If you’re ever into Vietnamese food, your first top favorite would be “Pho”, or so call Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup. You probably eat Pho dozens of times and still wonder on how to cook such a flavor and aroma. Have no fear, this is a detailed step-by-step guide, with tips on how to cook the perfect Pho right at your own home. I also dedicated sections for ingredients selection guide, how to handle them and exactly how I cook Pho broth myself. There will be some smaller procedures that you might want to take note about such as priming bones/meats, spice preparation, etc. and finally a detailed recipe with (possibly) shopping list for your convenient.
Pho Styles & Variations
Pho has become so well known across the globe and in every place, it will have its own variations. There are chicken and other flavors too, but beef Pho remains the most popular classics. Pho consists of specially cooked broth, rice noodle, spice, herb and meat toppings; and is considered as the best (and delicious too) herbal & medicinal meal for those cold days. Pho is so popular in Vietnam that you can find it anywhere from North to South region, from street stand to high class restaurant, any time 24/7. There are a few popular Pho styles, grouping mainly into Northern – Pho Bac (e.g. Hanoi Pho, Nam Dinh Pho) and Southern – Pho Saigon.
The Northern Pho value the clearness with mild in spice and natural sweetness in the Pho broth or soup base. The broth has to be clear to be considered as delicious, period. In addition, Northerners prefer their Pho with wider noodle, lots of scallion stem, chopped green onion, some cilantro, meat(rare beef, well done brisket/heel, etc.) but just one kind at a time and few to none of accompanying vegetables(usually just basil). Condiments are simply fish sauce, pickle garlic and chili sauce. If comparing all the Pho styles, a Northern Pho bowl could be label as “light” in every aspect: concentrated beef flavor, mildly scent of spice, lightly “umami” sweet, distinct beef taste, etc.
The Southerner’s Pho, or Pho Saigon, in contrast, is a combination of everything. This demonstrated in the broth (mixed bone instead of just beef bone), combination topping – rare, well done beef, tendon, tripe, etc. and with beef meatball too. Even the accompanying garnishment much more complex, they’re included but not limit to: chopped green onion, thin sliced onion, fried onion, culantro, basil, mint, cilantro, bean sprout, sprout, lime, fresh chili pepper, etc. The condiments are usually chili sauce (Sriracha, garlic chili paste, pickled chili etc.) and Hoisin sauce with some lime juice for seasoning. As a result, the Southern Pho flavor is heavier, spicier, more complex and sweeter too.
Then there’s some variant like the California style Pho which is modified from the Southern style to accommodate the western culture/global taste difference. The bowl size used is also larger to fit the bigger appetite. In some area, due to limit stock and ingredient varieties, substitution can be made to generate similar taste. Often, if you can’t find an ingredient listed, either substitute or skip it. It doesn’t hurt or affect the final result that much, in fact, that may create a new Pho variation that you might want to come back to.
Cooking the ‘perfect’ Pho Broth or Soup base
Pho broth is the key and time consuming element that will determine your bowl a ‘Yay’ or ‘Nay’ no matter what style of Pho that you’re cooking. The best Pho broth will be smell great, taste good, and in presentable manner (no gooey, yucky residue). In order to achieve that you have to be careful and detail when processing bones for stocking, cooking broth, gathering spice pouch, etc. Generally, Pho Broth should be started preparing 7-8 hours in advance or the night before.Due to time consuming, you should make stock in large batches and freeze them in large serving quartz cubes for subsequent uses. Every time you want a quick Pho, just pop a cube then reheat, add the spice pouch, and season.
Picking the “Bones” for Pho
Virtually any beef bones, as long as they’re fresh, would work for making Pho beef broth. As said above, you could even throw in chicken or pork bones to get the special combine taste (most Vietnam Southerner prefer this) or just concentrate the flavor on beef like the Northerners do.
Of course, there are certain types of bones that work better than the rest, however, couple up with Pho special spice, right technique and throw in some secret ingredient; the different in quality will not be noticeable. If you must, the best type to make the Pho stock is knuckle bones with lit bits meat, which is rich in flavor and full of gelatin body surely make the difference in your Pho broth.
