My xiao long bao story
To be honest, I only had the first bite of xiao long bao when I was in my 20’s!
I grew up eating Cantonese dim sum when I was a kid. Every Sunday, my parents and I head to the old-fashioned dim sum store for breakfast. I would eagerly wait for the old aunty pushing the food cart through the tight space between the wooden tables and rickety chairs, and guessing what is hiding in the stack of bamboo steamers shielded behind the screen of vapor wafting up from the stove.
Char siu bao, shumai, shrimp dumpling, liu sha bao, lo mai gai, and mini egg tarts. I will gobble up at lightning speed to fill my greedy tummy, wash down with a cup of scented pu erh tea to kill my unquenchable desire.
Back then, xiao long bao was not on the menu of this Cantonese dim sum store. During the earlier ’70s, Northern Chinese restaurants were hardly found in my hometown. It was not until it gained popularity years later after I moved to Kuala Lumpur when I had my first bite onto the dainty xiao long bao, the cream de la creme among all dim sums.
Note: there are many alternate names in English. The following translations are all referred to 小笼包 in Chinese: xiaolongbao, xiao long bao, soup dumplings, xiaolong mantou, XLB, Chinese Soup Dumplings, Shanghai Soup Dumplings.
What is xiao long bao?
Xiao long bao is the most delicate Chinese dim sum on earth. It has a delicate skin with the savory meat filling and a high umami soup holding within the pleated pouch. You will be amazed by the treasure elixir oozing from the paper-thin skin when you poke it gently with the chopsticks. Dip the pouch into the vinegar-soy-ginger sauce and stuff into your mouth gluttonously, the feeling is like halfway to paradise.
Attempt the unthinkable to me- making xiao long bao at home
According to a video released by the Michelin starred restaurant Ding Tai Fong, the whole process spans over three days to complete. That is way too long for most of the home cooks like me. I want to take up the challenge to spend less time making this delightful xiao long bao, striking balance between the lengthy process and the flavor.
I dedicate my whole weekend to test different ways to simplify the method without sacrificing the flavor. This article is about my findings, not to claim to yield the best result. But I have mentioned every bit of what I have gone through, and I believe it is worth anyone to read through if you want to make xiao long bao.
The recipe is for you if you are looking for a simple way to make it at home with the quality closest to the restaurant. I use only pork (you can use chicken) for the filling to simplify the work and use only flour, water, and salt for the pastry. As for the aspic, I use chicken bones and feet instead of pork skin because it is readily available. All these steps simplify the process without compromising the flavor.
Let’s get started.
How to make xiao long bao
This recipe is divided into four main sections- preparing the aspic, get ready the filling, making the wrapper (skin), and pleating the xiao long bao.
1. Preparing the aspic
For most people, it is bewildering how to encase the soup inside the delicate pastry skin along with the meat filling. It sounds like magic and only can be achieved with a pair of skillful hands.
The trick is to concentrate the soup with gelatin derived from the pork skin or chicken feet. It can also be done without the skin, and gel up with gelatin powder or agar agar.
By doing so, the broth will turn into jelly after chilling. It will remain as jelly as long as it is at room temperature.
Cut those jelly into small pieces and then mix with the meat filling. You can now wrap it with the skin without worrying that the broth will spill. The jelly will turn into the liquid to form a savory broth after steaming.
a) The traditional way
The traditional method is to boil the bones with pork skin. Pork skin has plenty of gelatin, which will dissolve in the broth and solidify when it cools.
Add the pork skin to the bones and simmer for about 3 hours. Remove the bones and skin, and filter the broth to get a clear liquid. Transfer to a container and keep it refrigerated until it turns into jelly. It is now ready to mix with the filling.
b) The pork-free method- use chicken feet
If you are not comfortable using pork, or you prefer a pork-free recipe, use can substitute it with chicken bones and feet.
Chicken feet have a high content of gelatin, which is an ideal substitute for pork skin.
