I Made Beautiful Bahn Mi Buns! But Now I’m Conflicted About Them

Though I love the bread I make on its own merits, I’ve always had an ulterior motive with it: The bread I make has to make a good sandwich. To me, there’s nothing more sublime than shoving meat and cheese and veggies and condiments between a couple of slices of bread or in a sandwich bun. So whether it’s a boule or batard or a baguette or ciabatta, I want to be able to use it for a sandwich.

One of my favorite sandwiches is a Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwich; but moreover, I love Bahn Mi bread. I’ve tried to make it in the past, but failed horribly. The bread was good, but the crumb was much more baguette-like in texture, and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what made the crumb that soft and luxurious.

But I did some research and read LOTS of different recipes and they all include a key ingredient: Dough Improver. This can come in the form of either a dough improver such as the King Arthur Dough Improver or a combination of vital wheat gluten and an organic acid such as ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) or acetic acid (vinegar). KA dough improver is actually that combination of vital wheat gluten and acetic acid.

I followed another recipe that prescribed using vital wheat gluten and 500 mg of ascorbic acid. I crushed up a Vitamin C tablet and was off to the races. The results in the picture speak for themselves. They literally came out exactly as I had intended!

But here’s where I’m getting conflicted…

Though I’m not a member, I’ve made a conscious decision to follow the principles of the Real Bread Campaign and make bread that has no artificial additives. The ascorbic acid I added to my dough is exactly that. I know it sounds kind of janky, but I kind of felt like I crossed over the dark side.

But according to a well-known American chef, Andy Ricker (who specializes in Southeast Asian cuisine) a dough improver is a vital ingredient in making Banh Mi. He should know. He has spent years studying all aspects of Southeast Asian cuisine. Though he’s best know for his Thai food, he possesses a great breadth of knowledge and experience that goes beyond just Thai food. So when he said that a dough improver’s “stabilizers and chemicals are what help give the baguettes their characteristic texture” I almost shit pants!

But I charged forward anyway and I love what I created. They taste great and they’re light and airy. When I made a sandwich with that bread, there were crumbs all over the place. That’s the sign of a great Banh Mi bun! BUT it goes against my ethos of not using artificial ingredients in my bread.

Luckily, that forced me to research alternatives and I found that some people have been using apple cider vinegar for their acid. I think I’m going to have to try that in place of the Vitamin C. Yes, I could go out and buy KA Dough Improver. But that’s just vital wheat gluten and acetic acid. I have plenty of vital wheat gluten and not only that, I have a bottle of Bragg ACV, which is the best commercial ACV out there in my opinion.

So all is not lost. But it still felt a little wrong to me. By the way, I baked my Bahn Mi based on this recipe. Though I made a couple of tweaks and converted everything to grams. Here’s my formula in the table below:

IngredientOuncesGramsBakers’s %My Amounts
AP Flour (11.75 protein)16453.6100.00%482
Water10283.562.50%301
Salt0.25.671.25%6
Yeast0.25.671.25%6
Vital Wheat Gluten0.617.013.75%18
Sugar0.25.671.25%6
Butter0.617.013.75%18
Vitamin C500 mg500 mg500 mg
With my recipe, I used AP flour. Almost all recipes called for bread flour. However, the amount of vital wheat gluten I used brings the total protein content to 14% which I found to be optimum for making great Banh Mi buns.
Notice that my flour and vital wheat gluten combined are 500 grams. I typically include VWG as part of my total flour. This is important because you technically only want to use 0.5% ascorbic acid to total flour.

Other than my personal tweaks, I used Andrea Nguyen’s fermentation process; however, for shaping, I used a technique that Andy Ricker shared in a YouTube video:

Handling an shaping of a Bahn Mi dough is so counterintuitive. With most breads, I’ve learned to be gentle with the dough. But with Bahn Mi dough, it’s handled rather aggressively!

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