You can find knuckle bones at Asian grocery or local butcher. Some online retailers also carry them, but still I prefer the traditional local, fresh, touch & feel when buying raw products. Grass-fed beef work better, but not that much so that you’d stressed out for it. If you can’t find knuckle bones, try back rib, oxtail, neck, etc. Worst case scenario: you can’t find any bone, throw in some meat and cans of beef stock will do.Ask your butcher to cut the bones into handful chunks for easier handling and time saving.
Priming the Bones
To have the finished Pho broth clear and full flavor while being free of overpower beef smell, you have to take some time preparing them before adding to that big stockpot. The procedure below is specially for preparing beef bones when making the stock for Pho.
Bones are full of impurity and overpower beefy smell that you wouldn’t want to add to your Pho broth. Go ahead wash and rinse your bones to remove some of these particles.
Then soak all bones in an acidic mixture of water, smashed ginger and vinegar/lime juice for about 30minutes to an hour. The Ratio: a quarter size piece of smashed ginger and 1 Tbsp vinegar or lime juice (with skin) for every 2 lbs of bones at water-filled level.
Afterward, rinse the bone off. Use a small toothbrush to brush off excess impurity that still linger.
This will not only clean and free of oppressive smell, keeping the broth clear and less stuff to remove when the stock is done.
Blanching or Parboiling
Spray some wine over the bone, (I used 1 Tbsp of Vodka for 2 lbs knuckle bones) any brands will do.
Boil a large pot of water with some salt sprinkle, then add the bones to fully submerge in boiling water for 2-3 minutes. Drain and transfer bones to clean container.
This step will further removing residue while stopping all bloody liquid from the bone to prevent them from tarnishing the broth.
Throw all the cleaned bones in your oven at 400F for 20 to 40 minutes depending on their size and quantity. Remember to turn their sides over in between, skip this by using an open air roasting rack in a convection oven. This process will brown and caramelized all your bones thus enhancing the flavor tremendously. you could also roasted them on open fire or gas stove, however I found that it’s a tad bit tedious though.
If your bones have lots of marrow, scoop them all out. These are very fatty and add lots of grease to the broth taste. You could save the roasted marrow for bread spreading or other dishes, or just simply discard.
Now all your bones are ready to be boil into broth.
Boiling for Broth
We all know how to boil and make some broth, for Pho, it’s similar with a few additional steps. Basically you boil a large and deep stockpot of water over high heat before adding the primed bones and a little salt. This will allow little to none of the blood sipping out from the bone/meat bits.
For the Pho touching, roast some onion (I used both white and red onion), shallot and a slice of ginger-smashed for a couple minutes just to bring their aromatic out. Red onions makes the broth seem clearer, plus give a nice aroma, but don’t throw too much. Throw them into your stockpot and adjust to simmering, hence start the stocking process. I remember reading somewhere about adding fish sauce or some sort of seasoning, well, DON’T do that. It’ll give a sour taste.
Also if you want to cook some of the well done beef/tendon, you could add them to this stock pot too, just remember to soak & blanch them like the bones in the above steps.
After all this, remember to simmer them for at least 3 hours, 7 is the recommend. Remove all the floating impurity and tarnished layer as they come up. The reason for not set it to boil is to avoid all the scrum stuff all over the broth. Some people prefer their stockpot uncover (to avoid boiling I guess), anyhow it doesn’t matter much. As long as you removed all the impurity, then your broth will be as clear as water.
Prepare the Spice pouch
All Vietnamese or Oriental market should carry all the spice needed for Pho with a nice pouch and cotton string. The content is vastly different between packages, but the major should have included cinnamon stick, cloves, star anise, ginger, fennel seed, coriander seed, etc. If you decide to get one of the pre-packaged, look for the one that is packaged in either Vietnam for authentic flavor. Stay away from any packs that contain ground ingredient/powder cause you may never know what in them, plus it impossible to do a little priming with those too.
