It’s so hard to get the flavor of pho broth just right. You’re best off leaving it up the professional cooks at pho noodle shops. Don’t even try. It takes so long to make the broth, anyway. It’s more convenient to go out. I don’t have the time. Ha! You’re teaching non-Vietnamese people to make their own pho? That should be interesting…
Cooking is a skill and craft that just takes practice to master. I’ve never been one to be discouraged from tinkering in the kitchen. At the end of the day, it’s just food. If you mess up, you can still eat whatever you made. It’s not likely to harm you.
But there’s something about pho. I often hear from young Viet people about how her or his mother, father, grandmother or grandfather says that there’s no way to make a bowl of homemade pho that’s as good as what you’d get out. Indeed, the fragrant noodle soup is practically Vietnam’s national dish, but it’s no State secret! I suspect that the elders themselves don’t know how to make a good bowl at home so there isn’t much wisdom to impart to the kid.
That, fortunately, is not how I was raised. My parents were determined to tease out the secrets and techniques for making all kinds of Vietnamese foods. They’d ask their friends, professional cooks and family members. They also read stuff too. Their mantra was that they could make most dishes just as good, if not better than store-bought. (My mom stopped at Chinese roast pork when she was shown the inside of the roasting chamber at a Chinese barbecue shop.)
With regard to pho noodle soup, it’s really not hard to make a fabulous bowl. There are detailed recipes in my book, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, as well as at the Vietworldkitchen.com mega pho page. Vietnamese cooks have lots of tricks up their sleeves, but my approach is to keep things straightforward and true. Before leaping into making pho yourself, consider the following:
Basic Pho Tips and Techniques
1. Start with good beef bones: Avoid neck bones. Look for knuckle bones and leg bones that contain marrow. At Asian markets, you’ll find beef bones cut and bagged in the refrigerated section. Vietnamese markets will sometimes have the leg bones at the butcher counter. You can specify how you want them sawed; ask for two- to three-inch sections.
If you have to buy a little more than what the recipe calls for, lucky you! Your broth will be extra beefy. Miko in Seattle said that his bones were on the biggish side but he bought more than what was called for. I suggested that he thrown them all in for a more intense broth. There was more fat than usual, but Miko refrigerated the broth and lifted the congealed fat off.
From eating pho in Vietnam and observing how the cows there live low-key lives grazing in the countryside, I was inspired to make pho broth from the fragrant bones of grass-fed and natural beef. The experiments have consistently yielded amazing results, with the essence of beef captured every time. To find the bones, ask a butcher who breaks down large beef carcass sections into small retail cuts. Also check these sites for sources for natural, organic or grass-fed beef: Eatwellguide.org, Localharvest.org, Eatwild.com
2. Aim for a clear broth: This is achieved by parboiling and rinsing the bones, which greatly reduces the amount of residue in the broth. You may think you’re pouring essential flavors down the drain, but you’re not. The bones exude their essence during the three-hour gentle simmer. Cooking at a low heat also helps produce clear broth. [1/19/08 — Check out the great tool for efficiently skimming scum and fat!]
3. Char the onion and ginger: It imparts a wonderful brown color and deepens the overall flavors. DO NOT skip this step.
4. Use yellow rock sugar: It rounds out all the rough edges and brings the flavors together. Many Viet cooks in the past used granulated sugar and the flavor is just sweet and flat. Look for the golden-yellow sugar sold in plastic bags or paper boxes at Chinese and Vietnamese markets. Avoid the insipid white version, which is like using regular sugar. Note that the sugar may be labeled rock candy. One package lasts a long time. Just bang on large chunks with a hammer to break them up.
5. Don’t dilute. Why simmer broth for hours to create an intense flavor and then dilute it with water? I never got that approach. As my friend Linda Carucci points out in her helpful book, Cooking School Secrets for Real-World Cooks, bones give up their all after about 3 hours of simmering. Unless you’re simmering industrial quantities of bones (then you don’t need my help), there’s no need to simmer the broth for half a day. The only time that’d you need dilute the broth is if you added too much fish sauce or salt and need to correct the seasoning.
6. Leave some fat: Despite all the talk about obesity in the United States, I like some shiny globules of fat floating in the broth. They lend a richness that underscores pho’s beefiness.
7. Serve it hot: To cook the raw beef and warm the cooked beef and noodles, the broth must be boiling when it’s ladled into the bowl. But hot pho shouldn’t be left to sit in the bowl. The noodles will absorb too much broth.
8. Freeze it! Leftover broth and cooked meats may be frozen for a treat on another day.
- Roasting the bones. I’ve tried this and have not found that it’s done much to the broth aside from making the broth dark, something that I’ve not found to be attractive. If you start with good bones, there’s no need to roast, as the French would do for a veal stock, or demi-glace, as Miko pointed out.
- Filet or Wagyu beef in pho. I like my beef to have taste and have never found super tender, rich filet or Wagyu (American Kobe) to have much oomph. There’s plenty of flavor and fat from regular (and cheap) brisket, chuck, drop flank (nam), tendon, etc. Pho is humble food and to add filet or Wagyu removes some soul from the soup. Finally, after reading a story by Gary Estabrook in the December 2007 issue of Gourmet on how Kobe and Wagyu cows are raised, I refuse to eat that meat. Let’s say that the cotws are massaged because they’re arthritic from having to standing still and carrying all that weight!
- Pho seasoning packets. These little bags sold at Viet markets save you no time. You still have to simmer the bones and meats for broth. You don’t know how old the spices are too. Why not gather them yourself?
- Instant pho extract/paste. Can contain MSG. If you don’t use bouillon for broth, why would you use something like this?
- Hoisin. Spicy sweet hoisin sauce adds flavor and is something that southern Vietnamese folks like. For me, it obliterates a well crafted broth. Perhaps pho shops set the bottles of Lee Kum Kee out and encourage diners to squirt it into their bowls because their broth isn’t well-flavored? I reach for the hoisin to dip a beef meatball into, but that’s about it.
Feel free to debate the points I’ve made here, or add any tips, etc. of your own!
- History of pho (history and background)
- Chicken pho noodle soup recipe
- Beef pho noodle soup recipe
- Advanced Pho Secrets and Techniques
- Growing Vietnamese Herbs
- Instant Pho Noodles taste off
- Faux Pho: What is it and Does it Matter?