As absurd as that headline may sound to you, it’s a question many home cooks ask. What is the Chinese secret to getting their buns so snowy white? It’s like how is Wonder Bread produced? In Asia, there’s the notion – just like there used to be in much of the developed western world – that white colored food reflects modern progress, purity, and civility. (If you want more on this, read Laura Shapiro’s Perfection Salad and note what she says about the use of white sauce on page 91.) I have done a fair number of experiments, as a previous post on The Trick to Making Bao described, but I’d not gotten down to the nitty gritty. Here they are:
Does adding vinegar to bao dough make it whiter? Sorry. No. I’ve read of that trick in a number of Chinese American recipes and have tried it out, but the vinegar doesn’t do anything to the color. I suspect that the deal with adding the vinegar has to do with developing gluten in the dough. In order to get white bao, many Chinese American cooks use low-gluten (low-protein), bleached cake flour for their bao dough; cake flour is milled from soft wheat and has 8 to 10% gluten/protein. To make up for the flour’s lack of gluten a touch of vinegar is added to result in more chewy dough.
Does putting vinegar in the water for steaming produce white bao? Nope. It just makes for a sour smelling kitchen. I never understood the rationale for this approach.
What can I do to produce snowy white bao? The answer is the flour. Below is a photo of three kinds of ultra-white wheat flour that I collected for the purposes of developing recipes for Asian Dumplings. From left to right: Taiwanese all-purpose flour by Sunlight Foods Corporation that I purchased from Ranch 99 market; legendary White Lily All-Purpose flour obtained from a trip to the American south; and Malaysian Red Man (Phoon Huat) Hong Kong Flour brought back from a trip to Singapore. Note how the Taiwanese and Malaysian flour have pictures of bao on their labels, as if to signal to consumers, “Buy me if you want white bao!”
These three are all specialty flours that most of us can’t just go down the street and get. But I tried them out and in testing the flour for making steamed Chinese bao, the Hong Kong Flour produced by Red Man yielded shockingly white results, followed by the Taiwanese flour. White Lily came in third. All three produced steamed bao dough that was whiter than supermarket Gold Medal all-purpose. (The top three bao in the photo at the top of The Trick to Making Bao post are of bao made from Red Man, White Lily, and Sunlight Foods flours respectively; Gold Medal are on the bottom row.) But frankly, the flavor of the dough was flat in comparison to the Gold Medal flour, which even in a bleached form, had more natural sweet wheat flavor.
Are all bao in Asia super white? Nope. In wealthy urban areas such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, the bao tend to be white. I’ve had outstanding not-snowy-white bao made from not-so-bleached flour in the countryside. However, even in Shanghai, I purchased nice tasting, not-so-white bao from a storefront bao vendor. You just have to look, but the real point here is that not all bao have to be super white to be delicious or authentic!
When to use bleached vs. unbleached flour? When flour is first milled, it’s naturally yellowish in color. Flour bleaching agents are added (such as peroxide and chlorine) to yield whiter color and finer grain. My thought is that some bleaching is fine but when you overdo it, you rob the flour of too much flavor. Note that for making tender sweets, such as cookies and cakes, I use bleached all-purpose flour. For savories, such as pot stickers or poached shuijiao dumplings, unbleached flour contributes a more toothsome texture and deep flavor.
How to choose all purpose flour for bao and other Asian dumplings? High-protein flour, such as King Arthur All-Purpose (flour stats sheet), do not work for most Asian foods because the gluten (protein) level is too high – around 11.7 percent. Doughy Asian foods are not of the rustic European kind; chewiness is obtained from the addition of starches or other techniques, not from the wheat flour alone. All-purpose flour with a moderate about of gluten — about 10.5 percent — works best for Asian dumplings. I spoke with a Gold Medal representative earlier this year and their all-purpose flour has a moderate gluten level.
Conclusion: For good flavor in Asian dumplings and pastries, flour from the supermarket work just fine. If you want bright white results, seek out specialty flour such as the ones pictured above.
- My baking soda and bao mistake — see what happens when baking soda is used in the dough