(Vietnamese beef noodle soup)
For the best pho, it's all about the broth. Beef bones, aromatic vegetables and sweet and smoky spices are simmered then strained to produce a crystal clear soup with multiple layers of flavor.
Pho is most often sold as steaming street food for breakfast or lunch, To serve pho, a deep bowl is filled with cooked rice noodles and topped with the diner's choice of simmered beef brisket, paper-thin beef filet, chewy beef balls and meltingly tender tendon. Hot broth is poured over everything and served with a side plate of sprouts, fresh herbs and lime wedges for the diner to add as they wish for flavor, texture and color.
Making your own pho broth is not really very hard, but it does take time. And getting a bowl of pho to the table can sometimes be a two-day process. If you're really craving pho for dinner tonight – not tomorrow – you can cheat with a number of passable prepared pho broths or bouillons that are available at many Asian markets.
Makes 4 servings
- Beef soup bones, cut into pieces -- 5 or 6 pounds
- Large onion, quartered-- 1
- Gingerroot, peeled -- 1 2-inch piece
- Star anise -- 3 or 4
- Cinnamon stick -- 1 3-inch piece
- Whole cloves -- 3 or 4
- Water or good low-sodium beef stock -- 4 quarts
- Fish sauce -- 1/4 cup
- Rock sugar -- 1-inch piece
- Salt -- to taste
Meat and Noodles
- Beef filet mignon -- 3/4 pound
- Fresh rice noodles (bánh phở) -- 2 pounds
- Mung bean sprouts -- 4 cups
- Thai basil -- 1 bunch
- Mint -- 1 bunch
- Limes, cut into wedges -- 2
For the Pho Broth
- Add the beef bones to a large, deep pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat, drain and rinse with cool water. This parboiling gets rid of a number of impurities that could cloud your broth.
- Heat an ungreased, heavy skillet over medium flame. Push a toothpick through the quartered wedges of onion to keep them together, then add the onion wedges and gingerroot to the skillet and let them char on one or two sides. Put the onions and gingerroot into the pot with the bones. This charring will add a beautiful brown hue to the broth.
- Add the star anise, cinnamon and cloves to the skillet and toast lightly until they begin to release their aroma. Remove and add to the pot with the bones.
- Pour the water or beef stock into the pot, adding more water if needed to just cover the bones by about an inch. Set over medium-high flame and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for anywhere from 6 to 8 hours. Skim any scum and fat that may rise to the surface and add water as needed to keep the bones covered.
- Strain the broth through a fine-meshed sieve into another pot. Discard the bones and spices. Stir the fish sauce and rock sugar into the broth and adjust seasoning to taste with salt. Spoon off any remaining fat that is floating on the surface.
- At this point you can either store the broth for later or keep it warm while you prepare the remaining ingredients.
For the Meat and Noodles
- Place the filet in the freezer until it is partially frozen. Then slice the meat paper thin with a sharp knife. Divide into four portions, cover and keep refrigerated.
- Place the rice noodles into a large, deep bowl. Bring a pot of water to a boil and pour over the rice noodles. Stir the noodles to separate them and let them soften. After about a minute or two, drain the noodles, then portion out into four deep soup bowls.
- Place equal portions of the sliced filet on top of the noodles in each bowl.
For the Herb Plates
- Neatly portion the sprouts, herbs and lime wedge onto four side plates.
To Serve and Eat the Pho
- Ladle hot broth over the beef and noodles in each bowl to almost cover the noodles. The heat of the broth will cook the thinly sliced filet.
- Serve each bowl of pho with a side herb plate, chopsticks and a Chinese-style soup spoon. Each diner adds sprouts and herb leaves to flavor the pho to their taste. A squeeze of lime adds a pleasant sour note.
- Use chopsticks to eat the noodles and spoons to scoop up broth and smaller bits. For Western beginners, a fork and regular soup spoon works just fine.