If you choose to gather the material yourself, you will need:
- a fine mesh cotton/straining bag with closure tie
- 1 long cinnamon sticks or 2 3-inches sticks
- 1 black cardamom pod
- 4 star anise
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp cloves
Make sure that your mesh bag/string closure is clean and food safe as they will be submerge in the bone broth. If you fear that dirt on any of the ingredient, feel free to wash and let them air dry. Break cinnamon stick into shorter pieces so that it will fit the mesh bag better.
Once you’re ready, quickly roast the black cardamom until it outer shell burnt, break the shell to retrieve the inside seeds, discard the shell.
In a dry skillet over medium heat, pan-roast all the ingredients. Keep stirring until fragrant come out of them.
Transfer them to your bag, fold the top a couple times and tie your bag carefully to avoid ingredient seep out during cooking. Now your spice bag is ready for use.
Choosing Pho Toppings
Similar to pizza, there are lots of topping for Pho and each could go well individually to make a Pho bowl, or just throw them all in to have that special combination. The best topping is the one that you can get fresh to your liking.
- Rare beef: basic topping for Pho, it is used raw in the bowl until boiled broth is ladled over to make it rare. Any meat that is large enough for you to slice across the grains. Try eye round, sirloin, etc.
- Well-done/Tender/Flank: this is the cooked meat, basic for those who can’t consume rare meat. Use meat with some fat and tendon/flank to enhance the texture(e.g. heel, flank, etc.)
- Beef meatball: available in 2 versions, w/ and w/o tendon. Served as standalone topping or combined with others. Perfectly pair with Hoisin sauce/Sriracha/lime juice as side dipping.
- Tendon: often consumed with other toppings in combination Pho to add extra texture.
- Tripe: like tendon, this will add extra crunchy texture in combination Pho or with rare meat only
Go Green: vibrant fresh garnishment for your health
There are lots of fresh garnish and vegetable that could go great with Pho. Some are must have like Basil, cilantro, green onion, thinly slice onion, chili, and lime. Others are required by certain region or as available like bean sprout, mint, culantro, scallion heads (Northern), etc. Anyhow, there must be some vegetables being served or it won’t be Pho.
Complementing with condiments
Most Northerner style Pho will only use fish sauce, chili sauce, pickle garlic and round kumquat juice as condiment since these go best with rare beef Pho. Vice versa, most Southerners (and probably Pho store globally) would have hoisin sauce, chili sauce (Sriracha better yet) along with lime juice and fish sauce for seasoning/condiments. Personally, I think adding just little bit of the mixture hoisin sauce/Sriracha/lime juice to the bowl when you eat wouldn’t be over power though especially during hot summer days. Otherwise that mixture is really great for dipping meatballs and other Pho topping.
How I cook Pho broth, meat, tendon and all
This is how I’ve done it; the result is consistent every time: amazingly aromatic clear broth with tons of natural “umami” sweetness from the bones/meat without any addition of sugar or msg no matter which type of bones, meat variety, Pho style been cooking. My first key is to have fresh ingredients, all bones, meat, etc. everything should be fresh by the time I start cooking. Second key is to prepare all the bones, meats, tendon, tripe, etc. with care, so that they are free of impurity and foul odors. Last but not least is to add a secret ingredient; this will bring out that special unique sense and aroma, natural sweetness that allow me to skip all the sugar and msg too. What is this secret ingredient that I kept ranting about, read on to find out, okay!!
For the bone broth, I usually just boil the water (at recommended max gauge) in my lovely pressure cooker (I have a Presto 8 qt Stainless Steel) over high heat (use a lid from your normal pot to temporarily cover it to increase boiling speed). Then I would add the processed stocks (2-3 lbs of prepared bones, roasted onion, ginger & secret ingredient, etc.), replace the cover, and plug in the pressure builder. Once the internal pressure finish building up, reduce heat to low (you will see a very little steam steadily flowing out). Keep this for about 2 hours before turning off the stove, since my stove is an electric range the heat is still there for a while even after turning it off, so I just keep the pressure cooker as is and go to bed. By the next morning, all the pressure would have released naturally, open up the pressure cooker lid, and you would have see a layer of solid fat on top, perfect, remove that.
