Pho. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the broth and the noodles and the slurping.
This post is going to be a doozey in length. If you’ve never made pho but want to, I will describe all of the ingredients, what they look like, where to find them, and why you use what you use, and whether I took any shortcuts.
I’d like to dedicate this post to my sister, Kendra, who introduced me to pho. When my sisters say something’s good. It’s good! And to my friend, Des, who also loves pho and encouraged me to make it.
Des and I originally dismissed making pho at home as too intense. However, thanks to the fates and my poor eating, I’ve recently started drinking bone broth. Those recipes initially sounded involved. But once I actually got into it, I realized, “This is not a lot of work, it’s just a lot of waiting.” Now I can bust out a batch of bone broth with very little thought and about 10-15 minutes of work, max. I make two batches of bone broth once a week. So hunkering down to make pho one time sounded easy!
I’ve broken this post into parts and tried to bold steps so you can find your place or reference back:
Beef bones (oxtail, generic beef bones, soup bones, beef feet, shin/leg bones, etc.)
Pho spices (premade packets or prepare your own)
2 yellow onions
4” nub of fresh ginger
1 Tbs Salt (to taste)
3 Tbs Fish sauce (to taste)
1 oz Yellow rock sugar (to taste)
Fresh pho noodles
There are a few sections here, so it can get a bit lengthy. If you want to jump back to a specific section:
The beef bones you use can depend on your taste and access to such bones. Oxtail seems to be a pretty popular choice and is easy to get. I buy oxtail regularly to make bone broth, and get it at Yoder Meats in the freezer section. There was also oxtail in the open freezer area at Thai Binh. What you’re looking for here are bones that when made into broth will create gelatin. Oxtail is great for this. Although the gelatin only forms when the broth is refrigerated, when it’s warm it gives the broth a more substantial feeling. You may or may not notice this. And your broth may or may not gel. But I think a lot of the flavor you get comes from various beef bones. Thai Binh also has various beef bones packaged in approximately five pound bags in the freezer. And they also separately package beef feet. I used a combination of oxtail, beef feet and the generic bones in my broth.
If you’re not in Wichita, you can try going to your butcher and asking for these bones (or shin/leg bones) if they’re not in the freezer section. If you get larger bones, the butcher can usually cut them to more manageable sizes. Thai Binh also had oxtail, but it was more expensive than at Yoder Meats. My point is, don’t be intimidated by the bones. Many people are grossed out by things like beef feet (which aren’t hooves, by the way, it’s the very bottom of the leg, right before the hoof), chicken feet (which I admit were creepy the first time I used them in a broth), oxtail, or shin bones. But remember, these things are probably used by a lot of restaurants, whether you know it or not. Both for cost-savings and for the better flavor and resulting broth consistency you get. And not just in Asian countries. When I was reading up on bone broth for my first foray into brothing, there was talks of broths and sauces in France. So don’t be scared. Consider it an adventure! You’ll thank yourself later!
I’d say you probably need about 5 pounds of bones for six quarts of broth. I never weigh mine. But I did one oxtail, about 2 pounds. Two beef feet bones, and four or five of the generic bones. The bones end up displacing about 1/3 of the water in my 6 quart pot.
Use whatever raw beef you want in your finished product. Or nothing at all. Most of my research said if you don’t care for cooked meat in your finished soup (I don’t), don’t get it. However, others swore it made the flavor more beefy. Caught in analysis paralysis, I ended up choosing some type of chuck roast meat that was on clearance. I didn’t intend to eat the cooked meat. I simply used it for flavor and tossed it. If you’re going to eat it, I think brisket is common. If you’re not going to eat it, but broth weirds you out without meat, get whatever you want. I used to always throw meat in my bone broth (I know, effectively not really bone broth). It was all mental. If you need it to get over the hump, buy it! If you don’t, I think it’s fine to skip it.
