An easier Xiao Long Bao recipe that teaches you how to use commonly found ingredients to create restaurant-quality soup dumplings in your own kitchen.
Soup dumplings are one of the most memorable dishes I ate during childhood. I grew up in Beijing in the 90s when restaurants from other regions were still scarce, and we rarely ate out. But there was this hole-in-the-wall Xiao Long Bao spot near my mom’s office that had the best soup dumplings. Once in a while, she would take me there to enjoy a steamer of piping hot soup dumplings as a treat. Their wrappers were literally paper thin, because you could see the juice inside through the semi-transparent dough. I took great care as I peeled them out of the steamer, careful to not break apart the dough and lose the soup. And when I successfully slurped up a mouthful of the fragrant soup, it was the greatest satisfaction for a 10-year old, one that lingers for 20 something years later.
What are soup dumplings (Xiao Long Bao)
Xiao Long Bao (小笼包), or soup dumplings, are a type of steamed dumpling from Shanghai cuisine (Jiangsu province for the greater region). In China, you will find there are many versions of soup dumplings that come in different flavors and sizes, but the most popular one is Xiao Long Bao. It features a paper thin wrapper filled with a very mild pork filling and a pocket of fragrant soup, served with a gingery vinegar dipping sauce.
Xiao Long Bao is a type of dim sum that is traditionally enjoyed as a snack or during a meal as an appetizer or even a main dish. It’s certainly a complicated dish to make at home. But it’s such a great way to impress your guests if you’re hosting a dinner party.
How to put soup into the dumplings
To put soup into the dumplings, you will need to make aspic, or congealed meat broth. As you might have noticed, if you make chicken broth or pork broth at home, the soup will congeal into a gelatinous texture once chilled. Xiao Long Bao uses the same technique, only it makes the gelatin even thicker, so it forms a jelly-like texture that you can cut into small pieces that stay solid while you work them into dumplings. What you do is wrap the jelly into the dumpling along with the rest of the filling ingredients. Once cooked, the gelatin will melt down and become the soupy part of the filling.
Traditionally, the meat gelatin is made with pork skin and/or trotters. Like making a pork broth, you simmer these ingredients for hours on the stove top, and then reduce the broth. The gelatin from the bones, skin and marrow will create a very rich tasting broth that will congeal once cooled.
However, since pork skin and trotters might not be found in a regular grocery store in the US, we looked for a different approach.
Although I really love the scrumptious taste of soup dumplings, sometimes the filling can be quite heavy and greasy. That’s why I decided to look into creating a chicken broth to fill the dumplings instead of the traditional pork soup.
A while ago I talked about how to make chicken broth from leftover bones. This recipe uses a similar approach – using chicken backs and necks. And instead of braising, we developed an oven roasting method that helps you to get a very concentrated broth in less time.
The advantages of this method are:
- You can easily find the ingredients and they are very cheap to get.
- The method requires less cooking time.
- The result is more consistent, taking the guesswork out of how much you should reduce the broth.
- Because of the oven roasting method, you will get a super rich tasting soup just like you would with the pork version.
How to make soup dumplings
Prepare the jelly broth (aspic)
- Add chicken backs into a dutch oven or heavy pot
- Top with aromatics
- Roast covered until you get about 1/2 cup of chicken broth
- Chill in the fridge overnight until congealed, then scrape off the chicken fat from the top
- Slice the gelatin part, then dice it into small bits
- Once done, you can store the jelly in the fridge for 2 to 3 days until ready to use.
Depending on the type of pot you use and the quality of the chicken backs, the quantity of the broth can vary. I highly recommend weighing the gelatin and adding a bit of chicken fat if the quantity is not quite there.
Prepare the filling
- Make a batch of ginger water
- Add the ginger water and the rest of the seasonings into the ground pork
- Beat until everything is fully absorbed and the meat becomes springy
- Add the chicken jelly and the green onion
- Mix well and store in the fridge until ready to use
Assemble the soup dumplings
- Slowly drizzle water into the dough and mix. Hot water first, and cold water later.
- Knead with your hand until a dough is formed
- Keep kneading on the table until the dough becomes smooth
- Let rest until the dough become more smooth and the texture soft
- Roll the dough into a long log, cut into half and work on one piece at a time
- Cut the log into 10 even pieces
- Roll the dough into a very thin wrapper
- Add the filling
- Wrap the buns by making pleats
- Leave a small opening at the top so the steam will go out without bursting the buns
- Steam a few at a time
- Enjoy hot with the dipping sauce
Tips to success
Depending on the brand of flour you use, the humidity of your room, and many other factors, the flour will absorb water at a different rate. Even with all-purpose flour, the type you find in Asia is much lower in gluten (protein) than the one in the US. And within the US, I’ve found some flour brands such as King Arthur Flour have a slightly higher gluten content (11.7%). For this recipe, we tested using a regular all-purpose flour in the US, which is around 10% to 11% gluten.