I would then transfer everything through a strainer into a 12qt stockpot and set the heat to low/simmering while adding the prepared spice pouch. Don’t forget to remove this little pouch right after you hear the Pho fragrant coming out, leave it too long and your broth would be overpower. For the stuff on the strainer, pick out any of the solid bones with bits meat removed along with my precious ingredient ^.^ and throw them back in the stockpot, discard everything else.
Now, the liquid level is low you’d say, well, since I would have the juicy broth from the well-done meat & tendon to add to this final Pho broth later on, I wouldn’t worry about that. However, you could always add in more water/store bought stock in case of need or if your topping is only rare meat. My portion comes out to about 12 American-sized bowls.
Back to Pho, I would have process the to-be well-done meat and tendon (soaking & blanching) just as I would on the bones. After blanching, I transfer them immediately to icy bath of cooked water. Repeat taking the pressure cooker to boil some water again, this time I’d add a little spice (cinnamon, fennel seeds, e.g. Pho spices.), some salt and seasoning to taste along with the meat & tendon and cover/build up pressure/low heat, etc. It only take me an extra 40 minutes to cook these(25 minutes for the meat, remove when it’s done, continue extra 15 minutes for the tendons).
Immediately after remove the meat/tendon from pressure cooker, I would submerge them in icy cold bath, to lock in moisture and juiciness. When they’re cool enough, get them out and let dry before thinly slice them for serving. Pour all the leftover liquid from the pressure cooker, all the icy bath water that you’ve used into your stockpot, and keep it simmer until being served. Now my Pho broth and cooked toppings is ready, just slice the rare meat and wash/cut all the fresh veggies and/or garnishment and I’m ready to chow down.
The Secret Ingredient
Yes, here it is, my secret ingredient(s), are you ready? It is “dried earthworm” or (Sipunculus nudus) if you google it. Now don’t be scare by the look/name of it, this is actually the classic ingredient that has been used in cooking Pho broth or any noodle soup base in Vietnam since before any MSG event existed there. Adding just a few dried pieces and they would spice up your soup’s aroma, flavor and taste tremendously, even my non-cooking hubbies could tell the different. When using them right with your stocking/broth, you could even skip all the sugar and MSG, yup, cause there’s no need to.
They are harvested in several beaches in Vietnam, so most natives would buy these alive and dehydrate themselves. I often bought them dried in large quantity whenever I have a trip there. In here, you could ask for them in Vietnamese food market (“sa sung” is the word) or buy them online through amazon or other Asian retailers. Look for those that are little dark golden/brown in color, best if originate from Vietnam, don’t get the white/pale/clear colors ones cause those are over processed from cheap unsafe vendor or might just be low quality with no nutrition at all.
Now if you couldn’t find any, here are a list of substitution, in precedent order (cause I sometimes ran out of stock too, and this is what I used).
Ingredients help knocking your Pho broth to match or even surpass restaurant quality (just have to use one)
- Dried earthworm(sipunculus nudus or “Sa sung”): the best, a classic traditional Pho base ingredient, price is quite high, about $50 – $70/lbs, which contain over 100 pieces cleaned with minimal sand remain. The more budget pack would have more sand inside and of lower quality too. You will need about 4-5 pieces for a good whole family size stockpot.Prime: Use a scissor to cut them in halves then along their body length to open the inside and wash/remove all the sand remained. Then pat dry and pan-roast them until their aromatic coming out and throw them in your stockpot along with bones and stuff
- Dried squid: this would be second best, in term of spicing up the Pho broth natural sweetness and aroma. 1 piece at your hand size is enough for family use.Prime: roast/bake it in the oven/open fire. Then use your mallet or something to pound and crush it before adding to your stockpot.
- Dried shrimp: this is good just as the dried squid for bringing out the umami too. Just beware if any of your eaters are allergy to shell food.Prime: wash and roast just like the squid, your don’t have to pound though.
- Carrot and similar veggies: while they do add on to the sweetness, I don’t think they did anything to the scent and the umami, so use this if you’re short on bones and don’t have any of the above ingredients on hand. However, you must couple these with MSG, dashi or any seasoning powder to have the broth taste as good as the restaurant (since most of them use MSG or some kind of powder seasoning any way to save cost and time).