The most common pho spices are cinnamon, cloves, fennel, and star anise. Others used are cardamom and coriander. I didn’t even check the back of my spice packets. I found them in the same aisle as soy sauce at Lucky Market. They’re across from the soy sauce near the pho paste (DON’T buy the paste, you’ll be let down). After I bought them, I started reading that those spices are commonly more aged than picking out your own spices and may not give you enough flavor. But, honestly, as a newbie, having them pre-portioned into the right ratios, was worth it. To counter-act the potentially aged spices, rather than using only one packet, as recommended, I ended up using three. I used one during the first pressure cooker stage. I used a second one for the first 1 ½ hours of simmering. And a third for the final 1 ½ hours. Based on the reviews of the final product, I will probably use the spice packets again. I will likely only use two instead of three next time, however.
There’s not a lot to say about the onions and ginger. I got ginger at a much cheaper price from the Asian market. Whatever you don’t use, you can freeze and grate off into future dishes. I’ll explain how to char these during the actual recipe. But when you’re charring you can use the broiler in your oven (what I did, and it was very easy), a gas grill, or hold them over the flame on your gas stove. Holding over the stovetop flame seems to a lot of work unless you setup a cooling rack (which may or may not be suitable for such hot temps) over your burner. It’s about a 10-15 minute job, so consider that before committing to using the stovetop.
A little aside about the ginger: As a person who makes beef broth, I can attest that sometimes it doesn’t have a super-pleasant smell, although it always tastes good. During my research, I discovered the ginger masks some of the unpleasant smell the beef bones can sometimes put off. I’m now applying this technique to my brothing!
I used the cooking oil and salt I had in my pantry.
For fish sauce, I hear the best is Red Boat. That’s not what I have, but felt it was worth mentioning. I’ve read conflicting information on when to add the fish sauce. Some cook it right into the broth. And I’ve actually made bone broth adding fish sauce during the simmer stage, and it always tastes fine. However, it’s worth mentioning, many people swear it affects the flavor, and to ONLY add it at the very end to tweak flavor. Ultimately I decided to only at it at the very end.
Yellow rock sugar (also called rock candy) can be found at an Asian market. I think mine came in an 8 oz box. There were several different options. It’s important to choose the yellow sugar (as opposed to white, as the white is a sub-flavored sugar). This is supposed to enhance and round out the flavors of the dish, rather than flattening it and making it sweet like conventional sugar or white rock sugar/candy. The pieces of rock sugar will be larger than you want to use. I put the sugar in a plastic bag and broke it with a hammer.
If you can’t find or don’t want to look for rock sugar, you can add regular old sugar. Just be careful, and taste frequently.
Two notes on broth flavor: First, you want it to taste strong. It doesn’t need to be overwhelming or anything. But just know if you can really taste a flavor, it will balance out when the noodles and meat are added.
Second, many people are scared of the fat that comes with their broths. In fact, some recipes recommend cooling your broth and remove the fat that hardens on the top. However, my experience is that can leave you with a somewhat bland broth. Lots of that flavor is held in the fat. You can remove some if you like (I didn’t remove any). But be sure to leave at least some for flavor.
Broth simmer time: I’ll touch on this a bit during my broth cooking section, but wanted to expand a bit here. Some sites said the broth should develop full flavor after simmering for three hours, while other places said five. It’s strange those were the most commonly used times. Of course, others said some have perpetual broth (dip out what you want and add more bones, seasonings and water), while others simmer it overnight or all day. For this recipe, I cooked for about four hours. One hour was in a pressure cooker. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, I’d recommend going for a five-hour simmer. If you do, I’d recommend doing an hour in the pressure cooker and another 1 ½-2 at a simmer. However, feel free to experiment. I’ve only done this once. And the truth is, there’s not a real answer.
And while I say you want it to cook for 3-5 hours, give yourself plenty of time. I started my process around 10AM and I finished getting my broth strained and into the pot around 5:00. The extra time is spent browning and parboiling the bones, charring the onions and ginger, straining and cleaning up after yourself. So I had four hours of pressure cooking/simmering. But spent close to six, including prepping everything and cleaning up. With all the work you’re putting in to finding the ingredients, take your time simmering the broth. And give yourself time to enjoy the process!
