Steamed Buns with Pork Belly

When people find out that I used to cook for a living, they often say something like "Oh, you must eat so well!" And my response is usually to shrug and say "I guess." And we do, I guess. But just like everyone else, there are days when I'm exhausted or working late or just don't feel like going to a lot of trouble. Those days I ask Doodler to cook (he's no slouch, I'm here to tell you) or I kind of throw something together, like chili or mac and cheese.

But sometimes I want to play in the kitchen, and because I share my meals with a fellow adventurous eater, I know that if i create something out of the ordinary it's probably going to make him happy. And who wouldn't want to make this guy happy?

How cute is he? But I digress.

The food I miss most from my time in New York is good Chinese food. You can get pretty good Thai and Vietnamese close by, but to get good Chinese you have to drive kind of far. And while I'm not opposed to that, on a Tuesday night I'm not gonna get in the car and drive half an hour to eat dinner. So I make it myself.

Doodler has never really had food like you can get in Chinatown, so it's fun for me to get to introduce him to things like soy sauce chicken and char siu and steamed buns. It's one of the best things about Canal Street: you can walk into a bakery and get a delicious pork bun and a drink for like $3. It was a favorite lunch when I didn't have a whole lot of money but didn't have the wherewithal to pack a lunch.

I miss those buns, but I haven't had time lately to make them, because while they're not hard to make, you have to start them a few hours ahead so they can rise. And trying to work two jobs, start a business, and maintain relationships with friends and family (not to mention that dreamboat pictured above) kind of eats into your free time.

But for some reason today everything kind of fell into place. I was at Whole Foods early this morning and was able to procure a large piece of pork belly, which needed to brine for 6 hours. That was plenty of time to make the buns and also maybe do my job a little! Serendipity!

These are a little involved to make, I'm not gonna lie. But it's not difficult work; it just requires a little planning. And to get that smile on that face? It is so worth it.

Steamed Buns with Pork Belly*


1/4 cup coarse salt
1/4 cup sugar
1 (3-poundish) piece boneless pork belly


1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon dry yeast
1 1/2 cups water
4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup milk
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Heaping 1/2 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup vegetable shortening or rendered pork fat, plus more for shaping the buns

Hoisin sauce
Kim chee
Pickled cucumbers

Start the pork belly:
Mix the salt and sugar together. Place the pork belly in a roasting pan that just fits it, and pat the salt/sugar mixture all over it. Cover and refrigerate at least 6 hours, and up to 24 hours.

(Start the buns here.)

Heat the oven to 400F. Drain any liquid from the pan and roast the pork fat side up for 1 1/2 hours, or until the top has turned a beautiful mahogony color. Reduce the heat to 250 and roast about another hour until the meat is pillowy soft.

Make the buns! Combine the yeast and the water in the bowl of a stand mixer fitting with the dough hook. Add the remaining ingredients and mix on the lowest speed possible (just above "stir") until a smooth, slightly tacky dough forms. Lightly oil another bowl, place the dough in it, cover, and let stand in a warm place (like the oven with just the pilot light lit) for about an hour and a half or until the dough doubles in size.

(Put your pork in the oven at this point.)

Punch the dough down and turn it out onto a work surface. Using a bench scraper, cut the dough in half, then divide each half into 5 balls. Roll each of those into logs, then cut off ping-pong ball-sized pieces. Roll each piece into a ball, then place on a baking sheet. Cover the balls loosely with plastic wrap and let them rest 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, cut squares of parchment, one for each ball. Grease a chopstick with whatever fat you're using.

Flatten a ball with your hand into an oval, then fold it over the chopstick to form the bun. Remove the chopstick and place the bun on a square of parchment. Return to the plastic wrap and let them rest for about 40 minutes. They will rise a little more.

Set up a steamer on the stove (I used an upside-down cake pan set in the middle of my wok). Fill the bottom with about an inch of water. Bring the water to a boil, then working in batches, steam the buns for about 10 minutes each. Remove the parchment as the steam. You can hold them at room temp and reheat them in the steamer if necessary.

Remove the pork from the oven and slice it crosswise into 1/2-inch slices. To build a bun, open one up (you may need to cut it), slather it with hoisin sauce, then top with pork, scallions, kim chee, pickles, and sriracha.

Eat many of them. Bask in the glow of happy people at your table.

*If I didn't already have The Best Boyfriend in the World, I would totally ask David Chang if he wanted the job. This recipe is based on his from the Momofuku cookbook.


Anonymous said...

HMMMMMM... i just salivated then.I love pork belly so much. We had it yesterday but i did it with lentils and bacon.

Phaedra Elizabeth said...

even though I can't imagine ever actually taking that on, you make it sound so totally do able!

and your photos make them look so yummy!