Yeast Dough

Much of China features rice as its staple ingredient for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But in the northern part of the country, wheat products (mianshi) are much more prevalent and this is where many of the breads, rolls, noodles, and dumplings hail from.

This basic yeast dough recipe can be made into a number of rolls, but it is usually steamed or sometimes fried, rarely baked. Most Chinese kitchens to this day do not have an oven. (“One Cook’s Battles with Her Oven,” a very funny piece in Food & Wine’s March 2008 issue, talks about how a Chinese American family copes with this alien appliance.)

All-purpose or pastry flour both work well in this recipe. Once you are familiar with the texture of the dough, you can also play around with adding some whole grain flours, such as oat, corn, whole wheat, or “white whole wheat”. Avoid high-gluten (bread) flours, as they will result in a tougher product. You may need to adjust the amount of liquid used to achieve the correct texture.

Below I give the lazy man’s version of making the dough, in a food processor – this way is faster and a whole lot cleaner, but if you either don’t have a food processor or like the therapeutic effect of making bread by hand, be prepared to tinker with the amount of water you add – you’re likely to need a bit more.


  • 3 c flour (see note above)
  • 1 tsp dry yeast
  • 1 T sugar
  • 1 c + 1/4 c warm water
  • 1 tsp oil
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder


  1. Dissolve the yeast and sugar in 1 c warm (not hot!) water. Stir and let it rest (proof) for 5 m.
  2. Place the flour in the bowl of a food processor, turn the processor on, and add the yeast mixture in a thin stream. When all the liquid has been added, the dough should come together in a ball that goes around the bowl a few times. If you need to add more liquid, use the remaining 1/4 c, adding very slowly just until the ball forms.
  3. Put the oil in the bottom of a mixing bowl, take the dough out of the processor and place it in the mixing bowl. Run it around the bowl, in effect greasing the bowl and the bottom of the dough.
  4. Turn the dough over, cover with a damp kitchen towel and let it rise in a warm place for approximately 1.5 hours or until it doubles in size. I have found that a gas oven with a hot pilot light is perfect for this purpose. Or you can turn your electric oven on warm (no more than 170F) for a few minutes as you proof the yeast, turn it off while you make the dough, and place the bowl in the oven to let the dough rise.
  5. When the dough has doubled, punch it down into a flat circle, add the baking powder, fold the dough around it and knead for approximately 5 m, or until very smooth. (There are all kinds of ways to tell when kneading is done – in culinary school I was told it should feel and look like a baby’s bottom! If it starts to look stringy or the outer layer/skin breaks, it’s overdone, and you should let it rest a bit before using it.)
  6. You’re now ready to try your hand at making mantou, steamed buns, or baozi, filled buns!

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