Introduction: Super Soft and Moist Chinese Bakery Buns

I recently stumbled upon the bread contest and thought, “Whoa! I can actually submit a half-decent entry for this!” Then it occurred to be that being stuck on campus, it means I am currently without my bread making ingredients/tools. As a result, there will be no photos with the exception of the final product. Instead, you'll get to see the results of my attempts to draw! I'll try to get some photos up when I am reunited with my bread gear.

After much trial and error, this recipe seems to produce a product that is the closest to the soft, moist, and chewy texture of the buns sold at Chinese bakeries. It uses a water roux to achieve the desired texture.

Total time from start to finished product will be approximately 3.5 hours. This recipe will yield about 15 dinner roll-sized buns.

Step 1: Gather Tools

Before you rush out to buy ingredients, make sure you have all the essential tools. Many can be improvised, but the scale is a MUST because all measurements will be given by weight for accuracy.

Large mixing bowl
Wooden spoon
Proofing container (mixing bowl or other large container)
Bowl scraper (stiff spatula works too)
Dough cutter (upside down scraper or large non-serrated knife)
Baking tray/bread pan
Tea towel or plastic wrap

Dough kneader (bread machine, stand mixer, cheap labour…)
Probe thermometer
Parchment paper
Pastry brush

Step 2: Gather Ingredients

Get all your ingredients ready. You can weigh everything before hand or tare your scale as you add each new ingredient to the mixing vessel (this won’t work for the eggs though).

For the water roux (the secret to soft, moist bread!):
25 g bread flour
125 g water

Rest of the dough:
540 g bread flour
86 g sugar
8 g salt
11 g Instant yeast
86 g whole eggs
59 g whipping cream
63 g milk
144 g water roux (made from above ingredients)
49 g softened butter

1 egg (for egg wash)
1 tsp sesame seeds (optional)
1 tbsp flour (for dusting your work surface)

Step 3: Prepare the Roux

Weigh out the flour and water for the roux and mix well in a small saucepan. Cook over low to medium heat and use a whisk to stir continuously until it reaches 65 °C. If you do not have a probe thermometer, just keep stirring until you notice that the whisk cuts through the thickened paste and exposes the bottom on the pan, leaving a trail behind. Alternatively, cook the mixture until it thickens and continue to cook for one additional minute. Remove it from the heat and allow to cool to room temp.

You can make the roux ahead of time and store it in the fridge for a day. However, if the roux turns grey in the fridge, chuck it and make a fresh batch!

Step 4: Prepare the Dough

In the large mixing bowl, combine the bread flour, sugar, salt, and instant yeast. (If you are not using dry active yeast instead of instant, let it dissolve in the milk and add it to the dough with the liquids). Then add the eggs, whipping cream, and milk. Stir it with your wooden spoon until combined.

Retrieve your roux and add it to the ball along with the softened butter. Continue to mix. Stirring with the wooden spoon will become futile soon, so just dunk your hands in and work the dough together.

Once it has formed a cohesive mass, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface (you shouldn’t need much flour since the butter will lubricate the surface and prevent stickage) and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic. The kneading process forms gluten, which for various reasons, is responsible for the unique texture of bread. See Step 8 for kneading  tips.

It usually takes me around 12 to 15 minutes to complete the kneading. If you own some sort of kneading device, mix in everything in the same order and knead for 10 min or until smooth and elastic.

Step 5: Proof the Dough

Form the dough into a tight ball (see step 8 for tips on this) and place it seam down in a lightly oiled proofing container which you have weighed ahead of time! Take note of the total weight with the dough and then cover it with a damp tea towel or plastic wrap. Place the whole thing in a warm place. While it proofs, calculate the weight of your dough.

Let the dough rise until doubled in size. This takes about an hour to an hour and a half, depending on the ambient temperature.

Step 6: Shape the Dough

After the dough has doubled in size, carefully remove the cover and with the dough still in the proofing container, punch it down with your knuckles. Then turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and gently press out any air bubbles. This will produce a more even texture and help to redistribute some of the sugars for the yeast to chow on.

 Knowing the total weight of the dough, you can now decide how many buns you want to make and divide accordingly. I usually get about 15 dinner roll-sized buns. Dividing the dough equally by weight is important for ensuring uniform baking.

Shape the pieces into round rolls, braids, or any other desired shape. See Step 8 for shaping ideas and tips.

