Though having lived in Shanghai for almost two decades, it wasn’t until I move to Toronto that I felt the urge to make xiaolongbao by hand. Typically in Shanghai at Linlongfang or Dingtaifeng, you would see restaurant workers standing around a table, slopping filling into a wrapper and sewing the whole thing up in less than 15 seconds. I have always been pretty rubbish with any kind of cooking that requires dexterity, but for something that is gone in 60 seconds, I don’t really feel the need.
How hard it is to make soup dumplings? Well, the prep involves a whole extra cooking process, but beyond the filling, the rest is not that hard if you’ve had some experience making dumplings already. I can assure you that if you’ve mastered the basic northern dumpling with pleats or Jeremy Pang’s technique for wontons in using the jellyfish fold, (Hong Kong Diner), you can handle xiaolongbao. That’s not to say it’s not punishing work. I recommend that marathon xlb sessions be fuelled by some binge-watching of Netflix and beer.
For my first attempt, I used an excellent recipe from Woks of Life, with a few changes (not going to reinvent the wheel here!). For the making of the Jelly I used the pork bones and skin as directed, putting it in the instant pot for about 45 minutes rather than the two hours on the stove. I added more sugar salt and msg than was called for. In Shanghai, Suzhou, and Nanjing, the fillings tend to be sweeter and I find Ding Tai Feng’s dumplings lacking that special something even though their folding is absolutely exquisite.
I also added 1.5 tsp of gelatin and poured it onto a sheet pan and left it on the balcony to cool. (Note making the dumplings in the winter is much easier if you have access to an outside space because you can individually cool and freeze the dumplings on a sheet pan before packing them into containers for the freezer. )
The meat paste I made as directed, and slowly mixed it into the jelly. My jelly did not turn into cubes, (perhaps because I rushed it) but it did not make too much of a difference. The important thing is not to over mix because the jelly will start to melt. I found putting the bowl in the freezer between dumpling skin prep helped quite a bit.
As per the recipe, I did make the dough, but after painstakingly rolling out about 20 thin wrappers, I found them all fused in a mass. I had not floured them heavily because this can affect how well they join together at the top. I finally made a few more wrappers and steamed the dumplings in a steamer in the instant pot, to try out how they would hold up. But I found the xiaolongbao came undone in the steaming process. Feeling discouraged, I gave up for the night vowing to pick up the process the next day.
In attempt number two, I thought it might be easier to try to alter pre-made dumpling wrappers or use wonton wrappers. The wonton skins were easy to use and came together quite quickly with Pang’s jellyfish or purse folding technique, but they were in fact, a little too thin and didn’t stand up to steaming very well. They basically needed to be made immediately and dropped right into the steamer before the meat juice ate through the wrapper.
What worked best, though somewhat time-consuming, was taking regular dumpling wrappers, dipping them in a bowl of water and rolling them out to make them about 20% bigger and roughly 20% thinner. The water helps keep them nice and moist and gives elasticity to the dough. Roll about 15-20 at a time then fill them immediately before they dry out. This ensures that they pleat nicely together at the top and seal properly. If you like a thicker skin, as they have in Nanxiang 南翔, the supposed ancestral home of xlb, then you can use the dumpling wrappers as is. (I even fried some in a pan with a lot of oil and a lid on to create a nice brown delicious crust like the Shanghai specialty shengjianbao 生煎包 or pan-fried dumplings. They were less doughy than shengjianbao and much more flavorful.
The first batch was not the prettiest, but I am not really aiming for Ding Tai Feng perfection. I am aiming for the work-a-day xlb that I used to cost 3$ a steamer for at Nanjing Tangbao Malatang on Jianguo Lu. Maybe in the next lifetime, I will learn to make those perfect little dumplings with a circle at the top, but for now, we are going with the quick and dirty method.
In terms of folding itself, I aimed for about 15-18 folds, which sounds like a lot but before you know it you find your fingers moving as if you are an automaton. One important tip is to place the blob of filling in the bottom 1/3 of the dumpling wrapper and start your pleating on that short side. You’ll find that as you pleat your way around to the top of the dumpling, the filling will want to escape out the top, so you’ll be happy you left yourself that extra dough to stop it from making a jailbreak. If you’re finding the darned slippery filling keeps getting away on you, scale back your ambitions and make smaller dumplings until you get the hang of it.
Dumplings can be steamed in the instant pot with a veggie steamer and a piece of lettuce or cabbage in the bottom to prevent sticking. You can also use a bamboo steamer with parchment paper, cabbage leaf or cheesecloth covering the bottom. I found that if I let the little guys rest a bit before I tried to remove them, there was less chance of them disgorging their contents all over the steamer. If that does happen direct them into the closest open mouth!