In The Bowls
Fresh Pho Noodles – You can find these in the refrigerator case at the Asian market. The market I went to had two options. I randomly chose one. I’ve had the dry noodles, and they’re fine, but it’s worth getting the fresh ones if you’re making this a production. If you’re going to freeze broth and make a leisurely bowl on a Saturday afternoon, the dry ones are fine and are shelf-stable. The fresh ones come out of the bag little crispy. And you only boil them for about 5-10 seconds. I dipped mine right out of the pot and into the bowls.
Raw Steak – I used sirloin because it was on sale that week. I heard flank steak is good, but I’m not a huge fan of it. I do like flatiron steak. I’ve read that doing the really expensive steak (Kobe, filet, etc.) isn’t traditional since pho is a relatively cheap soup. However, I say, it’s your party, use whatever meat you want to.
Other meats – I bought premade beef meatballs at the Asian market. There was quite the variety in the freezer section. I didn’t love the meatballs, but I’m also not one to order them with pho. I think many people think they make the soup. They’re easy enough to toss in after strained the broth. And easy to avoid when dipping the broth out into the bowl. I brought my broth to a full boil for about five minutes before serving to warm the meatballs through (they’re fully-cooked already, but who likes a cold meatball?).
Yellow Onion – OK, for some reason this floored me. You will probably be underwhelmed. But the onions that are so delicious in the soup? They’re added right before the boiling water. Into the bottom of the bowls! Since they’re at the bottom, it gives them a bit more time to cook before anyone fishes them out. I LOVE those sorta-crisp onions. The recipes I read said to soak them in water for a half hour. Not sure what this does, but I follow orders or people die.
I found Thai basil at the Asian market. It’s different than the traditional basil you probably see at the grocery store. I’m sure your grocery store might also have Thai basil. But according to Des, it’s worth it to get the real deal. So, do it!
For whatever reason, there wasn’t any cilantro at the grocery store Saturday morning. So we went without. I wasn’t going to traipse through Saturday grocery traffic at several places to get cilantro. I personally didn’t miss it. But I can take or pass on the fresh herbs, honestly.
I also found bean sprouts at the Asian market. I don’t personally add them, but if you do, I assume the soup won’t be the same without their crisp texture. (I’m comparing to the onions that made the soup over the edge for me!)
You can obviously get jalapenos (or other hot peppers) almost anywhere. They do have them at the Asian market. You’ll slice them up fairly thin. And adding them to the soup gives it an extra kick. This was one of the few things I used to add to my soup until I developed a weird pepper intolerance. I know, tiniest fiddle in the world plays for my first world problems! For me, the jalapenos were a staple. And they’re cheap. So I highly recommend!
Some people use lemons. But Des says limes all the way. She’s an expert. However, if you or someone likes lemons, just cut those up. You want them so someone can squeeze them into the soup.
Not every place has green onions available, but when they are, I like adding them. I actually bought them for our soup, but forgot to get them out. Hey, no dinner party is perfect. More wine fixes everything!
Sriracha was also a staple for me. I liked things spicy. I still added a bit of this to my soup Saturday night. I was a bit less aggressive so I could really taste the broth. As I was doing this, I realized my over-dousing of Sriracha is like someone dipping their steak in steak sauce without tasting it first. Allegedly that annoys cooks. I, on the other hand, am like my mom. I just want people to enjoy their meals. So I say put whatever you want in your pho! If you don’t have Sriracha, buy some. Stick it in your fridge. It lasts a lifetime (if you don’t use it – but even if you do, it lasts a long time)!
I’m not a huge hoisin sauce fan. But some people like to put a bit on the side and dip their meat in it. If you’re a good host, you can serve the hoisin, and give each guest something on the side to put the sauce on for dipping. I think some occasionally use it in the soup, but from what I read, dipping is more common.
Making the broth
Look, we’re finally to the recipe portion!