Transfer the shaped dough pieces to either a lightly greased or parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Lightly cover the whole thing with a tea towel or plastic sheet. (I like to butterfly a plastic fruit/veggie bag from the grocery store and use that). Place everything in a warm place and let  it rise until doubled (about 45 min, depending on the ambient temperature). Start preheating your oven to 350 °F in the meantime.

Step 7: Bake the Dough and Eat!

Gently peel off the towel/plastic sheet. The buns should have now doubled in size and are ready for baking. Traditionally, Chinese buns are brushed with an egg wash to get that nice glossy look, so beat an egg and apply with a pastry brush. Additionally, you may sprinkle on some sesame seeds after your have applied the egg wash.

Finally, place the baking sheet into the preheated oven and leave it there for 15-20 minutes (this may vary depending on your oven). The rolls will expand a bit more in the oven and take on a deep caramel colour. Remove the buns from the oven and cool on a cooling rack for at least 5 minutes before consumption.

If you’re not eating them right away, let them come all the way down to room temperature and place in an air-tight container. They will only keep for a couple days, after which, moistness and softness will become less than optimal.

Step 8: Additional Ideas and Tips

Kneading By Hand
There are many methods for kneading dough, but for this recipe, I use what i consider to be the  most basic one. Using the heels of either one or both of your hands, push down on the dough and then away from you. This will flatten out the dough, which you then fold in half towards you and then turn 90 degrees. Repeat this process until the surface of the dough becomes smooth and feel tacky to the touch (if you quickly poke it with a clean finger, you should be able to remove your finger without dough sticking to it). The dough will also pass the windowpane test where if you take a small chunk of the dough and stretch it out, it will stretch to a paper thin “window” that you can see through.

There is no specific amount of kneading time to achieve this stage. Pay attention to the feel of the dough. When it is ready, you’ll notice a significant difference in its resistance to your kneading efforts. Dough can be over-kneaded, at which point it will seem to just fall apart, but I’ve personally never reached this stage either by hand or machine.

Forming a Tight Ball
Forming a tight ball is before proofing the dough is something that I’ve always been told is critical. The rationale is that this step results in a stronger gluten structure that allows more gases to be trapped in the dough during proofing. This has always been something I’ve been skeptical about, but nonetheless, I always form my dough into a tight ball.

One way of doing this with a relatively small amount of dough (i.e. what this recipe calls for) is to hold the dough up with both hands and fold it in half away from you, pressing the two flaps together. Then you rotate the ball 90 degrees as if it was a steering wheel and repeat for 4 or 5 iterations. This will produce a taught skin on the surface of your down. Seal up the final fold and place it seam side down in your container.

Finding a Proofing Location
Professional bakers use a temperature and humidity controlled proofing box. If you want to make one, this Instructable may be of interest to you.

If you don't have the time to tinker around and build your own proofing box, hopefully you have a feline friend! He or she will usually seek out the warmest place in your home to nap. When it's time to proof, borrow your cat's napping spot for an hour and distract him or her for an hour : )

If you can't find a warmer location, the dough will still rise. It will just take a bit longer, so don't despair!

Shaping Tips
Be creative when shaping the buns. For a simple, round bun, place the dough on the counter. Using one hand, push it away from you using the heel of your hand. Then sweep your hand back towards you in a circular motion, using your fingers to draw the dough ball back. Repeat a couple times for each bun. You’ll get a feel for it after the first couple tries.

For the knotted rolls in the cover photo, take your dough piece and roll it into an oblong stip about 6 inches or 15 cm in length. Then tie the strips into a knot.

For 14 more shaping inspiration, see

Other Ideas
Throw some raisins into the dough for raisin buns – I’d go with a quarter of a cup to start with
Add other fillings – any fillings you put in should be cooked and not too watery. Add the fillings at the shaping stage.
Make pull apart rolls – shape the dough into rolls and bake in a cake pan
Make a loaf – instead of making individual buns, you can bake the dough in a 9x5” loaf pan. Just remember to increase baking time to about 35 minutes. Also, cut the egg wash with a tsp of water or use only egg white since excessive browning may occur with the increased baking time.

Final Words
Have fun with this and don't be discouraged if it doesn't work out at first. I've been through many failed loaves and rolls, but It all comes together with a bit of perseverance : )

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