First, simmer the chicken bones for an hour. Clean the chicken feet and add to the pot. Continue simmer for two hours or until the bone starts to break down. Remove the bones and the feet, filter the broth, and keep it in the refrigerator. The broth will gel up to form the aspic.
c) The quick and easy way with gelatin
The simplest way to prepare the aspic is to use the store-bought chicken stock added with gelatin or agar agar. The method is similar to making jelly. However, do not expect to achieve the same quality of making it from scratch.
I choose the chicken feet method, Although it is not truly authentic. Why? Because chicken feet are readily available than pork skin. Furthermore, chicken is universal, which is suitable for different ethnic groups.
2. Get ready the filling
The main filling of the traditional xiao long bao is minced pork. The pork should have about 30% of fat so that the filling is moist and tender. Nowadays, restaurants are serving xiao long bao with a variety of fillings. Some restaurant chefs like to add some shrimp meat, and others would prefer chicken over pork.
Ding Tai Fong even has truffle xiao long bao! So let’s be creative.
The filling is seasoned with a combination of ginger and scallion. Some cooks prefer to chop both finely, and others prefer to boil them briefly to extract the flavor. Other commonly used seasonings are soy sauce and oyster sauce.
An essential technique in preparing the meat filling is by adding sufficient liquid to moisten the minced meat. The liquid can be plain water or the ginger-scallion extract. Add the liquid to the minced meat and mix until homogeneous to form a soft paste that giggles when shaking it lightly. This liquid is added slowly so that the meat has enough time to absorb all the liquid.
You can prepare the filling in advance. Place it in a container and keep refrigerated while not in use.
3. Making the xiao long bao skin
Xiao long bao’s skin is made only with flour, salt, and water. It looks simple, but the challenge is to make the dough that can be rolled out until paper-thin. The trick is to have the right amount of water and the correct kneading technique.
The amount of water must be enough so that the dough is stretchable. It also needs to fold and knead multiple times, just like making puff pastry. You need to knead the dough for a few minutes, let it rest and relax, then turn ninety degrees and continue kneading. This kneading method will stretch the gluten in different directions and relax the dough and prevent it from retracting after being rolled out.
I will make the standard xiao long bao skin with all-purpose flour. Some chefs prefer to use high gluten flour because they want the skin more stretchable. Others may prefer a more complicated method by combining the basic dough with another dough added with yeast. For simplicity, I will make the basic dough with all-purpose flour.
After making the dough, divide it into small portions. The skin for each xiao long bao served at Ding Tai Fong is only 5 grams. I will attempt to make a bigger one with 10 grams of skin, which is easier to manage.
4. Wrapping the xiao long bao
Wrapping the xiao long bao requires some practice. Fortunately, I have some experience in making shrimp dumplings, so my learning curve is not that steep.
You have a choice to close the dumpling at the top or to leave a small hole.
Steam the xiao long bao over high heat with plenty of water. It is best to serve with an accompanying sauce constituted with soy sauce, ginger, and finely julienne ginger.
The step-by-step guide to making xiao long bao at home
Below are the detailed steps on how to prepare the xiao long bao. The instruction in the recipe card is the abbreviated version. If you are in doubt, please follow the instructions below for the details.
1. Prepare the chicken aspic
- Clean the chicken bones with water.
- Place the bones in a stockpot filled with cold water enough to submerge all the bones.
- Add the ginger slices and scallion sections, salt, and peppercorns.
- Bring the water to boil, remove the scum floating on the surface by filtering the broth with a wire mesh skimmer.
- Reduce the heat to a bare simmer for one hour.
- Clean the chicken feet with water. Cut off the claw with a pair of scissors and add to the pot of chicken broth.
- Cover and continue simmer over low heat for two hours or until the liquid reduces to half. At this point, all the essence from the chicken has been released into the broth at this stage. The meat attached to the bones will fall off once you touch it gently.
- Remove the bones and the chicken feet. Pour the chicken broth through a wire mesh strainer to remove the small debris.
- Transfer it to a container and refrigerate overnight.
- On the next day, remove the chicken aspic from the refrigerator.
- There will be a layer of solidified oil on top of the chicken aspic once it cools. You have an option to remove the oil or leave it as it is.
- Cut it into small pieces and mix it with the meat filling.
