These fluffy steamed buns have two special tricks up their sleeve: ultra-savory lamb filling and crispy, pan-fried edges.
Growing up in a Cantonese family, we didn’t eat a lot of lamb. The few times I had it, it was tough, dry, and gamey, and I soon wrote it off entirely. I’m not sure when I realized how wrong I was, but it was probably around the same time I discovered cumin lamb. If I had to guess, I’d go with a Xinjiang restaurant in Beijing, where–more out of politeness to my host family than anything else–I gingerly tasted a roasted lamb skewer. Ever since then, cumin lamb has been way up there at the top of the Grace List of Legendary Flavor Combinations.
In China, lamb is often associated with the northwestern region of Xinjiang, which is home to a number of Muslim ethnic minority groups known as Huizu. (Despite my family’s lack of appreciation for lamb, I am a quarter Hui!) Meanwhile, pan-fried buns (sheng jian bao, or 生煎包) were made famous in Shanghai, where they’re most often found stuffed with succulent pork. I learned that pan-frying technique from Phil’s mom, who’s known for making shockingly large batches of sheng jian bao every Thanksgiving and doling them out to lucky friends and family. I had an inkling that the same technique would be just as good, if not better, with cumin lamb.
Traditionally, Chinese buns are stuffed with a raw filling, which is cooked during the steaming process. For these buns, we amp up the flavor by browning the ground lamb in a pan with onions (gotta have that Maillard reaction), which offers the additional benefit of being able to adjust the seasoning to your taste. Next, we pan-fry the buns in the rendered fat from the lamb, turning them a delightful golden brown. Finally, we steam them until the bread turns soft and fluffy. I like to serve these right out of the pan, which helps keep the bottoms crisp. And if you’re like me, you’ll skip the chopsticks – bao are finger food.
- 1 tsp (3g) instant yeast
- 3/4 cup warm water
- 2 tbsp (25g) granulated sugar
- 2.5 cups (300g) all-purpose flour
- 2 tbsp (15g) cornstarch
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/8 tsp baking soda
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 1 lb (453g) ground lamb
- 3 tbsp ground cumin
- 1.5 tsp cornstarch
- 1 tbsp light soy sauce
- 1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
- 1 tsp chili powder
- 1/4 tsp sugar
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 scallions, diced
- 1 small bunch cilantro, minced
- Cast-iron or nonstick pan with a lid
- Stand mixer
- Rolling pin
4-6 (16 buns)
- Add the yeast to the warm water and allow to bloom for 5 minutes. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the ingredients using the paddle attachment. Once the yeast has bloomed (the water will look frothy), add the oil and yeast mixture and continue stirring with the paddle until combined.
- Switch to the dough hook and knead the dough, starting on the lowest speed and then increasing to speed 3 once the dough forms a ball. Knead for several minutes until the dough is smooth and shiny, but not sticky. When you press the dough lightly with a finger, it should leave a slight depression.
- Form the dough into a ball. Grease evenly with 1 tsp oil and return to the mixer bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to proof in a warm place for 30 minutes, or until the dough doubles in size. Meanwhile, prepare the filling.
- Preheat a cast-iron or nonstick pan over medium-high heat. In a medium bowl, add the lamb, cumin, cornstarch, light soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, chili powder, sugar, and salt and mix to combine.
- Once the pan is nice and hot, saute the diced onion in the sesame oil until golden.
- Add the lamb mixture to the pan and savor the resulting sizzle. Cook for another 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the lamb is browned all over. Adjust seasoning to taste.
- Allow the filling to cool slightly, then scoop into a medium bowl. Reserve a small handful of scallions and cilantro to garnish the finished buns, then stir the rest into the filling. Leave the rendered lamb fat in the pan to fry the buns in later.
- Gently deflate the risen dough and knead a few times to remove air bubbles. Roll the dough into a log and cut into 16 pieces. Loosely cover the pieces with plastic wrap so they don’t dry out.
- Working one at a time, flatten a dough ball with your palm and use a small rolling pin to roll it into a 4” circle. The center of the circle should be slightly thicker than the edges, but there’s no need to sweat the details too much at this step.
- Place 1.5-2 tbsp of filling in the center of the dough and pleat the bun. The cooked filling won’t stick together nicely like raw filling does, so this will be a little messy! If you’re hopeless at pleating like me, you can use my easier, albeit less pretty, method of simply pulling the edges of the dough together to meet at the top. All that really matters is to avoid letting the filling touch the edges of your dough, as the grease will prevent the dough from sticking together.
- Cover the finished bun with plastic wrap and repeat until all the buns are pleated. Rest the buns for 15-20 minutes.
Unless you have an extremely large pan, you’ll have to cook multiple batches. My 10″ cast-iron skillet fit about half of the buns. If you have two pans, feel free to parallelize.
- If this is your first round of frying, return the pan with the lamb fat to medium heat. Otherwise, add 1 tbsp of oil to a clean pan. Space the buns an inch apart in the pan, as they’ll expand considerably once steamed. Allow the bottoms to fry for about a minute, until lightly golden.
- Sprinkle 1/4 cup of water around the pan, cover with a lid, and reduce the heat to low. Ensure there’s a little space for steam to escape and steam the buns for 5-10 minutes, until the water has evaporated entirely.
- Remove the lid and cook to your desired level of pan-fried goodness. Depending on the heat of your stove, they could be ready now, or they might need another minute or two. If you’re serving out of the pan, stop when they’re slightly lighter than you’d like, as they’ll continue cooking in the residual heat.
- Garnish with scallions, cilantro, and sesame seeds, and serve immediately. I like these best dipped in a mix of Laoganma chili crisp and soy sauce, but I wouldn’t say no to a yogurt sauce either. Leftovers will keep in the fridge for a few days and can be reheated the same way. Alternatively, see the Tips section for how to freeze them.
- Proofing: The ideal temperature for proofing yeast is 95°F. You can use the proof setting on your oven if you’re lucky enough to have a fancy oven, or preheat to the lowest temperature for 5 minutes and then turn off the oven. Alternatively, you can proof at room temperature for about an hour.
- Blooming the yeast: Technically, you don’t have to bloom instant yeast in warm water like you do active-dry, so it should be okay to skip this step. That said, the Minimalist Baker folks bloom theirs for better dispersion, and I’m certainly not going to argue with them!
- Freeze ’em: Pan-fried buns freeze surprisingly well. Space the fried buns out on a baking pan and place in the freezer for 20 minutes. At that point, you can transfer them to a Ziploc freezer bag without them sticking. To reheat, follow the same cooking process, but add 1/3 cup of water instead of 1/4 cup and steam for 8-12 minutes, until the filling is hot and the bottoms have re-crisped.