When you make the dough, pay attention to the texture (you can view the video for more details). The dough should be soft but not sticky. Once rested, it would be quite pliable and easy to roll out.
The recipe below gives 5 grams of difference in the cold water. But based on your own environment, you might need to adjust it a bit further at the stage of adding cold water.
Soup dumplings are a delicate dish that requires precise measurements to achieve the best result. I highly recommend using a kitchen scale instead of volumetric measurements.
A small Chinese rolling pin is highly recommended for making all types of buns and dumplings. Different from the big French style rolling pin, the smaller rolling pin allows you to work on one small wrapper at a time and it’s easier to maneuver.
I highly recommend a bamboo steamer for making soup dumplings and other types of steamed dim sum. Because the lid is made of bamboo, it will help the steam to release without accumulating condensation. If using a regular steamer, the condensation might drip onto the dumplings and cause the dough to scorch. You can find bamboo steamers on Amazon, but the ones you find at Asian grocery stores are way cheaper.
That being said, we’ve tested the recipe with a regular stainless steel steamer and it worked as well. To prevent the water dripping from the lid, you can place a clean kitchen towel over the pot and place the lid over the towel.
How to serve and store
Once you’ve made the soup dumplings, it’s important to to serve them immediately while they’re still hot. Because the longer you let the cooked dumplings sit, the more the dough will absorb the soup and your dumplings will end up less juicy.
Since the dumplings are juicy and delicious, you can totally eat them by themselves. To serve them the traditional way, you can cut some thin ginger strips and soak them in Chinkiang vinegar. It adds a tanginess to the dumplings and tastes very delicious.
To eat a soup dumpling, carefully lift it with your chopsticks onto a soup spoon. From there, you can:
- Poke a hole in the skin and let the soup run out. Then slurp the soup and eat the dumpling (with or without the dipping sauce).
- My favorite way is to slurp the soup directly from the dumpling, or eat the whole thing once it cools down a bit. Do NOT try this if your soup dumplings are still steaming hot. It might burn your tongue.
How to make ahead
If you plan to prepare soup dumplings in advance, you can make the dough and the filling in advance, and wrap and cook the dumplings when you’re ready and serve them immediately. The wrapped dumplings can sit covered in the fridge for up to an hour but I highly recommend cooking them as soon as possible. The longer the raw dumplings sit, the drier the outer layer of the dough will become and the soggier the inside will become.
Unfortunately, there’s no great way to store the wrapped dumplings in the freezer. I’ve tried it but all my dumplings ended up bursting open during the steaming process. The store-bought frozen soup dumplings use chemical additives to stabilize the filling – that’s why they can be frozen and still come out soupy. But chemical additives are not something that can be easily done at home.
Making Xiao Long Bao at home definitely requires some time and effort. It’s one of those things that we would call a “restaurant dish” in China and would never make at home, since you can easily walk down the street and order a dozen of them for a fairly cheap price.
However, enjoying soup dumplings has become a luxury after coming to the US. While they’re readily available here in Manhattan’s Chinatown, they might be hard to come by where you live. It makes me appreciate this Shanghainese delicacy even more. And I hope this recipe will help you create some authentic tasting soup dumplings in your own kitchen.
This recipe requires precise measurements to make it work. I highly recommend using a scale to measure the ingredients for the wrappers instead of using volumetric measurements.
Homemade Soup Dumplings (Xiao Long Bao)
- 2.5 to 3 lbs (1.2 kg) chicken backs and necks
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 2 ” (2.5 cm) ginger , sliced
- 4 green onions , chopped into 3” (8 cm) pieces
- 120 g all purpose flour (2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons)
- Pinch of salt
- 35 g hot water (2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon)
- 25 to 30 g cold water (about 2 tablespoons)
- Chinkiang vinegar
- ginger , very thinly sliced
- small Chinese rolling pin (*Footnote 2)
Prepare the jelly (1 day ahead)
- Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C).
- Prepare a medium-sized (about 4 qt) dutch oven with a lid or a roasting pan that can be securely sealed with a lid or foil. Add the oil to the pan and place it in the oven to heat up, 5 to 10 minutes.
- Once heated, carefully transfer the pan onto a trivet. Place the chicken back in the pan and spread the ginger and green onions on top of it. Add 1/4 cup water. Cover with the lid and return to the oven. Roast until you’ve collected a good amount of chicken broth in the bottom of the pot, 50 minutes or so.
- Remove the pan from the oven and let cool for 5 minutes. Use a pair of tongs to remove and discard the chicken backs.
- Lay a mesh strainer over a heat-proof bowl. Strain the chicken broth. Once cooled completely, transfer the chicken broth into a sealed container and refrigerate overnight.
