Pork Bulgogi Bāozi (Steamed Korean BBQ Buns)

by Julie Ruble on January 31, 2012 · 36 comments

Hands down, my favorite food experience in the universe (so far — who knows, maybe something really awesome is goin’ down on Mars) is going to yum cha, or eating at a dim sum restaurant. Dim sum is a Chinese tea-like meal where a variety of amazing dishes are served as small plates. At a typical dim sum restaurant, carts full of steamed dumplings, fried eggplant, roasted pork buns, custard cakes, Chinese broccoli, sesame balls, and other treats traverse the dining room, replenishing each table.

It sounds pretty heavenly, right? If you haven’t tried it, you really should. That being said, my first dim sum experience was, um, terrifying.

I think the restaurant atmosphere contributed more than a little bit to my anxiety. The interior walls were all painted stark black, and the blinds were mostly drawn. Where sunlight did find a breach, it sliced into the space as bright and sharp as a flashing knife. Grotesque white statues towered in the center of the restaurant and carts crawled down narrow aisles, preventing any retreat. The restaurant owners were apparently going for “horror movie chic.”

My real trepidation, though, came from having no idea how dim sum worked. I saw the carts full of food, but were you supposed to flag them over? Would they just come to you? Were you supposed to write your order on your tab or did the servers write it for you? Was it annoying to ask what each dish was? As the cart rolled towards our table, so did a wave of panic. I didn’t know what I was doing! I turned a frantic face to Mike and literally started plotting an escape: “We’ve already ordered our drinks, but can’t we just pay for them and run out?!”

Mike, thankfully, was calm. He talked me down, helping me to temper my fear by focusing on the food. And oh, the food! I stuffed myself silly with every manner of new and delicious Chinese food, but my favorite dish by far was the char siu bao, or steamed pork buns.

These buns aren’t your average heavy, dense bread. They’re light, cakelike, and inexplicably fluffy. They’re clouds! They’re sheep! They’re cotton! They’re every other fluffy metaphor you’ve ever heard. The sweet pork filling inside the mildly sweet steamed buns was worth every bit of dim sum panic I’d felt. I vowed to make them in my own kitchen someday.

Y’all, that day has come — except, inspired by the McCormick 2012 Flavor Forecast, a report that highlights up-and-coming flavor trends around the world, I decided to mix it up. Two trends the Flavor Forecast describes are Honoring Roots and No Boundaries. These trends — one that showcases regional flavors around the world and another that encourages the blurring of the boundary lines between them — seemed to complement one another in a delicate balance. They were yin and yang, if you will. I chose to encapsulate both by creating a traditional recipe — Chinese steamed pork buns — with an unexpected ingredient. Instead of filling the buns with char siu, the typical Chinese barbecued pork, I opted to fill them with salty, sweet, spicy Korean barbecue, or bulgogi.

Bulgogi combines the spice of Korean Pepper Paste with sultry sesame, fruity Korean pear, and garlic. It’s delicious over rice, but it really shone when it was coated in this delicious sauce and stuffed into these gorgeous buns (ha ha ha, gorgeous buns!) It took me three tries to make the perfect bāozi, but this version really is the tops. I can honestly say that pulling my Fluffy McFluffypants buns out of my new bamboo steamer was one of my proudest kitchen moments to date. Even better, these buns were one of my most delicious kitchen moments to date!

It may require an initial investment to begin cooking and enjoying Asian food if you aren’t used to doing so (I had to buy soy sauce, rice wine, rice vinegar, Korean pepper paste, sesame oil, sesame seeds, and potato starch to stock my pantry). But these ingredients can be used over and over again, and meals like this are so worth the investment!

In fact, I was so excited about this recipe that I made you a video tutorial on how to shape the bāozi. Sophomoric jokes are included at no extra charge:

Have you ever eaten at a dim sum restaurant or cooked a new-to-you cuisine at home?

