These simple Chinese buns are steamed, giving them a distinctive fluffy softness. Eat them on their own or as a side dish to take the place of steamed rice. In my family, we tear them open to slather with butter and sprinkle with pork floss for a savory breakfast or drizzle with sweetened condensed milk for a sweet treat. You can also use the dough as the base for fillings to steam into bao or knead in seasonings such as sliced scallions or sesame seeds.
Mantou Chinese Steamed Buns
3 hours, largely unattended. Makes 12.
1 envelope active dry yeast (2 ¼ teaspoons)
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for bowl
1. Make the sponge: Combine the yeast, ¼ cup flour, 1 tablespoon sugar and 2 tablespoons lukewarm water in a small bowl. Stir to form a uniform paste. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rest in a warm place for 30 minutes. The mixture should be bubbly and puffed.
2. Combine the salt, remaining 1 ½ cups flour and 1 tablespoon sugar in a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix well, then add the oil, sponge and ½ cup lukewarm water. Mix by hand or with the dough hook on medium-low speed until the mixture forms a mass. If mixing by hand, turn out onto a work surface and continue kneading until elastic and smooth, about 10 minutes. If mixing by machine, scrape the bowl and dough hook and continue mixing on low speed, about 8 minutes.
3. Lightly oil a large bowl. Form the dough into a smooth ball and roll it in the bowl to oil all sides. Turn it seam side down, cover the bowl with the kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, 1 to 1 ½ hours.
4. Cut 12 4-inch squares of parchment paper. Scrape the dough onto a work surface. (It’s not sticky, so you don’t need to flour the surface.) Gently fold two sides of the dough to meet in the center, then gently roll into an even 12-inch log. If there’s still a seam at the bottom, pinch it shut and roll the log so it’s seam side down. Using a bench scraper or sharp knife, cut the dough into 12 even pieces, pressing straight down into the log. Place each piece on a parchment square, rounded top up.
5. Arrange in two large bamboo steamer baskets (or three small ones) or other flat-bottomed steamers, spacing 2 inches apart. Cover with the bamboo basket lid or the kitchen towel and let rest for 30 minutes.
6. Fill a steamer base (a wok or skillet that holds the steamer basket without gaps around the edges) with an inch of water. You don’t want the water to touch the steamer basket. Bring the water to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium to maintain a steady simmer. If using a non-bamboo steamer, wrap the kitchen towel around the lid, then cover. Arrange the stacked baskets or steamer over the simmering water.
7. Steam until the buns are puffed and cooked through, about 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and let rest for 2 minutes to avoid burning yourself with steam, then uncover and serve hot.
Baked Crusty Rolls: In step 4, roll the cut pieces of dough into balls and arrange on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet 1 inch apart. Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise for 45 minutes. Bake in a 350-degree oven until golden brown and baked through, 12 to 15 minutes. Cool to warm and serve.
The buns can be cooled completely, then frozen in freezer bags for up to 6 months. Steam for 10 minutes directly from the freezer and serve hot.