- Rock sugar & MSG: rock sugar to take care of the sweetness while msg does add the umami. This is the last resort I would ran to if nothing’s on hand, really.
- 2-3 lbs knuckle bones (5 lbs if you don't use any well-done meat topping)
- 2 shallot onion
- ½ red onion
- 1 medium white onion
- 1 finger size piece of ginger
- Secret ingredient or 1 ounce of inch-chunk yellow rock sugar
- 3 Tbsp of Good quality fish sauce or 2 Tbsp seasoning powder or sea salt
- Pre-package spice bag OR
- a fine mesh cotton/straining bag with closure tie
- 1 long cinnamon sticks or 2 3-inches sticks
- 1 black cardamom pod
- 4 star anise
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- ½ tsp black pepper
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp cloves
- 4 lbs of fresh rice stick noodle (Banh Pho Tuoi)
- 1 lb bean sprout (2 if your company are sprout-eaters like mine)
- 1 bunch of Thai basil or basil
- 1 bunch of spearmint
- 1 bunch of culantro
- A handful of cilantro
- 2 bunch of green onion
- 1 large white/yellow onion
- 4 red hot chili pepper
- 2 limes
- Sriracha, Hoisin sauce, ground black pepper for table seasoning
- Rare: 1½ lb of eye of round, sirloin, London broil or any thick enough to cut across grain
- Tender/Brisket: 1 lb of heel meat /brisket
- Fatty flank: 1 lb of fatty flank or ½ rib pack
- Tendon: 1 piece of whole tendon
- Tripe: 1 small piece of tripe
- Meat ball: 20-24 meat balls w/ tendon (prefer)
- 1 piece ginger (3-inches size)
- Wine, vinegar, salt
- A lot of patient
- 10-12 qt stockpot
- Extra pots for priming, boiling noodle
- Pressure cooker to save time
- and a company to enjoy!!
- Preferably on the night before or early morning(if you're serving Pho in the evening), you should start priming and preparing beef stock for Pho broth. Start by washing all bones that will going in for stock. Wash the rib pack too if you're using it.
- Priming the bones and rib pack(if use) following this procedure by washing, soaking, blanching and roasting. When your bones and rib are primed and ready, let start making some broth.
- Now with your stockpot fill with enough water (about 6qt), bring it to boil on high heat.
- While waiting for the water to boil, remove shells and cut all the white/red onion/shallot into halves.Take a 1-inch chunk of ginger, remove skin, and cut into 3 slices.
- Lightly roast all the onions, shallot and ginger until you could hear an aroma coming out.
- When stockpot is boiling, add 1 Tbsp of salt, primed bones (and rib pack if use) and all of the roasted onion/ginger. If you choose/have the secret ingredient as noted above, roast it now and add to the stock pot as well.
- When the content boiled again, adjust heat to low/simmering. Keep the pot at simmering for at least 4-5 hours, check back every hour or so to remove all the floating impurity and tarnished layer as they come up.
- (option): If you're using the rib, remove it after 1 hour (since simmering) or at a little harder than your usual desire tenderness. Carve off all the meats, let them cool before wrapping for storage in fridge. Throw all the rib bones back into stockpot and keep simmering until designed time.
- Tip: If you have an electric range and prepare this the night before, you could just simmer for about 3-4 hours, then cover and turn the heat off without removing the pot from your stove.
- Do the same as you would priming bones for a stockpot like Step 1 & 2: above.
- Fill your pressure cooker to max water allowance, then bring it to boil (use a similar volume pot lid to cover it for faster boiling).
- Remove skin, cut and lightly roast all the onions, shallot and ginger until you could hear an aroma coming.
- When water in pressure cooker is boiling, add ½ Tbsp of salt, primed bones (and rib pack if use) and all of the roasted onion/ginger. If you choose/have the secret ingredient as noted above, roast it now and add it as well.
- Replace the pressure cooker cover, make sure it tightly close in correct position (see your pressure cooker manual). Then Top it with pressure regulator or adjust to pressure building.