Prepare the wrappers (the day you cook)
- Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl. Slowly drizzle the hot water over the flour while stirring with a pair of chopsticks (or a fork). Mix until the hot water is fully absorbed.
- Then slowly drizzle 25 g of cold water over the dry flour while mixing. Once the water is fully absorbed and the flour turns into dough flakes, start pressing with your hand to gather the dough together while mixing in as much dry flour as you can. If the dough is almost formed but there’s still dry flour left in the bowl, add the remaining 5 g water and keep kneading. Once done, it should form a semi-soft dough and no flour is left in the bowl.
- Transfer the dough onto a clean working surface and knead for 15 to 20 minutes, until the surface is smooth and the texture elastic. The dough should feel soft to the touch and not stick to your hands.
- Wrap the dough with plastic wrap and let it rest for 45 minutes.
- Storage: You can store the dough at this point if you decide to assemble the dumpling later. The dough can be stored in a sealed container in the fridge overnight.
Prepare the filling (the day you cook)
- Add the grated ginger into a small bowl and pour in 1/4 cup hot water. Let sit while preparing other ingredients.
- The chicken broth you made the day before should have become congealed with a layer of fat on top. Scrape off the fat and reserve it in a small bowl.
- Slice the chicken gelatin into thin strips, then further into small cubes. Coarsely mince it into bits.
- Measure the chopped gelatin. If it’s less than 4.4 oz (120 g), add a few spoonfuls of the chicken fat until it reaches 4.4 oz (120 g). You can discard or reserve the remaining chicken fat for future use. Store the gelatin in the fridge while not using.
- Add the ground pork into a medium-sized bowl. Add the ginger water, light soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, salt, sugar and white pepper. Beat with a spatula until the liquid is fully absorbed and the filling becomes sticky and bouncy, 5 minutes or so.
- Add the chopped chicken jelly and green onions. Mix until incorporated.
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and store in the fridge until ready to use. The filling can be stored in the fridge for a couple of hours, but I do not recommend storing it for too much longer, because the liquid will start to seep out.
Forming the buns
- Line a steamer rack with napa cabbage leaves or prepare some square parchment paper for steaming the dumplings.
- Place the rested dough onto a clean working surface. Roll it into a long log, about 1” (2.5 cm) in diameter. Cut the log in half, wrap one half with plastic wrap and place it in the fridge while working on the other half.
- Roll out the log a bit more. Divide it into two equal pieces, then further cut them into 10 pieces in total. Cover them with a few layers of wet paper towels to prevent drying out.
- Work on the buns one at a time. Shape one piece of dough with your fingers so it is a round piece, then flatten it with your palm. Use a small rolling pin to roll out the wrapper, spinning the dough after rolling a few times. Roll until the wrapper is very thin, about 4 1/2” (11 cm) in diameter. (*Footnote 3)
- Place 22 g (about 1 tablespoon) of the filling onto the center of the wrapper. Fold and pinch the edges of the wrapper to create pleats (see the wrapping process in action in my cooking video). When you are about to seal the pleats, leave a small opening on the top of the dumplings (very important – *Footnote 4).
- Place the wrapped dumplings onto the napa cabbage or parchment paper. Cover loosely with a few layers of wet paper towels to prevent drying out. Work on the rest of the dumplings until you can fill the steamer rack – you should leave at least 2” (5 cm) between the dumplings.
Cooking the dumplings
- Prepare the dipping sauce by adding 1 tablespoon of Chinese vinegar and a few strips of ginger to each small sauce plate.
- Bring a pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover the steamer rack with a lid and place it over the boiling water. Steam over medium-high heat for 8 to 10 minutes, depending on the number of dumplings you cook at a time.
- Once done cooking, serve immediately with the dipping sauce.
- To eat the soup dumplings, hold a pair of chopsticks in one hand and a big spoon in the other. Carefully use the chopsticks to pick up the soup dumpling and place it into the spoon. If you’re skillful with chopsticks, you can also dip the dumpling into the dipping sauce. Otherwise, drizzle a tiny amount of sauce over the dumpling. Have a small bite of the dumplings to let the steam out and allow the soup to pool in the spoon. If you don’t mind hot food (it’s very hot!), you can also let the soup stay in the dumpling and eat it all in one bite (I do not recommend this method if you’re not familiar with soup dumplings).
- I highly recommend using 30% fat ground pork for a tenderer and juicier result. Lean ground pork works as well but the meat will be a bit tougher once cooked.
- A small rolling pin is highly recommended to work on these small delicate wrappers.
- It’s important to roll the wrapper very thin, otherwise the dough will have a tough mouthfeel once cooked.
- The small opening on the dumpling will allow the steam to release as you cook it, to prevent the dumpling skin from bursting.
Lilja Walter is a part of the Omnivore’s Cookbook team and worked closely with Maggie to develop and test this recipe.