Mantou are plain Chinese steamed buns, made from a yeasted dough of white wheat flour, milk, and sugar. They have smooth, snowy white surfaces and soft and fluffy insides, with just a hint of sweetness.
In northern China, where wheat is the main starch—as opposed to the rice-growing regions of the south—humble mantou are a staple food eaten with every meal. In other parts of the country, you can find them served at restaurants and sold from food carts, most often enjoyed for breakfast—especially washed down with fresh soy milk. For an indulgent dessert, they can be deep-fried until their outsides are crisp and golden, then served with sweetened condensed milk for dipping.
Chinese Steamed Milk Buns, Mantou Recipe
Makes 6 to 8 pieces
Prep time: 30 minutes
Rest time: 45 minutes to 90 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Large mixing bowl
6 (3 x 4-inch) pieces of wax paper
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon instant (rapid rise) yeast
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons whole milk
Make the dough:
In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, instant yeast, and baking powder. Pour in the vegetable oil and milk.
First, use a pair of chopsticks (or fork) to combine the wet and dry ingredients. Then use your hands to knead the mixture until it comes together into a ball of dough, and the sides of the mixing bowl are clean.
Transfer the dough to a flat working surface. Continue to knead the dough until smooth, and there are no bits of dough or flour sticking to your hands or working surface, about 10 minutes.
Cover the dough with an upside-down bowl and let it rest for 3–5 minutes.
Shape the buns:
Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough into a 7 x 14-inch rectangle: First, roll from the middle of the dough to the top, rolling away from you; then, roll from the middle to the bottom, rolling toward you. Press out any air bubbles as you go. Rotate the dough 90 degrees and repeat, first rolling from the middle to the top, and then from the middle to the bottom. Rotate the dough 90 degrees again and repeat, until the dough becomes a rectangular shape and there are no more air bubbles.
Fold the dough into thirds, like a letter: Orient the rectangle of dough vertically, so that the shorter edges are at the top and bottom. First, take the bottom third of the dough and fold it up; then, fold the top flap down and over it.
Rotate the dough 90 degrees and again roll it out into a rectangle, pressing out any air bubbles.
Repeat the above steps once more: Fold the dough into thirds, like a letter; rotate it 90 degrees; and roll it out into a rectangle, pressing out any air bubbles.
Now, roll up the dough into a log: Orient the rectangle of dough horizontally, so that the longer edges are at the top and bottom. Use a pastry brush to brush a thin layer of water all over the surface of the dough. Starting from the bottom, slowly roll the dough up into a long log. If the top edge of the dough begins to curl as you roll, use your fingers to flatten it before continuing. Use your palms to roll the log of dough back and forth until it becomes uniform in size everywhere.
Trim the ends of the log with a sharp knife, then cut it into 6 uniform pieces. Place each piece on its own square of wax paper.
Transfer the pieces of dough to the steamer plate/rack/basket, cover with the lid, and let rest until they double in size, about 45–90 minutes. The warmer and more humid your environment, the faster the dough will rise, so you could speed up the process by putting the steamer in a warm and humid place.
Steam the buns:
Add water to the steamer and bring to a boil. Cover and steam over high heat for 15 minutes.
Turn off the heat. Slightly open the lid to let the steam escape, for about 5 minutes. If you completely uncover the buns right away, they might deflate. Serve.
Tip: Mantou freeze well, so you can make a big batch to stash them in the freezer for later. Simply steam all your mantou (working in batches as needed, depending on how big your steamer is), then let them cool completely and freeze in a single layer in ziploc bags. To reheat, steam them directly from the freezer, over high heat, for about 8 minutes.