Steamed, Not Baked, to Soft, Fluffy Perfection

Chinese mantou, humble steamed buns, are best homemade and served fresh
April 8, 2020 Updated: April 8, 2020

A soft, pillowy mantou, eaten fresh from the steamer, is a simple pleasure.

Mantou are plain Chinese steamed buns, made from a yeasted dough of white wheat flour, milk, and sugar. They have smooth, snowy white surfaces and soft and fluffy insides, with just a hint of sweetness. 

In northern China, where wheat is the main starch—as opposed to the rice-growing regions of the south—humble mantou are a staple food eaten with every meal. In other parts of the country, you can find them served at restaurants and sold from food carts, most often enjoyed for breakfast—especially washed down with fresh soy milk. For an indulgent dessert, they can be deep-fried until their outsides are crisp and golden, then served with sweetened condensed milk for dipping.

Packages of pre-cooked, frozen mantou are readily available at Chinese supermarkets, microwave- or steamer-ready. But these store-bought versions can contain preservatives and other unnecessary ingredients, so why not make your own? 

For fresh, fluffy homemade mantou, you’ll just need six pantry ingredients, a steamer, and a bit of patience—and arm strength.

Step-by-Step

This simple, six-ingredient recipe uses two leavening agents, instant yeast and baking powder, to ensure proper rise and the fluffiest results. Combine them with all-purpose flour, sugar, vegetable oil, and milk, and knead them into an elastic dough. 

Auntie Liu, a cook at New York City’s Radiance restaurant who has been making mantou since she was a little girl, offered some helpful advice: a proper mantou dough should be kneaded until it is “san guang,” literally meaning “three smooth.” The “three” refers to your dough, your hands, and your working surface. When they are all smooth, with no unincorporated flour or bits of dough stuck anywhere, you’re ready to go.

After a quick rest, the dough will be spongy and slightly springy, ready to be rolled out and shaped.

Here’s where that arm strength comes in: The next step requires repeatedly rolling your dough out into a rectangle, folding it on itself in thirds, like a letter, and rolling it out again. This will ensure that you press out any air bubbles in the dough, giving your finished buns a fine crumb.

To shape the dough into buns, you’ll simply roll it up into a log and cut it into uniform segments. Before steaming, the formed buns again need to rest until doubled in size, which could take up to an hour and a half, depending on your kitchen temperature and humidity. Auntie Liu suggested speeding up the process by letting them rest in a warm and humid place; try putting them in an oven preheated to 170 degrees F and turned off, with a pot of just-boiled water placed on the bottom of the oven.

When you finally take a bite of a warm, freshly steamed mantou, all your hard work and patience will have paid off.

Chinese Steamed Buns (Mantou)

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Rest Time: 45 to 90 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes

Makes 6 to 8 buns

Equipment:

  • Large mixing bowl
  • Rolling pin
  • Pastry brush
  • Steamer
  • Knife
  • 6 (3-inch x 4-inch) pieces of wax paper

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon instant (rapid rise) yeast 
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons whole milk

Make the dough: 

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, instant yeast, and baking powder. Pour in the vegetable oil and milk. 

Epoch Times Photo
Mixing the dough. (CiCi Li)

First, use a pair of chopsticks (or fork) to begin to combine the wet and dry ingredients. Then use your hands to knead the mixture until it comes together into a ball of dough, and the sides of the mixing bowl are clean. 

Epoch Times Photo
Kneading the dough until smooth. (CiCi Li)

Transfer the dough to a flat working surface. Continue to knead the dough until smooth, and there are no bits of dough or flour sticking to your hands or working surface, about 10 minutes. 

Epoch Times Photo
Kneading the dough until smooth. (CiCi Li)

Cover the dough with an upside-down bowl and let it rest for 3–5 minutes.

Shape the buns: 

Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough into a 7-inch x 14-inch rectangle: First, roll from the middle of the dough to the top, rolling away from you; then, roll from the middle to the bottom, rolling toward you. Press out any air bubbles as you go. Rotate the dough 90 degrees and repeat, first rolling from the middle to the top, and then from the middle to the bottom. Rotate the dough 90 degrees again and repeat, continuing to roll and rotate until the dough becomes a 7-inch x 14-inch rectangle and there are no more air bubbles. 

Epoch Times Photo
Rolling out the dough into a rectangle. (CiCi Li)

Fold the dough into thirds, like a letter: Orient the rectangle of dough vertically, so that the shorter edges are at the top and bottom. First, take the bottom third of the dough and fold it up; then, fold the top flap down and over it. 

Epoch Times Photo
Folding the dough into thirds. (CiCi Li)

Rotate the dough 90 degrees and again roll it out into a rectangle, pressing out any air bubbles.  

Epoch Times Photo
Rolling out the dough again. (CiCi Li)

Repeat the above steps once more: Fold the dough into thirds, like a letter; rotate it 90 degrees; and roll it out into a rectangle, pressing out any air bubbles.  

Now, roll up the dough into a log: Orient the rectangle of dough horizontally, so that the longer edges are at the top and bottom. Use a pastry brush to brush a thin layer of water all over the surface of the dough. Starting from the bottom, slowly roll the dough up into a long log. If the top edge of the dough begins to curl as you roll, use your fingers to flatten it before continuing. Use your palms to roll the log of dough back and forth until it becomes uniform in size everywhere. 

rolling dough into log
Rolling the rectangle of dough up into a log. (CiCi Li)

Trim the ends of the log with a sharp knife, then cut it into 6 uniform pieces. Place each bun on its own square of wax paper.  

Epoch Times Photo
Dividing the log into uniform pieces. (CiCi Li)

Transfer the buns to the steamer rack or basket and cover with the lid. Let the buns rest in a warm and humid place until they double in size, about 45–90 minutes.

Epoch Times Photo
Letting the formed buns rest and rise. (CiCi Li)

Steam the buns: 

Add water to the steamer and bring to a boil. Cover and steam the buns over high heat for 15 minutes.

Turn off the heat. Slightly open the lid to let the steam escape, for about 5 minutes. If you completely uncover the buns right away, they might deflate. Serve. 

Epoch Times Photo
Freshly steamed buns. (CiCi Li)

Make-Ahead

Mantou freeze well, so you can make a big batch to stash in the freezer for later. Simply steam all your mantou (working in batches as needed, depending on how big your steamer is), then let them cool completely and freeze in a single layer in ziploc bags. To reheat, steam them directly from the freezer, over high heat, for about 8 minutes.

Recipe by CiCi Li. CiCi Li is the producer and presenter of “CiCi’s Food Paradise” on NTD. Join her in discovering the world of Asian home cooking at CiCiLi.tv