For years, I’ve heard numerous friends wax poetic about David Chang’s legendary Momofuku restaurants. Even non-foodie friends have raved to me about it. Alas, I have never been there. And feeling left out, I’ve tried to get in the act by buying Chang’s cookbook and recreating some of his popular recipes. But there was one recipe that I was dying to try, and just never had the opportunity to – until now. Yes, dear readers, I have finally (and successfully) made, drooled over and scarfed down Momofuku’s Steamed Pork Buns. And everyone was right. They are incredible!
One of the reasons I’d never tried Chang’s recipe was because it’s long. Long recipes scare me. They translate to “very complicated”, “tedious” and… well…”long”. This recipe is really none of those things. Okay, maybe it is a little long, but it isn’t complicated or tedious. And once you break it down by component, it’s actually quite manageable. While these steamed pork buns would never qualify as a quick, week night dinner, they’re definitely worth a go when you have more time to spend.
Another reason I’d never made these buns before is because pork belly is scare around these parts. I can usually find it frozen, but rarely ever fresh. I hate to buy frozen meat. I hate to buy fresh meat and freeze it too. It’s just one of my little quirks. Don’t judge me.
A few weeks ago, I stopped into Whole Foods to stock up on my favorite yogurt. As I passed by the meat counter, I glanced over to admire the meat, and lo and behold – I saw fresh pork belly. I think my heart skipped a beat. I sidled up to the counter and picked up a few pounds, knowing exactly what I would make with them. Seriously, if I had known then how fab this recipe would turn out, I would have bought more!
When I got home, the first thing I did was brine the pork belly in salt and sugar, as per the recipe. Chang says to brine at least six hours or overnight. I chose overnight. The next morning I slid the meat into the oven and roasted it until it looked like this:
Oooh! Get a load of that crispy, melty, porky goodness!
Once the pork belly is cool enough to handle, you need to wrap it up nice and tight in plastic wrap or foil and let it chill in the fridge for a few hours. Don’t skip this step, no matter how tempted you are to dig into that pork! It will fall apart if you try to cut it now. The meat needs to be thoroughly chilled in order to get good, clean cuts.
See? Good, clean cuts.
But, here’s the thing. Once the pork is cold, you have to heat it up again in order to eat it. Chang says to just heat it up in a skillet for a few minutes. I decided to take this as an opportunity to add another layer of flavors. Yeah, I know. I can never leave well enough alone.
I minced some garlic, ginger, scallions and a hot chili pepper from my garden and sautéed them together in a pan.
Then, I made a little sauce by swirling in some soy sauce, rice vinegar and brown sugar. When it got nice and bubbly, I slipped in the pork belly slices and let them simmer for a few minutes. At the very end, I swirled in a splash of fresh lime juice to brighten things up a little.
While the pork belly slices were heating up, it was time to make the steamed buns. Chang includes a recipe for “made from scratch” buns in his book. And if you have the time and inclination, it’s certainly worth giving it a try. But, I found the most brilliant cheater recipe over at Jaden’s Steamy Kitchen site using none other than refrigerated buttermilk biscuit dough. Yup. You read that right. Refrigerated dough! Is that not genius?!?!
You just take the biscuits out of the tube and roll each out into a four-inch oval.
Then, you fold each oval in half, set them on little squares of parchment and steam them. It doesn’t get much easier than this, people.
I used a bamboo steamer set over a wok to steam mine. If you don’t have one, you can use a rack or just set a small ovenproof bowl upside down in your wok and lay a plate with your buns on top.
See how nice and puffy they get?
To assemble the buns, carefully unfold each one and spread a little hoisin sauce inside. Next, lay a slab of that luscious, unctuous pork belly in there too. Top with some Quick Pickled Cucumbers or pickled daikon, or both – like I did. Then, grab a few napkins and a cold beer, and dig in! Just be prepared to swoon, because that’s what you’re likely to do.
The hype is well deserved, people. Momofuku’s steamed pork buns are a revelation – a cacophony of flavors and textures all exploding in your mouth at once. You all need to find yourselves some pork bellies and make. these. now.
For the pork belly:
- 2 pounds fresh, skinless pork belly
- 1/4 cup kosher salt
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
For the buns:
- Flour for sprinkling and rolling
- 1 7.5-ounce can refrigerated buttermilk biscuit dough
- 10 parchment paper squares, about 4″ x 4″
For the steamed buns:
- 2 tablespoons congealed pork belly fat or vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon minced ginger
- 1 small birds eye chili pepper, minced (optional)
- 1/2 cup chopped scallions
- 3 tablespoons brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
For the garnish:
Brine the Pork Belly: Place the pork belly in a snug fitting container. Whisk the salt and sugar together in a small bowl and rub all over the pork belly. Tightly cover the container and let it sit in the fridge for at least 6 hours – overnight is even better.
Roast the Pork Belly: Preheat the oven to 450 F. Remove pork belly from its brining container and pat it dry with paper towels. Place it in a small roasting pan or baking sheet, fat side up, and roast for 30 minutes. Baste the pork belly and continue roasting for another 20-30 minutes, depending on the size and thickness of your pork belly The fat should start to get brown and crackly, but not black and burned. Start checking it after 20 minutes to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Reduce the oven temperature to 225 F and cook for another hour, or until the belly is tender, but not falling apart. Continue to baste every 30 minutes. To test if the pork belly is tender, poke the top with your finger. It should have a soft pillowy feel.
When the pork belly is cool enough to handle, remove it from the baking pan and and wrap it in foil. Chill it in the fridge for several hours or overnight. The meat must be thoroughly chilled in order to make clean slices. Reserve the fat and pan drippings for another use.
Prepare the Buns: Dust work surface lightly with flour. Open the can of dough and separate out the biscuits. There should be 10 in the can. Keep the biscuits loosely covered with plastic wrap while you work. Roll each biscuit into an small oval, about 3″ x 5″, and fold in half. A small fondant rolling pin works great for this. Place each oval on a parchment square. Keep covered until ready to steam.
To steam the buns, fill a wok or a large wide pot with a couple inches of water. If you have a bamboo steamer, place the base inside the wok or pot. If not, lay a steamer rack inside. If you have neither, you can also use a shallow ovenproof bowl turned upside down. You need something that can prop up a plate. Just make sure that the water doesn’t reach the top and that you can still cover the wok/pot.
If using a steamer, lay half of the ovals of dough on the parchment squares in the steamer basket, if using. If you’re using a rack or bowl, lay a plate on top of the rack. Again, place the dough on parchment squares on the plate. Don’t crowd then as they will puff up and stick together during steaming.
Bring the water to a simmer, cover and steam the buns for 15 minutes. Remove and repeat with the remaining dough.
Reheat the Pork: Remove the pork belly from the fridge and slice it into 1/2-inch thick slices. Whisk the brown sugar, rice vinegar, soy sauce and water together in a small bowl.
Heat the pork fat or oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the garlic, ginger, chili pepper and scallions and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the liquid to the pan, increase heat and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and lay the pork belly slices in the skillet. Let simmer, uncovered until the pork belly slices are heated through. Remove the meat and keep warm. Continue to simmer the sauce until it has reduced. This step can be done while the buns are steaming.
Put it All Together: Carefully open each bun and spread a bit of hoisin sauce inside. Add a slice of pork belly and top with some cucumber slices and do chua. Fold the top of the bun over its contents, take a bite and prepare to swoon.