2. Get ready the meat filling
- I like to use either pork butt or pork belly as they have some fat content. The pork should contain some fats, ideally about thirty percent. (For the pork-free version, substituted it with 70% of chicken breast meat and 30% of shrimp meat.)
- Cut the meat into small pieces, then mince it finely. You can also use the store-bought minced meat, but you won’t be able to control the fat and lean meat ratio.
- Season the meat with sugar, salt, light soy sauce, and white pepper. You may also add some oyster sauce.
- Prepare the ginger-scallion water: Cut the scallion into shot sessions, and coarsely chop the ginger. Transfer the ginger and scallion to a small pot of cold water. Bring it to the boil and simmer for 3 minutes. Strain to get the clean ginger-scallion extract.
- Add the volume of the extract as mentioned in the recipe to the meat slowly. Add two tablespoons of the extract and stir until it is completely absorbed, which may take about two minutes. Repeat the process until all the extract is absorbed. After the extract is fully incorporated and held by the meat, it will turn into a meat paste, jiggle when you shake it, and the individual piece of meat is no longer visible.
- Add the aspic to the minced meat. The amount of aspic should be the same as the filling. Mix well.
- Refrigerate for half an hour. It is easier to wrap the filling when it is cold.
3. Make the skin for xiao long bao
- Mix the all-purpose flour, salt, and water in a bowl. Knead the dough for five minutes until it picks up all the flour in the bowl.
- Cover and let it rest in the refrigerator for ten minutes.
- Use a rolling pin to roll out the dough into a rectangle, then roll up like making a swiss roll. Turn the dough ninety degrees and repeat the rolling process. Total = 5x. Cover and let it rest for ten minutes. Turning the dough ninety degrees for the subsequent rolling ensure the gluten is stretched to another direction.
- Repeat the roll-out/roll-up/resting step above three times.
- Shape the dough to become a long strip. You can cut the dough lengthwise if it is difficult to shape it.
- Cut the dough into 8g to 10g portions. (The smaller it is, the harder to pleat. However, don’t be too big as the word Xiao means small in Chinese.)
- Sprinkle some flour to the individual portions to prevent them from sticking together.
- Flatten each portion with your palm to form a circle.
- Roll out the skin with a rolling pin. Start rolling from the edge towards the center, but stop short at a quarter before hitting the center. This method forms the thicker center as the base of the xiao long bao and the thinner peripheral which is suitable for pleating.
- Turn the skin slightly after each roll to keep the shape as a circle.
4. Pleating and steaming the xiao long bao
- Place the xiao long bao skin on the table. (Hold it with your hand if you are skillful.) Scoop some filling at the center of the skin, away from the side. The amount of filling should be about twice the weight of the skin. Make sure it is clear from the side.
- Press the filling lightly so that it adheres to the skin for easy handling. Fold the skin by pinching it with the thumb and index finger all the way around. Try to make as many small folds as possible. Seal the xiao long bao by pinching the skin together at the last fold.
The video in this article shows clearly the pleating process.
- Place a wet cloth in the dim sum steamer. Arrange the xiao long bao on it. Leave some space in between each bao.
- Cover and steam over medium to high heat for about eight minutes. (If the weight of the skin is 8g, steam for eight minutes. Steam for ten minutes for the xiao long bao made with 10g of skin.)
- It is best to serve hot with the dipping sauce.
5. Making the dipping sauce
You only need three ingredients to make the dipping sauce. Mix the Zhenjiang (or Chinkiang/镇江醋) vinegar with light soy sauce and add some finely julienned ginger right before serving. It is that simple. You can find the quantity required for each ingredient in the recipe card below.
Additional information (important)
- The process of making this basic dumpling skin is quick and easy. It is best to be eaten immediately, because the skin, especially the thicker part, will turn hard l after some time. But I think it does not matter because it is best to eat xiao long bao when it is hot.
- It is important to knead the dough for 5 minutes each time and rest for 10 minutes at intervals. You can use your hand to knead, but I find that it is easier to use a rolling pin. It is also crucial to turn the dough degrees after rolling out each time. This way will enable the gluten stretch to all directions. The dough will become shiny and smooth, and you can roll out the dough paper-thin.
