Haw Berries & Kumquats

Baking bread in China, and a country sourdough

People are always surprised when I tell them that I bake bread in China. It shouldn’t, though, come as a shock, because flour, water and yeast are integral parts of north China cuisine. Just think of mantou, or the ubiquitous baozi and shaobing. But it’s hard to make the conceptual leap from these things to bread: after all, they’re so different, despite their shared ingredients. [Edit: You can also see my guide to baking in China]

To me, there’s even more incentive to bake bread while living in China: the challenge is exciting, and the rewards – delicious bread and a new skill – are priceless. Local bakeries here favor a cottony, gormless loaf, while foreign bakeries take liberties to charge erroneous amounts for a little boule. For a fresh, crusty, wholesome loaf whose ingredients you can count on one hand, there’s only your own trusty toaster oven to look to.

chad roberston country sourdough crumb

That’s perhaps the only challenge of baking in China: the lack of proper ovens for home kitchens. Baking isn’t part of Chinese cuisine, and most kitchens here are absolutely tiny – a gas range and some decent counter space is as much as one can hope for. Only toaster ovens are available, and only in Beijing and other large cities, where baking western pastries has lately become very popular with young urbanites (mostly women, actually).

A toaster oven is well and good for cakes and cookies, but for bread it’s just not quite hot enough. Oven spring is unreliable and often lopsided: batards often rise on one end but not the other. The temperature is not quite precise, either; I rather doubt that my oven ever attains the 250°C (482°F) that it claims to reach. Grigne? Singing crust? I’ve yet to experience these things.

But there are also exciting perks to bread baking in China. I have a beautiful green marble slab that serves very well for a baking stone. I found it for RMB 30 (around 4 or 5 dollars) – thank you, construction materials market!  There’s all kinds of fun flours to experiment with: sweet potato, “naked” oat, buckwheat, glutinous rice, black rice, and an incredible variety of bean flours, although I don’t feel confident enough to formulate my own breads just yet.

Whole wheat and rye flours I procure at the Dongbei Yonghua Liangyou Shop (Northeastern Grains and Oils), run by a friendly couple who mill everything except but the white flour themselves. Lotus root flour, lotus seed flour, mung bean flour…it’s all here, as well as almonds, pumpkin seeds, oats, and their specialty, rice from the fertile plains of northeastern China. Bread flour I buy at the Tongrisheng Grain Store, which also has sesame seeds, flax seeds, and rice of all colors.

So really: everything you need is here, even the wild yeast residing in the flour. My sourdough starter is some six months old (I should have, I suppose, kept track of its birthday), and like me, it’s a born and bred Beijinger at heart. This is its latest effort, a sourdough country loaf inspired by Chad Roberston, made according to Shiao-Ping’s formula at the Fresh Loaf.

chad roberston country sourdough loaf

Thanks to the cold overnight fermentation, the crumb was very moist with a light sourdough tang, just the way I like it. I brought it to a dinner party where it was very well loved and disappeared quickly. I’m also sending it to Susan of Wild Yeast‘s Yeastspotting, a weekly showcase of bread.

Dongbei Yonghua Liangyou Shop [map]
19 Dongzhimen Nanxiaojie, Dongcheng District (150m south of Gui Jie)
Tel: (010) 8401 7569
Tongrisheng Lianghang (Grain Store) [map]
56 Yonghegong Dajie (100m north of Beixinqiao, next to Cafe de la Poste)
Dongcheng District
Tel: (010)  6401 0473
东城区雍和宫大街56号 (北新桥北100米) 

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  1. Beautiful! Proof that a wonderful loaf can be produced from even a tiny oven. Thank you for joining YeastSpotting!

  2. [...] Country Sourdough, Chad Robertson Inspired [...]

  3. Mimi says:

    That is one great looking loaf. If you hadn’t told us about the challenges you are having with the oven, I would never have known!!

  4. [...] Baking bread in China, and a country sourdough – Haw Berries … [...]

  5. Katie says:

    So I stumbled across your blog trying to find out more information about baking bread in China. I knew I couldn’t be the only one trying to pull this off :) Do you have a good source for flour names and types in Chinese? Or would you mind posting some? I’m in a smaller city and having a hard time figuring out where to procure flours other than plain white flour (other than the import store, which charges exorbitant prices). Perhaps knowing how to describe what I want would help :) Actually, I also bought what claims to be whole wheat flour, but so far all the bread I’ve made with it seems somewhat odd, so besides being more finely ground, I think it must have some other special Chinese characteristics. Also, do you know anything about the gluten content in normally sold Chinese flours and how they might compare to various baking flours?