Pork Bulgogi Bāozi (Steamed Korean BBQ Buns)



Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking with bun recipe adapted from Rasa Malaysia and bulgogi recipe adapted from Food.com
Yield: 12 pork bulgogi buns

Korean BBQ, or bulgogi, is a delicious combination of salty, sweet, and spicy. It’s amazing served over rice, but even better stuffed inside these slightly sweet, light-as-a-feather steamed buns. I did all the legwork for you in this one, trying multiple bun recipes and tweaking quantities until they were just right. So trust me: invest in the ingredients (you’ll use them over and over again) and make these buns! If you don’t have a steamer, here’s an easy way to make one.

Bun Ingredients:
8 grams active dry yeast
160 milliliters lukewarm water (100-110 degrees F; I use a candy thermometer to do a quick check)
½ teaspoon white vinegar
280 grams low-protein flour (Hong Kong Flour or Cake Flour)
100 grams wheat or potato starch (I used potato)
100 grams icing sugar
30 grams shortening
10 grams baking powder
10 milliliters cold water

Pork Bulgogi Ingredients:
1 pound pork loin (cut into thin, wide slices)
5 tablespoons soy sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 sprigs green onions, chopped
1/2 yellow onion, sliced
2 tablespoons McCormick toasted sesame seeds
black pepper
1 tablespoon and 1 1/2 teaspoons honey
2 1/2 – 4 tablespoons Korean red pepper paste (gochujang)
1 tablespoon McCormick red pepper flakes
1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon vegetable oil for cooking
1/2 cup chopped Korean pear

Sauce Ingredients:
1 tablespoon + 1/4 teaspoon soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons honey
1 1/2 teaspoons sweet soy sauce
1 1/4 teaspoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon Korean red pepper paste (gochujang)
3/4 teaspoon rice vinegar
1/4 teaspoon packed brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon McCormick toasted sesame seeds
chopped green onions

Directions:
NOTES: I measured the bun ingredients by weight for accuracy. You can convert them to imperial measures using an online calculator, but I’d use weights if you can.

Some of the ingredients for this recipe (Korean red pepper paste, rice wine, sweet soy) are easiest to find at an Asian supermarket. I bought my steamer there as well, for around $13 — a great investment considering how many times I’ve already used it! Finally, you can usually find pork ready-sliced for bulgogi at an Asian supermarket; if not, freeze the loin for a bit before slicing with a serrated knife, which will make it easier to cut through.


Make pork bulgogi: Whisk together marinade ingredients (soy sauce, garlic, green onions, onion, sesame seeds, sesame oil, pepper, honey, pepper paste, and pepper flakes) and toss pork in marinade. Cover and let the pork marinate overnight in the refrigerator (for at least 8 hours).

Heat a skillet over medium heat and add vegetable oil. When oil is shimmery, add some of the pork mixture (don’t crowd the pan — I cooked about 4 slices at a time) and cook, turning occasionally, for about 5 minutes or until brown and done. Remove this pork to a cutting board. Cut all pork into small bite-sized pieces and place it in a bowl. Toss in chopped Korean pear.

Make sauce: Whisk all sauce ingredients together except green onions. Pour about half of the sauce over your pork bulgogi (you want it lightly coated, not swimming in the sauce) and reserve the other half (with green onions sprinkled in) for dipping.

Make bāozi: Sift together the flour, wheat or potato starch, and powdered sugar into a mixing bowl. Make a well in the center and gently combine the yeast, vinegar, and warm water in the well. Let this sit and proof for around 10 minutes before slowly mixing in the surrounding flour mixture bit by bit, forming a dough. Add in the shortening and then knead (on a KitchenAid mixer at about speed 4-6, knead for about 4 minutes; by hand, knead for about 10 minutes) until the dough is smooth and elastic. It shouldn’t be sticky to the touch.

Transfer the dough to a bowl lightly coated with vegetable oil. Cover it with a damp cloth and place it somewhere warm to rise (I always put mine into an oven that has been warmed for a few minutes and then left open to drop to just above room temperature) for 30 minutes. I never noticed too much rise, so don’t worry if it doesn’t seem like a huge difference.

