Baked pork buns...yes, also a dim sum item
Welcome to the world of baked pork buns. And surprise, they actually are considered dim sum things. While the steamed get much of the attention, the baked are relatively popular, though you won't always see them as a dim sum offering. You are more likely to run across them at a Chinese bakery as opposed to one of those sit down places with roaming carts. And luckily for everyone, like steamed buns, they will only cost you anywhere from $1-$1.50. Sometimes you may see them at $2 for the larger size, but if a place is charging more than that, you are being ripped off and you should move on unless price doesn't faze you. I think you all know where I fall on that horizon.
What makes a baked pork bun different from a steamed one? Besides the obvious color and the fact they are baked in an oven instead of steamed in a bamboo steamer, the recipes are a bit different. Baked pork buns originated out of Hong Kong and use high gluten bread flour enriched with egg and plenty of my fave--butter!-- and some sugar to create the outside bun. The shapes are more similar to an old-school dinner roll and an egg wash is normally used to create the shiny brown glow on top. From there, the fillings are going to be pretty much the same as the steamed buns. Chunky bits of pork with either a sweet red barbecue sauce or slightly sweet brown gravy like sauce. Though, again, I call it gravy, but all the folks in the shops will still call it barbecue. Kind of the way you find different types of barbecue around this country, the same you will get variations in pork buns.
As you can see in this one from Wing Lee Bakery, the pork is red sauce and on the sweeter side. Also, you will notice the bread here doesn't seem to have puffed up like you would see in a steamed bun. Sometimes this could lead one to believe you get more filling on a baked bun (I see you Ms. O who thinks this and thus prefers baked over steamed), but it isn't always the case. As much as fillings can vary in type and taste, so too can how much they put in and how much yeast is in the dough to help it rise.
Take the two above for instance. The one on the left is from House of Dim Sum and the right is from Eastern Bakery and it looks like their bread rose more than the other and the filling isn't necessarily anymore than on a couple of the steamed ones I had. Plus, here you can also see the different types of sauces used with the pork--one red, one brownish. While for the most part, with steamed buns you will get the same shade of white, on baked buns, the outside can also vary.
This one from Dim Sum Bistro came out a little rounder and lighter in brown on top and whiter on the bottom. Inside you see the bread is a tad fluffier and the pork was also a bit on the fatty side. Funnily enough, the steamed version I got from these folks had the red sauce but the baked had the brown. (I preferred their steamed over their baked on this one)
And here was a totally different one I wasn't expecting from Cafe Honolulu. She called it a pineapple pork bun and after she said it, I thought, ooh, pineapple and pork inside, it is Cafe Honolulu after all. You know, Hawaii, pineapple? Turns out the pineapple is because of the textured look on top not pineapple inside. Bummer. They make a sweet roll version of this where there is basically a layer of sugar and flour on top that creates a crackle shape reminiscent of the outside of a pineapple (thanks Jocelyn!!). I mean isn't that just what you need, a layer of baked sugar on top of an already sweet bun with sweet pork inside. This was way too much sugar for me and the pork filling wasn't to tasty either.
Besides that, what it brings up is one of the charms of a baked bun, the mix of both savory and sweet. A taste profile many people like myself enjoy. Think salted caramel popcorn or candied bacon or using a glazed donut to make a hamburger. I find the baked buns to be sweeter than the steamed and it can be a bit much if the filling is also sweet. Definitely a balancing act some bakeries are able to pull off and others are not.
I think it is this wide variation in the baked which makes me waver to the side of a steamed bun over a baked bun. Which means in my throw down, I'm gonna go steamed over baked for sometimes being too much sweet over savory. Don't me wrong though, I will keep eating both, but like with the steamed you have to find the right place that does the version you like best. Most likely you will find the place which does a great baked doesn't do a great steamed and vice versa. Which is kind of like many food things in town. I mean, my favorite cookie place isn't my favorite cake place which isn't my favorite donut place. Everyone has their own taste in things they need to discover and as I've said before, it is the search for your "sweet spot," even with pork buns, which can be the most fun. And along the way you may find something quite special.