you’ll be familiar with lotus leaf steamed buns (he ye bao,荷葉包). They are soft steamed buns (or bao) that are folded in half. That way, you can fill the buns with filling like meat and vegetables to serve.
These lotus leaf buns are also used as the vessel for gua bao (割包). Gua bao is a dish that originated in China’s Fujian Province but made popular with Taiwanese street food. The filling of gua bao usually consists of braised pork, preserved vegetables, and a few other toppings.
In this vegetarian version, I am filling the buns with my pan-fried teriyaki tofu and a few quick pickled vegetables.
The key to success for the teriyaki tofu gua bao are getting the steamed buns right. It all starts with the flour for the dough. Here, I used Bob’s Red Mill’s Organic Unbleached White All-Purpose Flour, which yields steamed buns with a nice light color. The dough has great elasticity so that the shaping of the buns was quite simple. Once steamed, the buns were light and fluffy, just the way I like them.
The trickiest part about making the bao is the steaming. It took me 9 or 10 tries to get these bao right, so I have a lot of tips to share!
TERIYAKI TOFU GUA BAO COOKING NOTES
MAKING THE DOUGH
The dough needs to be leavened to give the bao a soft texture when steamed. I tried several types of leavening agents: dry yeast, instant yeast, and baking powder. During my recipe testing, I found that I liked the results of dry yeast the most. The bao gets great flavor from the yeast and the texture of the bao is light and fluffy.
When testing this teriyaki tofu gua bao recipe, I mistakenly added too much sugar to the dough. I thought the bao tasted great with 1/4 cup of sugar. However, that amount of sugar makes the yeast too active. As a result, air bubbles formed in the bao after steaming them.
For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. Then it finally dawned on me that I was using too much sugar. One tablespoon of sugar in this recipe will be sufficient.
SHAPING THE BAO
Once the dough has proved for an hour, punch down the dough to get rid of the excess air. Then, divide the dough into 12 pieces of about 43g to 45 grams each. Take each piece of dough, shape it into a ball, and roll out into an oval of about 4.5 inches long and 3 to 3.5 inches wide. Lightly dab the surface of the dough with oil, fold in half, and place the bao into a bamboo steamer basket.
I steam the buns 4 at a time to get consistent results. You can stack 2 steamer baskets and cook 8 at a time.
As the first batch of buns are steaming, the dough will rise again. In order to prevent the unshaped dough from overproving, I usually leave the dough in a bowl, cover it with a damp towel or plastic wrap, and let it sit in the refrigerator. This will slow down the proving process.
USING A STEAMER BASKET
I highly recommend using a bamboo steamer basket to steam the bao. Because the lids of these steamers are made of woven bamboo, the steam will either get absorbed by the bamboo lid or escape from the sides and the top. This is important to creating steamed buns with a smooth surface.
For one of my test batches, I steamed the buns with my wok that had a glass lid. A lot of condensation built up on the lid and dripped back onto the buns, causing “burn marks” on the buns (see photo above bottom row, left). What I should have done was tie a large towel around the lid so that it absorbs the steam as it rises.
COOKING AT THE RIGHT HEAT
Another important factor is using the right amount of heat to steam the buns. If the heat is too high, your buns will inflate too quickly. You can see that in the buns on the top row in the photo above. As a result, the edges of the buns will be too puffy or the buns can deflate at the end, causing the surface to wrinkle.
If the heat is too low, you buns will not fully cook. I prefer using medium to medium-low heat for steaming. Everyone’s stove is slightly different, so there may be a bit of trial and error before you figure out the right amount of heat for steaming.
After the buns are done steaming, the buns need to rest for 10 minutes. DO NOT lift the lid of the steamer basket too soon or the buns can deflate (like the photo above, top row, right). (By the way, for reference, the bao in the bottom row, right, illustrates what happens when you use too much sugar in the dough. You can see small air pockets that bubble up and deflate.)
WATCH HOW TO SHAPE THE BAO
Teriyaki Tofu Gua Bao
Lotus Leaf Buns
- 300 grams (2 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch (see note 1)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 185 grams (3/4 cup + 1 tablespoon) whole milk
- 15 grams (1 tablespoon) sugar
- 3 grams (1 teaspoon) dry yeast
- 10 grams (1 tablespoon) safflower oil, plus more for brushing on buns (see note 2)
Quick Pickled Vegetables
- 1/2 cup rice vinegar
- 1/4 cup (55g) sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1 persian cucumber, sliced
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and julienned
- 14 to 16 ounces super-firm tofu (see note 3)
- 2 tablespoons safflower oil
- teriyaki sauce
- sliced scallions
- chopped peanuts
- Make the Dough
- Using a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment, mix the flour, cornstarch and salt together for 30 seconds.
