Momofuku Pork Buns (part 1)

Momofuku is one of my favorite restaurants in New York City. Every time I visit I drag my friends to the noodle bar  so I can have their ginger scallion noodles and pork buns. A few years ago Food 52 posted the recipe for Momofuku’s Pork Buns and I’ve been wanting to make them ever since. The main reason I waited so long to try them was because I didn’t have the necessary cooking tools, specifically a roasting pan, standing mixer, and a steamer. The wedding registry took care of the roasting pan, I was able to borrow a standing mixer from a friend, and the steamer was cheaply procured from a local Asian restaurant supply store. I finally had the necessary tools, a long New Year’s weekend to spend time in my kitchen, and a group of family and friends willing to eat this experiment of mine, because it certainly was an experiment. There was a high likelihood this recipe was going to end in a complete disaster.

Originally, Andrew and I were just going to host our friends Katy and Josh for dinner the day after New Year’s Day. We wanted to make them something they wouldn’t necessarily make themselves, and I took it as a great opportunity to try pork buns. But as I looked at the recipe I realized it made 25 pork buns. Pork buns are delicious, but 25 pork buns for four people is a bit excessive. So when I realized Andrew’s brother, Fred, was still going to be in town over New Years, I invited our siblings over for a New Year’s Day dinner to spend more time with family, but really to have them help eat the leftovers. Well, technically Katy and Josh ate the leftovers as they came over January 2, but they are gracious friends and didn’t take offense that I served them leftovers. Emily Post would not approve, I’m sure. Katy and Josh’s dinner will be recounted in Part 2 of this post, coming soon.

Because I was hosting two dinner parties back-to-back, I had to plan well. I have a bad habit of not reading a recipe in its entirety before cooking. I’ll skim it and say, “I got this,” only to get to mid-way through and realize I missed something critical in the prepping phase and the whole recipe gets thrown off. Then I’m left frantically scrambling to recover and get the recipe back on track without doing too much damage. Pork buns are not something you can just throw together and I made sure I took the time to read through the recipe and plan my day so everything would come together.

I had my schedule of when I was going to start each phase and was ready to roll. Everything was going well. I made the rub of sugar and salt and marinated the pork belly over night. Then I put it in the oven the next morning. While that was cooking I prepped the mango pudding for dessert (more on that in Part 2). That put me right on schedule to start the dough for the buns. Success! I planned well! And then… I missed something critical, in pure Without a Cellar fashion. You need 1/3 of a cup of the rendered fat from the pork for the dough, so you have to make sure the pork is done before you start the buns. I didn’t plan for that. My pork wasn’t going to be done for another hour! In a second I went from being right on time to running behind schedule an hour. UGH. So while I waited, I prepped what I could and cleaned the apartment.

In hindsight, I could have taken the fat I needed before the pork was done cooking, but at the time I thought that would hurt the final outcome of the pork so I just waited. Lesson learned. But finally the pork was done, looking absolutely beautiful, and I had my fat.

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That’s a beautiful lookin’ belly!

I proceeded to mix the dough in the standing mixer and set it in a bowl to rise for an hour. After an hour, I went to punch it down and start on the next step. Only the dough didn’t rise. UGH. Again. I suspect a few things could have gone wrong with the dough:

  1. The yeast was bad, which I doubt.
  2. The room temperature water the recipe instructed to use to dissolve the yeast was actually too cold and I should have used lukewarm water instead.
  3. I should have let the yeast sit and activate for at least a few minutes before adding the other ingredients, an instruction the recipe didn’t say I needed to do.

I suspect bullet #2 was the culprit, so the next time I make pork buns (and I definitely will) I’ll use warmer water. But with siblings coming over in a few hours, it was way too late to try another batch of dough. I just had to move forward with what I had and hope for the best.

The next step was diving the dough and rolling it into balls. The balls were supposed to be about the size of ping pong balls and weigh around 25 grams. After making a few mistakes already with the buns, I didn’t want to take any more unnecessary chances so I literally weighed each ball on my scale.

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Then I let them sit for another 30 minutes so they rise some more. They didn’t. Not that I was surprised since the dough never really rose to begin with. The next step was to roll out the dough in 4-inch ovals, fold them into buns using a chopstick, and place them on individual squares of parchment (cut out while I was waiting for the pork to finish).

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Because the dough didn’t rise, my buns were a bit on the small and thin side, but I did my best. This was fairly time consuming because even though the recipe says it makes 25 servings, you end up making 50 buns, probably because if you are going to go through all of this trouble to make them, you might as well make enough to freeze for later.

After the buns are folded, you let them sit for another 30 – 45 minutes. Then you steam them in batches (on the parchment so they don’t stick) for 10 minutes.

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This is another instance where I miscalculated. With one steamer that only fits 5-6 buns at a time, it didn’t fully register in my brain that it would take about an hour to steam all 50 buns. My plan was to have at least most of the buns steamed by the time everyone arrived. But with my hour delay, I didn’t start cooking until everyone had arrived. Fortunately, I had a few things going for me so that this circumstance didn’t ruin the dinner:

  1. People had food to eat while I finished the buns. I knew making the pork buns would take up all of my time, so I assigned side dishes and appetizers to my sister and sister-in-law.
  2. The pork buns can easily be assembled in batches. As soon as I had enough buns steamed for everyone, I filled the buns with hoisin sauce, pork belly slices, quick-pickled cucumbers, and scallions. And then kept on steaming.
  3. Because I live in a studio, being confined to my kitchen doesn’t mean I have to be away from my guests. They are literally sitting right next to me while I cook. So while it’s not ideal to still be stuck at the stove, at least I can still interact easily with everyone.
  4. I warned everyone this may not turn out well, so I didn’t feel as much pressure to have everything be perfect.

Considering all the mishaps with the dough, the pork buns overall turned out pretty well. The pork belly itself was excellent. Crispy, salty, with excellent texture for being such a fatty cut of meat. The buns were decent. They were a bit dense and dry, and some broke apart at the seams when you opened them. If the dough had risen properly I imagine they would have been softer and more pliable. But they weren’t rock hard and still soft to bite into, and they tasted really good. Not bad at all for a first attempt!

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Sibling and Co. party! From the left: Audrey, Sam, Kristin, Andrew, Fred, and Daniel.

Stay tuned for Momofuku Pork Buns (part 2)…

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