Pho Notes and Variations
- Pho Broth:
- Bones: The best bones for pho broth are beef knuckle and leg bones. The knuckles have cartilage that add body to the broth, while the marrow in leg bones adds rich flavor. You can also use oxtails, and southern Vietnamese will sometimes add chicken bones and even pieces of dried squid for added flavor. Some cooks roast the bones in a hot oven before making their broth. This adds a smoky flavor and a deeper hue to the soup.
- Spices: Other spices sometimes added to pho broth include black cardamom, coriander and fennel seed.
- Meat: Pho is ordered according to what meats you would like added to it. Thinly sliced filet (pho bo tai) is the simplest preparation, but other additions are equally popular. Most diners mix and match from the following list:
- Pho Bo Tai (Beef filet): This version is described in recipe above, and is made with rare, thinly sliced beef filet. Substitute sirloin if you like.
- Pho Bo Chin (Lean brisket): Tender, thinly sliced lean brisket. Add a piece of brisket to the simmering broth and cook until tender, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Remove from the broth and slice thinly across the grain. You can substitute a chuck or rump roast if you like.
- Pho Bo Gau (Fatty brisket): Thinly sliced fatty brisket. Prepare as for lean brisket. This is just the fattier parts of the cut.
- Pho Nam (Flank steak): Well-done flank steak. Place in freezer until semi-frozen, then slice thinly across the grain as for beef filet. The hot broth will cook the raw meat.
- Pho Bo Vien (Beef balls): Pho with beef balls. Prepared beef balls can be found in the refrigerated or frozen section of most Asian markets. They usually contain beef tendon and add a chewy texture to a bowl of pho.
- Pho Gan (Beef tendon): Slow-simmered, meltingly tender beef tendon. Prepare as for brisket, but cut into bite-sized chunks. The tendon will probably need to cook 4 to 6 hours in order to get fully tender. Just make sure to remove them before they fully melt into your broth.
- Pho Sach (Beef tripe): Shredded beef tripe. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add the tripe and cook for 4 to 5 minutes. Drain, rinse and shred thinly.
- Pho Dac Biet (Combo): The full Monty pho, with filet, flank, brisket, tendon, tripe and beef balls.
- Noodles: While fresh rice noodles are best, they aren't always available. It's perfectly acceptable to use dried banh pho noodles. Follow package directions to prepare.
- Herb Plate: Other fresh herbs and vegetables popular on the herb plate include cilantro, culantro (ngò gai), thinly sliced onions or scallions, sliced Thai, serrano or jalapeño peppers and pickled garlic cloves. If using sliced onion, put the onions in a bowl and pour hot water over them. Let the onions steep for 1 or 2 minutes, then drain and rinse. This process softens their flavor.
- Condiments: If pho is prepared well, extra condiments aren't really necessary. However, diners in southern Vietnam often give their pho a dose of sweet hoisin sauce. You can also adjust flavor with fish sauce, vinegar or chili-garlic (sriracha) sauce.
- Phở Ga (Pho with chicken): Use chicken bones instead of beef bones. The stock will only really need to simmer for 3 or 4 hours with chicken bones, but 6 to 8 hours would extract even more flavor. Use skinless, boneless chicken breasts for the meat. Poach the chicken breasts in some of the strained broth for about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove and cool the breasts. Then slice thinly or shred the meat with your fingers into large chunks. Add the meat to the bowls on top of the noodles and proceed with the recipe.
- Regional Pho Differences: There are subtle differences between pho as served in the north (Hanoi) and that in the south (Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City):
- Phở Hanoi, or Phở Bắc: Hanoi-style pho has a clearer, saltier broth and is served with wider, flat rice noodles. Mung bean sprouts and Thai basil are not usually offered, but lots of chopped scallions are. Northern pho diners prefer chili sauce or vinegar as a condiment.
- Phở Sài Gòn: Pho in the south usually has a sweeter broth and thinner noodles. Southerners use fresh herbs more freely and prefer hoisin sauce as a condiment, either to flavor the broth or to dip the meat in.