The first thing I do is roast/brown the bones (which for me are always frozen). Toss them in a roasting pan. I roast them at 375 degrees for about an hour. Some bones start to burn, so be sure to flip. You’re not married to an hour. If the bones start to burn, pull them out. Beef feet bones always cook faster for me.
Toss the bones in a pot and fill pot with water. If you’re using bottled water or reverse osmosis water, don’t bother for this first step. What you’re going to do is parboil the bones for about 10 minutes, removing the impurities. This will make the broth taste better and should also result in a more clear broth. After 10 minutes, strain the bones and wash out your pot.
While you’re waiting for your water to boil you can char the onion and ginger. Cut the ginger in half, length-wise. And cut the onion in half, leaving on the skin. Place both in the oven, cut-side up and brush with cooking oil. Turn the oven on to broil. You’ll cook for about 10-15 minutes total. Watch and flip as they start to char. The smell of the ginger is fantastic.
Put the bones back in the now-cleaned pot and fill with water. If you’re using bottled water, go ahead and pour enough to cover the bones. If you’re using a pressure cooker, fill to the “max” line. If you’re using a regular pot, fill full. Turn on high heat (but don’t put the lid on the pressure cooker, yet). As the water starts to reach a boil, foam will rise to the top of the water. This is scum, or impurities in the bones. You removed a lot of these during the parboil. If you’d like, you can skim the scum off with a spoon. I skim it into a small container I can hold in one hand while I skim with the other. If you want to skip the step of skimming the scum or find it frustrating, the parboil has removed most impurities.
At this point, you’ll, depending on what you’re using to cook:
Pressure cooker: Add onion, ginger, pho packet.
Non-pressure cooker: Add onion, ginger, pho packet and the meat you’re cooking in, if you are.
If you’re cooking in a pot, bring to a boil. Then reduce to a simmer for 3-5 hours. Remove the cooked meat after about an hour and a half. Soak it in cold water. Then drain, shred and store in the fridge. Change out your pho packet and onion halfway through, if you’d like.
If you’re pressure cooking, turn on high and build the pressure. Once it’s going, reduce to medium/medium-low and pressure cook for 1 hour. Remove from burner and let the pressure release naturally. Open the pressure cooker, remove and discard the onion and pho packet. Add the second onion, pho packet and meat if you’re using cooked meat. Fill the pot up with water. Let simmer for three hours.
At this point it’s time to strain the broth. I actually have a two-step straining process I follow when making bone broth. It created a nice, clean, crisp broth. But one-step straining with a smallish-grate strainer will probably work just as well.
I strain the broth from the pan into a strainer that’s over a spouted bowl. I catch all of the bones to discard. The beef bones won’t be soft enough for your garbage disposal, so don’t make that mistake. Then I strain the broth a second time through a really fine hand-held strainer back into the pot. This catches the small bits of bone and spices and anything that might be gritty. I think this second step is worth it. But others might disagree.
Bring the broth back to a simmer.
Now’s the time to get your seasonings just right using the rock sugar, fish sauce and salt. I used a 6 quart pressure cooker. This means once all of the bones were out, I had about 4 quarts of broth. I added just a hair over one ounce of rock sugar. And I believe around 3-4 tablespoons of fish sauce. I probably added about one tablespoon of salt. But, these are all going to depend on your brands of sugar, salt and fish sauce. And trust me, you’ll probably be unsure. This is when it’s nice to have a few other people around, offering their for-once solicited advice!
In the end, I’m not sure how perfect the broth actually has to be. Des and I thought the broth was a bit on the sweet side. And Des thought it might be a bit too gingery (there’s nothing you can do to undo ginger, I don’t think). But once it got in the bowls with the noodles, it really did taste fantastic. So do the best you can with flavoring. But don’t stress out like I did!
Once you’re happy with your flavoring, add the meatballs if you’re using them!
During the 3-5 hour simmer period is a perfect time to get your garnishes ready for guests. I forgot to take a picture of our garnishes, which is really disappointing because Des did such a nice job preparing them. Hey, I’d had a glass of wine and forgot about you guys!
