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From the food editor: Making bao, the steamed Asian buns, at home

Schnitzel Bao with Sesame Pickles. [Photo by Molly Yeh.]
Published Feb. 15, 2017

First of all, you need a proper steamer.

I did not have one when I set out to make bao, a steamed bun popular in Asian cuisines, but I realized it too late in the game.

Using the cookbook Molly on the Range by food blogger Molly Yeh as my guide, I took on the task of making the buns from scratch. Yeh's dad is Chinese, and she grew up eating the buns.

The formula didn't seem too out of my wheelhouse. I've made various breads, bagels, pizza dough, even crackers in my kitchen, using some combination of yeast, flour, fat and sugar. Bao did not require anything more exotic than that.

But it did involve a bit of work. After mixing the dough, I let it rise for a couple of hours, then divided it into pieces, rolled those pieces out into small circles and let those rise.

That's when it hit me: How was I going to cook these buns?

The difference between bao and, say, a tortilla or a traditional sandwich roll is that it's steamed. I knew this. And yet, I looked around my kitchen, realizing I did not have the steaming contraption I thought I did, and definitely not the "double-decker" bamboo one Yeh alludes to in the book.

Time to improvise. I set the largest pot I could find on the stove, filled it with a few inches of water and placed a stainless steel colander, until now mostly used to drain pasta, in the pot. Not bad. The colander had holes, which would allow the steam created by boiling water to cook the buns once I placed them in the colander. A large pan lid covered most of the rigged steamer, creating a nice, steamy compartment.

Except, as I discovered when I started placing the uncooked bao into the colander, I could only steam about three at a time. About 20 raw dough circles stared at me from the counter. (I somehow made more than the recipe suggested I would.)

It also took about 15 minutes to steam each batch, and by the second or third round I was getting hungry, so I decided to finish the ones that would be used for dinner in a skillet with a little bit of olive oil. As we ate, the other batches steamed. The skillet also served another purpose: to make sure the buns were cooked through — my makeshift steamer wasn't cooking them as well as I had hoped.

The result was a bun that more resembled the outside of a pot sticker than a truly steamed bun. It was lacking in the fluffy department. But I filled it with lightly pan-fried chicken and Sriracha cucumbers all the same, and it hit just the right sweet, chewy, doughy notes it was supposed to.

Though for next time, I'm investing in a bamboo steamer.

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