- Pleating is an art, but practice makes perfect. I’m still learning and improving my skill. However, it doesn’t matter if you are serving it at home. I am happy with dates as long as it tastes good.
- If you want to simplify the process. I suggest you simplified it by using the readymade minced meat. It will save you a lot of time and energy to cut and mince the pork. Most of the store-bought minced pork has a certain amount of fat, which is quite ideal for the filling.
- However, I strongly suggest making the aspic from scratch. The shortcut method using store-bought chicken broth does not make the cut because the broth’s flavor is the most critical part of xiao long bao.
- Steam the xiao long bao in the steamer line with a wet cloth. Please avoid using the baking paper as the xiao long bao will stick on it and break when you remove it from the steamer.
- I suggest you simmer the broth a day before serving. While you are simmering the broth, prepare the filling and make the dough. On the next day, at the solidify aspic to the mincemeat and proceed to wrap the dumpling.
For the aspic (A)
- 1.5kg (3 pounds) chicken bone (or 1 medium size chicken)
- 10 chicken feet
- Water sufficient to submerge the bones
- 5 slices ginger
- 1 stalk scallion, cut into 5cm (2") sections
- 1 tsp white peppercorns
- 1 tbsp salt
For the ginger-scallion extract (B)
- 3 stalks scallions, cut into short sections
- 1 tbsp ginger, coarsely chopped
- 150 (5 fl oz) ml of water
For the filling (C)
- 400g (14 oz) pork butts (refer to note for alternative)
- 4 tbsp ginger-scallion extract
- 2 tsp sugar
- 2 tbsp light soy sauce
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp ground white pepper
- 2 tsp Shaoxing wine (optional)
- 1/2 tsp sesame oil
- 400g aspic (from A)
For the skin (D)
- 300g (10.5 oz) all-purpose flour
- 160ml (5.5 fl oz) water
- 2g salt
For the dipped sauce (E)
- 4 tbsp Zhenjiang vinegar
- 4 tbsp light soy sauce
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 2 tbsp finely julienne ginger
Prepare the chicken aspic
- Place the bone in a stockpot filled with cold water enough to submerge all the bones. Add the ginger slice and scallion sections, salt, and the peppercorns.
- Bring the water to boil, remove the scum. Simmer for one hour.
Add the chicken feet. Simmer over low heat for two hours.
- Remove the bones. Filter the chicken broth. Refrigerate overnight.
Cut the aspic into small pieces.
For the filling
- Prepare the ginger-scallion extract by boiling (B) for 3 minutes. Drain. Combine (C) except the aspic. Mix it very well until the meat fully absorbs the liquid.
- Add the aspic and mix well. Refrigerate for half an hour.
For the skin
- Mix the all-purpose flour, salt, and water in a bowl. Mix until it picks up all the flour in the bowl. Cover and rest for ten minutes. Roll out the dough into a long rectangle, then roll up like forming a Swiss roll. Turn ninety degrees and roll out again. Repeat five times. Cover and let it rest for ten minutes,
- Repeat the rolling and resting step three times. Cut the dough into 8g to 10g portions. Flatten each portion with your palm to form a circle. Roll out the skin with a rolling pin to form a circle. The center should be thicker, and the edges should be thinner.
- Scoop some filling to the center of the skin. Press the filling lightly so that it adheres to the skin for easy handling. Seal the filling inside the skin by making multiple pleats as shown in the video.
- Place a wet cloth in the steamer. Arrange the xiao long bao on it. Leave some space in between each bao.
- Cover and steam over medium to high heat for about eight to ten minutes. Serve hot with the dipping sauce.
- Mix the vinegar, sesame oil and light soy sauce and add some finely julienned ginger right before serving.
Use 70% chicken thigh meat and 30% shrimp meat to substitute the pork if you prefer the pork-free version.
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Amount Per Serving: Calories: 33Total Fat: 1gSaturated Fat: 0gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 1gCholesterol: 6mgSodium: 338mgCarbohydrates: 3gFiber: 0gSugar: 0gProtein: 2g
This data was provided and calculated by Nutritionix on 7/5/2020