After 30 minutes, dissolve the baking powder completely in the water and sprinkle this mixture over the bao dough. Knead it in to fully combine it (I used the dough to mop up any of the mixture that was still on the bowl and kneaded it in well — an uneven distribution of baking powder can cause discoloration of your buns). Recover the dough and let it rest for 10 more minutes.

Fill and shape your buns: Turn the dough out onto wax paper and pat it into an even width. Use a dough cutter or sharp knife to divide it into 12 roughly equal sections. Take one section and gently roll it out to about 1/4 inch thick with a rolling pin (I keep the sections I’m not working with covered with a damp cloth so they don’t dry out.) Holding the dough in your non-dominant hand, place the pork bulgogi filling in the center and carefully pleat the edges of the dough together at the top, turning the bun as you work, until it is fully closed (see the video below for a demonstration of to shape the buns — and jokes about the word ‘buns,’ of course). Place each bun on a square of wax or parchment paper.

Steam your buns: Preheat your steamer by boiling water and a teaspoon of vinegar over medium-high heat in a saucepan with your steamer on top (here’s a photo of how your steamer setup should look). Preheating the steamer ensures your buns will fully rise. Once it’s steaming, place buns in each tier (being careful not to crowd them), spray them with a bit of water (this help ensure a smooth surface), and close the steamer. Cook for 12 minutes without opening the lid. Remove the buns to a cooling rack to let them cool. Serve warm with reserved dipping sauce.

You don’t see many product reviews on Willow Bird Baking, because I’m choosy with how I share this space. My choosiness reflects my own ideals for Willow Bird in addition to my respect for the community we have here. When I get the opportunity to work with a company I genuinely love and use in my own kitchen, though, I’m always thrilled to share. McCormick is just such a company, and I’m excited to share their forecast of upcoming flavor trends.

Disclosure: McCormick sent me a Flavor Forecast Immersion Kit of ingredients, and compensated me for other ingredients and for my time and creative energy. I value my readers such that all opinions expressed on Willow Bird are always my own.

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Vivian Ruble (Mom) January 31, 2012 at 3:13 am

I clicked on the video and Polly about had a heart attack (she was sleeping by me) but then she came to attention and watched the whole thing, actually licking her lips! lol

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Julie @ Willow Bird Baking January 31, 2012 at 3:21 am

LOL, I feel a new nickname comin’ on: Polly Pork Bun! Variations: Polly Porky Buns, Polly Porker, Polly Porker Pants, etccccc.

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Maris (In Good Taste) January 31, 2012 at 11:08 am

It is much fun going out for Dim Sum. These look better then anything I have seen in restaurant!

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Julie @ Willow Bird Baking January 31, 2012 at 1:59 pm

Thanks, Maris!

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Erin January 31, 2012 at 3:36 pm

I LOVE these things! But still a little intimidated to make them myself.

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Julie @ Willow Bird Baking January 31, 2012 at 3:44 pm

I hope you’ll go for it, Erin! As long as you have a steamer (or a makeshift steamer) they are surprisingly easy!! They’re a very workable dough (not sticky at all) and only rise for about 40 minutes total. I’ve made them twice now and they’re totally going to be a staple over here!

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Lauren at Keep It Sweet January 31, 2012 at 4:38 pm

I am a huge fan of steamed buns and these look amazing! I would usually be too lazy to make them myself but I am very tempted now.

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Julie @ Willow Bird Baking January 31, 2012 at 5:21 pm

Thanks, Lauren! I was surprised by how easy they were (well, after my several rounds of recipe testing were over)! Especially with a filling you just marinate overnight and then stuff in the buns. The bun dough itself was surprisingly amiable :)

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Suzy January 31, 2012 at 5:13 pm

Wow, these look amazing! I might try these for the Super Bowl this weekend…

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Julie @ Willow Bird Baking January 31, 2012 at 5:22 pm

Ooh, they would be the perfect handheld snack and they’re so yummy! I love the idea of eating them while watching the Super Bowl!

Thanks, Suzy!

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Kelly January 31, 2012 at 11:20 pm

Hmm. I wonder if I can use my sourdough starter with these. I refuse to buy commercial yeast. I will attempt some time this week.