    Also: your blog is awesome.

  6. shelley says:

    Katie – I’m always glad to meet another bread baker! : ) Which city do you live in?

    I think Chinese flour is generally lower in gluten than US flours (my basis of comparison). The standard flour here is called 标准粉 (biaozhun fen), which has a gluten content of around 8 or 9%. I usually get bread flour 面包粉 (mianbao fen) with around 13-14% gluten, from my local grain store, but I’ve also used dumpling flour 饺子粉 (jiaozi fen) with pretty good results – it’s a good equivalent of all-purpose flour and has a gluten content of around 10%. The best thing about it is that it can be found in most local stores and shops. Then there’s enriched flour (fuqiang fen 富强粉), which has various vitamins added and also seems to be usually self-described as high gluten. I’ve never used it though, just because I don’t know exactly what they’re adding. And I do think that the whole wheat flour here seems to be not as coarse as what you get in the US, but it’s also possible to buy bran (麸子 fuzi) and add it back in.

    Maybe it would be best to try to find a specialized grain store (粮油店 liangyou dian) and ask for something that’s high gluten (gao jin 高筋)? Good luck with your bread-baking!

  7. Katie says:

    I’m in Dalian. Now that I know how to ask around for a grain store, I’ll definitely do that. Thanks! I’ve been using dumpling flour too, just because that’s what we had in the house, and the results aren’t bad. So far I’ve just been trying for sandwich bread–I didn’t think my handy toaster oven was probably up for more than that. But maybe I’ll have to reconsider.

  8. shelley says:

    You could also try ordering flour from Taobao. There seems to be quite a few sellers of high-gluten flour based in Dalian, and this particular baking supplier even has a brick-and-mortar store location! The Taobao Field Guide is pretty handy here. And yes, it is possible to get hearth-style loaves from a toaster oven – having an oven stone and a iron pan (for steaming) really helps, but for ages I did without an oven stone.

  9. Frieda says:


    I am a little bit late on this post but I’ve been looking for an oven in Beijing for the last six months… Do you have any idea where I can find a proper one, you know, one where I can roast a chicken or bake bread…

    Thanks a lot !!!

  10. shelley says:

    Hey Frieda,
    I think it depends on what you mean by a proper oven. Will a large toaster oven be enough? A “real” oven costs over RMB 5000, and you’d have to be willing/able to renovate your apartment. I have a rather larger model of toaster oven, and it’s good enough for bread and chickens.

    I inherited my oven from a friend who left Beijing – I think she probably got it at Carrefour, which has lots of branches around the city. They’d probably also have ovens at any of the other large supermarkets, such as Wal-Mart. You could also try one of the large electronics centers, which have lots of home appliances. Gome (国美) and Suning (苏宁) have a lot of locations in Beijing. And there’s always Taobao.

    Good luck with your oven search!

  11. may says:

    I stumbled upon your blog by googling ‘Chinese sourdough’. Love it! I especially appreciate the notes on where to find those raw materials.

    I recently moved to Beijing after 10 years in the US. While in the US, all I want to make is Chinese food. But now I can’t stop thinking about wholesome, good artisan breads so easily found in Boston bakeries. I’ve been baking breads for many years, but have not tried sourdoughs yet. Your post gave me hope! My life would be complete if I can make a good San Francisco sourdough at home!

    One question for you: I’ve read somewhere that 莜面 is the same as rye flour. Is this true? Rye seems darker and more flavorful to me.

    Thanks again for the wonderful posts! I will be faithfully reading from now on.

  12. may says:

    Two more questions (sorry!!!): what is the Chinese name for rye flour? And, can you recommend a way to make sourdough starters that works in Beijing? I researched making sourdough starters and am a bit overwhelmed. Can you share what worked for you?


  13. shelley says:

    Hi May! It’s nice to hear from you, and thanks for the comments. I used to live in Boston too, and I loved Iggy’s breads, and Dancing Deer cookies, among other fine baked good options. I also started making my own bread because I wanted good hearty loaves without paying too much – and then of course I realized homemade bread is better anyways.

