Momofuku-Style Pork Buns

Why is it always the smallest dishes that require the most work? Take these two-bite-sized steamed buns: for all the time I spent making them, I probably could have barbecued a whole cow. Twice.

The work began two weeks ago when I started my kim chi, the Korean fermented cabbage pickle. Beyond ingredients I had from the farmers market – napa cabbage, scallions, carrots, garlic, ginger – this recipe called for a few specialty Korean ingredients that necessitated a trip to the always-interesting Shuang Hur Foods, an Asian grocery store on Nicollet in Minneapolis. Perusing the many jars and boxes labelled primarily in various Asian languages that I don’t read, I was a bit overwhelmed. It was easy enough to find Korean chili powder — red powder with Korean characters on it and a picture of a chili – but jarred shrimp was a challenge. I did eventually locate some jars with illustrations of happily frolicking shrimp, but with my ignorance of what was printed on the jars, I was at a loss for how to distinguish between them. What to do? I picked the one with the happiest looking shrimp and headed to the checkout.

Making kim chi is straightforward: salt the cabbage and let it ferment in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, mix with scallions, minced garlic, sliced ginger, shredded carrots, sugar, water and a whole lot of Korean chili powder and return to the refrigerator. My recipe, from David Chang and Peter Meehan’s Momofuku, recommended waiting one week before eating, with the kim chi in its prime in two. The waiting game.

After two weeks had just about passed, and I was getting excited about my kim chi, the time had come to make the buns. The recipe from Momofuku looked simple enough, but it made 50 buns. I had already waited two weeks for my kim chi, and now I was expected to have enough patience to carefully roll out 50 tiny buns? Unfortunately, the book warns against scaling the recipe down: any less dough and a stand mixer can’t be used to knead it.

Too little dough for a stand mixer, but what about for a food processor? I had recently been turned on to the idea of food processor dough kneading by a Food Lab article on New York Style Pizza at Home, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to try it. I dutifully assembled the ingredients – ½ Tbsp yeast, 6 oz water, 9 ½ oz white flour, 3 Tbsp sugar, 1 ½ Tbsp dry milk, ½ Tbsp salt, ¼ tsp baking soda and one-sixth of a cup of shortening – in the bowl of a food processor with the steel blade, locked the cover and hit the switch. I was amazed at how quickly the dough came together and and reached the perfect springy-smooth consistency – about two minutes. I suppose I should have known from the many pasta doughs I’ve pulled together in the processor that it was an ideal kneading machine, but I was surprised how well it worked with a traditional bread dough.

And it was a good thing I saved so much time kneading the dough with the food processor, since there was still lots of work to be done. The dough rose two hours then was punched down, divided into twenty-five rounds,  rested another hour, rolled out, folded, placed on 25 separate 3″ squares of parchment (what, you don’t have 3″ squares of parchment on hand? Better get the scissors), rested another 30 minutes, and finally steamed in four batches. Whew.

As much fun as these buns are to make, they’re not going to be much without something delicious – and preferably porcine – to fill them with. Chang and Meehan slow-roasted pork belly – which actually would have been pretty easy – but I was led down another path by unrelated reading in the Texas Barbecue Cookbook by Rob Walsh: I was going to smoke my pork. But since I live in a tiny apartment without a yard, it would have to be indoor smoking.

There are stovetop gadgets for smoking indoors, but I don’t have one. Instead, I planned to use a technique developed by Cook’s Illustrated that utilized Lapsang Souchong tea. I happened to have a healthy supply of this from the last time I tried the technique a few years ago – because really, who drinks this stuff?

I first salted and peppered thin cutlets of pork shoulder and placed them on a rack that would fit in a half sheet pan. Said half sheet pan was then filled with the ground powder of tea extracted from twenty Lapsang teabags. Placing the rack over the sheet pan, I covered the whole thing tightly in foil and placed this improvised smoker on the stone in my 500ºF oven. This is hot enough to get the tea smoking, and if the pork is frozen briefly before going in the oven it can sit in the smoke for a half hour without overcooking in the intense heat. After the half hour was up, I dropped the heat to 250ºF, poured some water over the tea, and let the chops cook two hours until very tender. By the way, if cutting open and emptying twenty teabags doesn’t strike you as tedious, I guarantee you that scrubbing caked-on tea dust out of every hole of a cooling rack will.

To finish the pork, I made a quick barbecue lacquer by whisking together ketchup, soy sauce, mirin, brown sugar and sriracha. I then painted the sauce on the smoked pork and broiled until the chops shone. I let the pieces cool slightly and chopped them into slivers for serving.

Having fermented my kim chi, steamed my buns, and smoked my pork, I wasn’t especially in the mood to devote many more hours to this meal. Luckily, the other elements – chopped scallions, cucumber pickles (from a long-in-the-fridge jar, thank God), sriracha, and mayo – only needed to be put on the table; diners could assemble the sandwiches themselves.

But while it’s true that small packages may require the most work to get together, the reward can also be very big: these buns were delicious – well worth the effort. While I found that sticking to Chang’s recommended toppings – mayo, sriracha, pickles, pork and scallions — was better than my version using kim chi in place of the pickles, both were very good. Maybe even good enough to make them again.


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6 comments on “Momofuku-Style Pork Buns”

  1. Brian 16 November, 2010 at 12:07 am

    Very nice. I like how you put your own spin on it by smoking the meat and making your own sauce. Bao dough is so versatile. Hopefully these inspire you to make more buns in the future and fill them with whatever you fancy:

  2. A Ann 16 November, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    Ooo, mouthwatering! Can you freeze the bao dough so as to have it on hand?

  3. Tom 16 November, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    I’m not sure if you can freeze the bao dough but you can definitely freeze the bao after steaming them. Just steam them again before serving.

  4. trout caviar 17 November, 2010 at 8:10 am

    Nice buns, Tom! It was just about this time last year that Mary and I were in NYC, wandering around the East Village, and happened upon Momofuku Ssam Bar just as they opened the doors for lunch. We were the first ones in the door, and for most of our lunch, the only people in the place–which we had considered trying in planning the NYC trip, but despaired upon reading how crowded the place always was! Anyway, it was a memorable lunch, and the pork buns were indeed, as you noted, exactlly perfect with their modest garnishes.

    Once again I’m impressed with your adventurous spirit in the kitchen, but I curse you for making me crave pork buns first thing in the morning! We are not a civilized society that does not have a noodle shop on every corner….

    See ya soon~ Brett

  5. Tom 17 November, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    Brett- You only have yourself to blame for any pork buns cravings I’ve induced, since it was you that got me into the Momofuku thing. I agree about the noodle shops problem – why can’t any of our newly-minted street vendors embrace that concept?

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