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Julie @ Willow Bird Baking January 31, 2012 at 11:47 pm

Ooh, interesting thought!! Let me know how it goes!

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Joanne February 1, 2012 at 2:12 am

I may not eat meat anymore or crave it…but those buns may be the exception. Thankfully I’ve found a good vegetarian dim sum place here in NYC to go to…otherwise I might have to take a trip down to NC and coerce you to make them for me.

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Julie @ Willow Bird Baking February 1, 2012 at 2:28 am

Joanne, I’m betting you could do some amaaaazing vegetarian-like things to these buns! :)

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Matina February 1, 2012 at 10:59 pm

Oh what a fabulous idea! I made steamed buns failry recently and was so pleased with how they turned out, they aren’t hardto make. I wasn’t adventurous at all with the filling though, too nervous about how the bun would turn out. I kept exclaiming that they looked like steamed buns! My husband didn’t get it, he kept saying but that’s what they are! Bulgogi is a wonderful idea. They look amazing. I’m gonna make them again for sure and be more creative with the filling this time. Thanks!
P.S. I agree that dim sum is one of the best things ever. I’m SURE they get annoyed with me asking, what’s in that one? Over and Over.

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Julie @ Willow Bird Baking February 1, 2012 at 11:04 pm

Matina, you described my experience EXACTLY! It was such a proud moment when I opened the steamer! I actually called Mike and told him over and over, “They look JUST LIKE THE RESTAURANT’S BUNS. JUST LIKE THEM!!” LOL! So I totally get ya!

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angel van February 3, 2012 at 2:08 am

Those look so good. Have you been to any of the Asian grocery stores in Charlotte? New Century has a steam table with the various steam buns. Grand Asia in Stallings has an entire bakery section but a traditional Chinese steam table for yummy food. If you ever need any food recs for Asian stuff in Charlotte, I can definitely help.

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Julie @ Willow Bird Baking February 3, 2012 at 2:58 am

Thanks, Angel! I went to New Century and Super G Mart for this project — and saw those buns at New Century! They looked awesome. I’ll have to visit Grand Asia when I’m out that way, too!

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angel van February 7, 2012 at 2:12 am

New Century is good and I was actually just there yesterday. Their buns are not as good as they use to be. They started using a filler of water chestnuts and those just don’t belong in a traditional meat bun. Grand Asia is awesome! I love their variety so much especially because of the baked goods.

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Javelin Warrior February 3, 2012 at 2:54 pm

These BBQ buns are stunning! I am so intrigued by this recipe and ingredients. I have featured your post in today’s Friday Food Fetish roundup. Let me know if you have any objections and thanks for the inspiration…

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Julie @ Willow Bird Baking February 9, 2012 at 5:56 pm

Thanks so much!

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Jen @ Tiny Urban Kitchen February 5, 2012 at 2:53 am

Fantastic post! I love love love the light, fluffy bun dough but have never been able to make it successfully. What an ingenious idea, mixing the char siu bao filling with Korean bulgolgi. Sounds delicious! :)

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Julie @ Willow Bird Baking February 5, 2012 at 3:07 am

Thank you, Jen! Definitely try this bun dough — I tried another recipe that just wasn’t right, but this one was perfect! And pretty easy, too!!

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Julie February 8, 2012 at 3:51 am

Hi,
You did a beautiful job. I wonder whether or not you’ve added water to the dough mixture. I tried the recipe and found the dough really crumbly. Please advise.
Thanks.

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Julie @ Willow Bird Baking February 8, 2012 at 3:57 am

Thanks! Julie.

I didn’t add anything other than what’s listed — part of why I loved this recipe is that the ingredients were exact (no “add water until it gets to this arbitrary consistency” or anything like that). So I’m surprised to hear that yours was crumbly. A few questions: did you make any substitutions with the flour or starch? Did you knead for the full time (this is when the dough comes together and gets smooth and elastic; before this, it is a drier dough) — 4-5 minutes in a KitchenAid with a dough hook or about 10 minutes by hand? I’d be happy to help you troubleshoot!