    莜面 is oat flour made from a special variety called “naked oat” native to northwestern China. These oats are without hulls and the flour is usually made into noodles – very delicious if you have a chance to visit a Shanxi, Shaanxi, or Inner Mongolian resturant

    Rye flour is called 黑麦粉 and is available at both of the shops mentioned in this post, though I’ve only bought it at the Dongbei Yonghua shop, where it’s RMB 10 for 1kg (about 2 pounds).

    I started my starter using this method, which uses orange juice (or lemon juice, or pineapple, or some other kind of acidic juice) instead of water to lower the pH, which encourages the right yeasts and bacteria to grow (a scientific explanation here). It skips the really stinky phase.

    It’s best to start off with whole wheat flour or rye, as these have more yeast and bacteria spores, but after 4 days you can switch to white flour. During the initial phase you can measure everything by volume, but after the first week you’ll want to get a scale and measure everything by weight for accuracy, as the starter always wants to be fed its own weight in flour or more. Once it gets going, it’s a bit like a pet: you have to feed it flour twice a day, at 12-hour intervals (unless you put in the fridge). The starter is about ready to use after 2 weeks though it will take longer for it to get really strong and develop more flavors.

  14. may says:

    Thanks Shelley! I’ll try that starter method.

  15. Ruth says:

    Hi, I am glad to have found this site and found foreign bread makers in china. Great. I have been miserable for a few years with regards to the bread available in china, and recently I decided to bake.

    A friend got a 19L Galantz oven for me but I found it to be rather small, have to make do with it. Flours are available at Carrefour. But bake-ware is a problem. I am looking for aluminium alloy type which is said to be the best bake-ware. I need a 9-10inch. Lets keep in touch.

    1. shelley says:

      Hi Ruth, thanks, I’m glad you like the site! The Chinese bakeware brand Sanneng (三能) makes aluminum alloy (in Chinese, lühejin 铝合金) molds, cake pans and trays, many of which don’t have non-stick coatings. I like mine a lot, which I bought at Hotel Equipment Corporation. You could also try Ziwei Baking Store, which has a smaller selection. If you use Taobao (online shop), they have the largest variety. Good luck with your search!

      1. Ruth says:

        Hi Shelley,

        Thank you so much. I am in Shanghai, and now have purchased the bakeware at taobao. Thanks for the chinese words, it helped in the search. And now I am baking away……….-D

  16. L Fonda says:

    My son is in Beijing for the third time. Each other time his apartment had a toaster to make toast. This time he does not and he has been looking to buy one. Anyone know where in Beijing one can buy a toaster?

    1. shelley says:

      I haven’t bought a toaster myself, but large department stores and supermarkets (like Carrefour) all have kitchen appliances. Dongjiao Market (东郊市场) down by Baiziwan Lu is cheaper for kitchen goods, but it’s a bit more chaotic and perhaps less convenient, depending on where your son lives.

      1. L Fonda says:

        Thank you! He got one at Carrefour. You really helped. While he does cook, he needed a fast breakfast and toast is so easy. Appreciate your help!

  17. Owen says:

    Thanks, this is amazingly helpful. I started keeping a sourdough starter last spring (in Zhejiang) and experimenting with baking in my toaster over. I’ve been thoroughly confused about flour, though, as I don’t know much of anything about gluten content, etc. It’s good to know that dumpling flour will work. We’ve bought imported flour in Shanghai, but that seemed a little silly considering that there is so much grain in this country. Tesco had some stuff that worked pretty well, but it only existed on the shelves for about a day and never returned.

    I’ve also had good results with making sourdough english muffins on the stove top, using a recipe from The Fresh Loaf. Very easy.

    1. shelley says:

      Have you seen this flour glossary? I find that in China mid- to high-gluten is generally valued and pretty common — e.g., for steamed buns and dumplings — whereas low-gluten flour is harder to find, possibly because it’s usually used for Western cakes and pastries, which are just not stuff that most people would be making in their own homes.

      Also, I love that sourdough english muffin recipe! Usually I make double and then have a freezer full of english muffins. So tasty. I usually use soymilk though.

  18. simon says:

    Hey great article and thanks for the tip on where to get flour. I just arrived a few months ago and ran out of my stash of King Arthur flour that I brought with me and have been going to Jenny Lou’s for not so great and expensive flour.

    I do have a sourdough yeast culture that survived the flight over here if anyone is interested having some. I live in Beijing

    Happy baking!