I’ve made buns from many kinds of dough and one of the most interesting ones is refrigerated biscuit dough. My friend Victor Fong revealed that his mother used the poppin’ fresh dough all the time to make fluffy bao for the family. In a regional Chinese cookbook published decades ago, Calvin Lee mentioned instant bao dough as a modern Chinese-American secret to quick and easy bao.
I tried the dough out for plain steamed buns (the type you’d tuck a slice of pork belly in) and it worked. I was so impressed that I put a recipe for it in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen (see the Banh chapter). The commercial biscuit dough that was available when I wrote Asian Dumplings didn’t taste right because companies had changed their formulas. I did not suggest refrigerated biscuit dough as a ‘Lazy Day Tip’ for bao.
The other day I noticed that Trader Joe’s and Whole Food had refrigerated biscuit dough. I checked the ingredient listing and didn’t see too many chemically ingredients. I bought a canister of Trader Joe’s buttermilk biscuit dough to experiment with.
My goal was to stuff the dough pieces to make an instant filled bun. Could I do it? Yes. Did it taste good? Read on to find out:
The dough is malleable with little elasticity. I could press it quickly with my fingers into a 4-inch circle to form a wrapper. Small, thin chips of fat suspended in the biscuit dough made it feel slightly creepy to work with. Bao dough is smooth. Biscuit dough needs the layered lift from bits of fat. I shaped the bao using a traditional closed satchel shape. They unfortunately did not remain closed as they sat. I turned them over with the pleats facing down and hoped for the best.
- Round 1: I steamed a few bao without letting them rise. There is no yeast in the dough so why should I? The bao cooked and got dimply as I expected. After all, baking soda was in the dough. After steaming, the dough did not totally deflate (good), but each bao did shrink quite a bit during cooling (bad). When I broke one of the steamed instant bao open, the dough was gummy and undercooked (super bad).
- Round 2: I let the bao sit a bit hoping they would puff up better during steaming but the resulting buns were just as gummy and doughy as with those from round 1.
- Round 3: Looking at the biscuit dough label, I thought why not bake the bao? The dough was originally destined to be cooked in oven heat. So I preheated the oven to 350 and slipped them in for 20 minutes. You see the finished ones at the top. The filling of leftover chicken adobo leaked a bit but that was negligible. But the dough remained heavy and gummy feeling, though it did not deflate as with the steamed versions. That was a good sign.
They all tasted bad. I could not finish a single one. The lead-like dough was salty and off tasting.
I don’t know if it was the buttermilk but I do suspect that it was due to the dough having lots of fat in it. Bao dough has some fatty goodness but too much and the dough doesn’t rise well.
There’s a certain balance between the bao dough and filling that allows it to rise during steaming and baking. The filling gets hot during cooking and if the bao dough is unable to keep its shape with heat coming from the inside and outside, it poops out, deflates and becomes heavy.
The Trader Joe’s buttermilk biscuit dough wasn’t designed for Chinese-style bao. I gave it a go for curiosity’s sake and will stop at that. The dough is probably excellent for baked biscuits but forget it about the bao.
I’m sticking with my tried-and-true food processor dough made with instant yeast and all-purpose flour. For those of you who've used that dough recipe in Asian Dumplings or from my bao article in the Los Angeles Times, stay the course. Don't change horses in midstream. Refrigerated biscuit dough may work for plain steamed rolls, but not stuffed bao.