- Pour the milk into a bowl and microwave on high for about 45 seconds. Add the sugar to the bowl. Test the temperature of the milk and see if it is somewhere between 110ºF and 120ºF. If it is hotter, wait a few minutes for the milk to cool.
- Add the yeast and swirl it into the milk. Let the milk and yeast sit for 10 minutes. The yeast should foam up.
- Pour the milk, sugar, yeast, and oil into the bowl with the dry ingredients. Mix the dough on low speed for 5 to 6 minutes. Take the dough out of the bowl and knead it on a dry surface for another minute. The dough shouldn’t stick to the board. If it does, lightly dust your work surface with flour. Shape the dough into a ball. The ball should be very smooth.
- Place the dough into a bowl and cover it with a damp towel or silicone lid. Let the dough rest for an hour.
- Shape the Dough
- Cut out 12 pieces of parchment paper (about 3.5 inches by 2 inches) or cut out 3 circular sheets of parchment that will line the bamboo steamer basket perfectly.
- Fill a small bowl with 1.5 tablespoons of safflower oil.
- Punch down to the dough and turn it over a lightly floured surface.
- Divide the dough into 12 pieces, about 43g to 44g each. I like steaming 4 buns at a time, so I set aside 4 pieces dough. Then, I cover and refrigerate the remaining dough in a bowl.
- Lightly dust your work surface with flour.
- Take a piece of dough and shape it into a ball. Lightly roll the ball in flour. Use a rolling pin to roll out the dough into an oval that is about 4.5 inches long and 3 inches wide.
- Lightly brush the surface of the rolled out dough with oil. Fold the dough in half. Set the folded bao in a parchment-lined steamer basket or place a small piece of parchment paper underneath the bao. Cover the steamer basket with the lid as you roll out the remaining 3 pieces of dough.
- Once you have shaped 4 buns, let the buns rest for 20 minutes.
- Steam the Buns
- Fill your wok (or large sauté) pan with water. You want just enough water in there so that when you set the steamer basket down, the water grazes the bottom of the steamer basket. Don’t place the buns in the wok just yet.
- Bring the water to boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Set the covered bamboo steamer basket with the buns inside the wok. Steam the buns for 8 minutes. Turn off the heat. Let the buns stay in the wok, covered for another 10 minutes. Don’t open the lid too quickly or the buns can deflate, causing the surface to wrinkle.
- While the first batch of buns are cooling, I usually prepare the next batch of buns.
- Transfer the steamed buns to a plate and cover it with a dry towel so that they stay warm. Continue shaping and steaming the buns.
- Make the Quick Pickled Vegetables
- Add the rice vinegar, sugar, and salt to a bowl and stir until the sugar and salt dissolve. Then, add the sesame oil.
- Add the sliced cucumber and carrots to the bowl. Let the vegetables sit in the bowl until the tofu is cooked and all the buns are steamed.
- Cook the Tofu
- Slice the tofu into strips that are about 3 inches long and 1 inch thick. You don’t have to be too precise with the shape of the tofu.
- Heat 2 tablespoons of oil on a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the tofu and pan fry them for about 8 to 10 minutes, flipping them around so that you get several sides golden brown.
- Reduce the heat to low. The teriyaki sauce has a considerable amount of sugar in it, so you don’t want it to burn when you add the sauce to the pan. Add the teriyaki sauce to the pan. Flip the tofu pieces so that the tofu is coated in the sauce. Turn off the heat and transfer the tofu to a plate.
- Assemble the Vegetarian Gua Bao
- Take one of the steamed buns and add 1 or 2 strips of teriyaki tofu in the center. Add some of the pickled vegetables, sliced scallions, and peanuts. Drizzle with a little more teriyaki sauce, if you like. Serve immediately.
- I like adding a tiny bit of cornstarch to the dough because I thought the buns without the cornstarch was too airy. You can substitute with tapioca starch or wheat starch.
- You can also use canola oil or vegetable oil. Any oil with neutral flavor will work for the buns.
- I used super firm tofu because I don’t need to press it before cooking.
- Freezing Directions: You can steam the buns ahead and place them in a freezer bag. Try to arrange the buns in a single layer so that they don’t stick together too much. When you are ready to eat them, steam the frozen buns for about 6 to 8 minutes, until heated through.