Most restaurants prepare one large plate for the table, with all the garnishes on one plate. I’d actually recommend two plates if you have a table with enough room. Seasoning your pho can take a little more of this and a bit more of that, and no one wants to reach over someone already slurping their soup!
If you want to put more Sriracha or hoisin on the table than just your one bottle of each, you can pour some into small serving bowls with a spoon.
You’ll want to pick the basil leaves off the stems, chop the cilantro into manageable chunks, cut the limes into small pieces you can still squeeze, clean up the bean sprouts (choosing the best looking ones – you probably won’t need the whole bag), and slice up the jalalpenos and green onions. Place them in groups on the plate and place on the table.
Preparing Bowl Fillings
Put the steak in the freezer. It will freeze so it’s easier to slice. Thinly slice up the onion and place it in a bowl of water for at least 30 minutes. After 20-30 minutes in the freezer, slice the steak. You can place both of these back in the fridge until you’re ready to make your pho.
At the very last minute you’ll boil your pho noodles. Bring a pot of water to a boil and add the noodles. If they’re the fresh noodles, they only need 5-10 seconds to boil. I pull the noodles out with tongs and place them directly in the bowl.
Put some of the onions you’ve soaked into the bottom of each bowl. Pull the noodles out of the boiling water with tongs. Place the raw steak on the noodles.
Ladle the pho broth over everything. You’ll see the steak cook as you ladle it on.
Serve and enjoy the fruits of your labor!
We had red bean moshi ice cream (yes, I realize that’s a Japanese dessert) after dinner. I’ll give you that recipe soon. It’s as poorly documented with pictures as this process, but was well enough received that it’s worth sharing.
Here are some pictures. I get caught up in cooking and don’t always remember to take pictures. But I think some of these help.
Here are some of the bones I used. On the left is an oxtail. See, not scary, right? And the bones on the other side are generic beef bones. But the beef feet look just like that, maybe a bit lighter in color. After I roasted the ones shown, I started to worry I didn’t have enough so I decided to use two beef feet bones and one more generic beef bone.
This is the scum I’m talking about. When it comes to the top, it just looks like foam. But if you skim it off, you start to see it’s brown, which is kind of gross. This is why I take the time to skim off the extra bit of scum on the second boil (after the parboil).
This is a terrble picture. For some reason I didn’t take a picture of the cut side of the ginger or onion charred. You let it char until I starts to look like it’s burning. In the upper right-hand corner, you can see the pho spice packet. Remember, one of the onions (both halves of an onion) goes into the first part of the broth. When you change out the spice packet, also use a slotted spoon to pull out one of the onions and stick in a second one. You can let the second one sit out at room temperature while the broth goes through the first round of cooking, until you need the second onion.
I forgot to take pictures of my straining process. But it’s exactly the same as when I make bone broth. I first put the bones through a larger strainer to get out the bones, dumping them into a bowl or a trash sack after they’re strained. You can see the “trash bowl” to the left. And you can see the bones (and vegetables in my bone broth) in the strianer, straining. You can also see I’m straining into a bowl with a handle and spout. This makes pouring through the small strainer easier.
And this is going through the second strainer. For bone broth, you put the broth in a bowl in the fridge. For pho, you strain it through the second strainer, back into the pot.
I totally forgot to get pictures the night of the “big event.” I fail at blogging! But I succeed at drinking wine and laughing. I’m OK with it. However, I gave my leftovers to my sister, who was nice enough to take a picture, post it on Facebook, and say how great it was. Humble brag. But someone complimenting my cooking, especially when I put so much time into researching, finding and gathering ingredients, and making the meal, really is one of the best things in the world.
And for fun, a picture of the set table.
The dinner party was a success, for reasons far beyond food, but it was nice that the food turned out. A year ago I would have told you you were crazy if you said I’d make pho relatively stress-free. It’s a lot of information, but I swear, once you wrap your head around it, it’s more waiting than working. And such a satisfying feeling to conquer something you thought was such a big goal. Could pho be my food-marathon? OK, maybe a half-marathon. I’m sure I’ll have a bigger goal soon.