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Julie February 9, 2012 at 10:04 pm

I used cake flour (American) and wheat starch(Asian) as specified. For the first time, I used the mixer, added water and let it rise for 30 minutes. The dough was very firm and the steamed buns came out not so fluffy but rather packed. Taste was very good though. So I figure maybe I need to rise it until doubled to make it fluffier. This time I hand kneaded and added just a bit of water. It took a good five hours to double the bulk. Unfortunately, I forgot to add the B/P after the rising. The dough turned out gooey and lost some of its sweetness. I attribute it to the dough turning a little sour because it was left to rise for too long. Did you have to wet your hands while kneading though? Also, how did you achieve the split-open top? Thank you so much.

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Julie @ Willow Bird Baking February 9, 2012 at 10:18 pm

Hi Julie — so the first time, you added more water than in the recipe? The hydration of the dough might’ve been off if so. Mine was a bit drier but then after kneading was smooth and elastic. If you try again, try it just as the recipe says and see if it works that way. It worked perfectly for me twice exactly as prescribed, so I don’t think it needs extra water (though environmental factors CAN come into play, such as living in a very dry/humid environment, etc. — but I can’t imagine that’d make or break the buns!)

As I mention in the recipe, I didn’t notice too much rise, so I wouldn’t try to wait for it to double. The baking powder definitely does make a bit difference, since it’ll help more of the rise.

I never kneaded by hand, but used my mixer, so I’m not sure re: wetting hands. I wouldn’t think you’d need to. I didn’t even need to flour my hands to work with the buns.

To see why the tops of the buns are like that, watch the included video tutorial. Shaping the buns as in the video will achieve the “split” look when they steam. Hope that helps!

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Abby March 21, 2012 at 10:31 pm

High five! These look amazing.

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Julie @ Willow Bird Baking March 22, 2012 at 12:28 am

Thanks, Abby!!

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A_Boleyn September 1, 2012 at 2:29 am

The first time I had dim sum I was in university and went out with a group of fellow students who taught me the the routines. I was very lucky to have had such a great introduction and going out for dim sum is something I introduced to my nephew in turn when he became old enough to appreciate it. :)

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Julie @ Willow Bird Baking September 1, 2012 at 6:09 pm

LOVE dim sum SO MUCH!! It’s my favorite eating experience by far :) The first time I tried it, though, I was terrified! LOL.

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A_Boleyn January 27, 2014 at 3:22 am

I have a lot of dim sum favourites and the bbq’d pork filled version of this is definitely one of them. I’ve even bought a set of bamboo steamers so I could make them. I just haven’t got around to it yet. Though, I have to deal with converting the weights to volume in the ingredients list first.

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Julie Ruble January 27, 2014 at 7:28 am

Honestly, I wouldn’t convert them. I almost always cook by volume, too, but in this recipe, the texture is crucial — that’s why I left them so precise. You can snag a little kitchen scale for around $15-30 (I use OXO 11-pound scale) and it’s worth it for this and macarons and the like!

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Evangeline December 19, 2013 at 8:22 pm

Hi Julie! I love this recipe and have made it several times. It is reliable and exact. I once added a little twist by including a hard boiled quail egg in each bun along with the meat filling (a Filipino style of steam bun) and it was fantastic!
As I’m thinking of making these again for a Christmas Day potluck, I’m wondering if these buns can be frozen at the point where they’ve been assembled, just before steaming so all I have to do is steam them the day of the party?

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Julie Ruble December 19, 2013 at 8:28 pm

I’m so happy to hear that, Evangeline! This was one of my favorite recipes to create.

As for freezing the pork buns, I never tried it, and I’d hate to tell you it’s possible and risk hurting your Christmas potluck! Based on my experience with other dough, I feel like it would work fine, but maybe you could try a small test batch just to be sure. I might freeze them and then thaw them overnight instead of steaming them from frozen, since the bun/meat might heat at different rates from frozen. Please let me know what you decide! Merry Christmas :)

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Linda Warren May 21, 2014 at 9:31 pm

These pork buns look great. They were always one of my favorites during my trips to China but never had the nerve to try making them myself. I think you’ve convinced me to give them a try.

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