- when pressure is at full level, reduce heat to low. At this point there should only be very little steam steadily coming out at the pressure regulator.
- (option): If you're using the rib, after simmering/low for about 25-30 minutes, remove the pressure cooker from heat. Follow the cooker manual instruction to quickly release the pressure. When all pressure is release, just like the above stockpot's instruction, remove the rib pack to carve off and save all the meats. Throw all the rib bones back into pressure cooker, refill water if needed and start cooking again.
- Step 9: Keep the pressure cooker at full pressure on low heat for about 3 hours (2 if yours is an electric range). When the time is due, turn off heat, but do not remove the pressure cooker nor release its pressure. Just let it sit there until all pressure are naturally released.
- If you cook the bone stock the night before, you will see a solid fat layer floating upon open the stockpot/pressure cooker lid, sweet, remove all of those. If not, place the whole pot/cooker in fridge or something to cool down for 10 minutes so that all the fat and impurity could be solidify and easily to be remove.
- Strain everything solid in there (if you were using pressure cooker, just pour it over a strainer into the stockpot). Pick out the bones and your secret weapon (if used) and let them back into the stockpot with clean&clear beef stock. Discard everything else.
- Bring the stocking liquid to boil level, then adjust heat to simmering (keep this simmering until serve actually). Now go ahead and season this Pho broth by adding fish sauce(if only good fish sauce, otherwise use salt), rock sugar (if needed), or seasoning powder(msg free mushroom seasoning powder, bouillon, or even msg, etc depend on your situation). Taste it a little overpower then you normally would, cause when serving with rice noodle and raw veggies, it will be balance out.
- Prepare and add the spice bag into stockpot. Set the timer or note somewhere to remove this spice bag from the broth after 1 hour or when your could hear the Pho fragrant coming out of the cooking broth.
- (optional) Now, if you're using brisket, tender, flank, tendon, etc.. any cooked meat as toppings, go ahead and prime them by soaking and blanching just like the bones, you could skip the roasting though.
- Add all the prime meats & tendon to the cooking stock when it's boil then adjust to simmering. Most people would afraid to replace cover; but if you did well with priming all bones/meat and assuring the heat is at low, then go ahead and close the lid to preserve aroma and water level.
- If you have pressure cooker, then instead of the above, fill your cooker with enough water to cook the meats/tendon, and just pressure cook them on the side.
- Prepare an icy cold cooked water bath. Upon remove meats (about 1 hour), tendon (about 90 minutes) from the stockpot, submerge them completely in cold bath. If you're using pressure cooker, reduce the time and strained the remaining juicy water(use to cook meats) into your stockpot. When all cooked meats and tendon are cool to the touch subsequently, remove them from the water bath.
- Check back on the broth to make sure it taste, add more water if needed and re-seasoning it too. If you think the spice is not present, go ahead and add back the spice bag, but don't forget to remove when the aroma come up or the broth will be overwhelmed.
- When your broth is still in simmering process (1-2 hours), let's prepare all the other stuff.
- Star by thinly slice and organize all the cooked meats and tendon into separate closed containers (for easier serving later). Don't forget to slice the rib meat that you're saving earlier too.
- (option) if you're using tripe, wash it clean and soak it with 2 Tbsp of wine (say vodka) for 5 minutes. Then boil some water with little salt, dip the tripe in for about 3-5 minutes until its color become lightly cloud. Remove and submerge in icy cold bath as well to easily slice.
- Thinly slice the raw eye of round that you would be using for rare topping, again, store in an air tight container.
- For the meat ball, wash and tri- or quart-cut or cross-carving, just however you like them to be, then set aside.
- Wash all the veggies and herb, remove dead leaves, and arrange them on plates at serving table. Slice all chili pepper, and cut the lime into quarter or smaller if you want, put them on veggies plates too.
- Cut the green part of the scallion (as thin as you could), throw the white chunk into your cooking broth.
- Grate/extra thin slice white onion.
- Boil a large pot of water next to your Pho broth pot.
- Ladle some hot water on the serving bowl to lightly rinse it (doing this to keep the bowl from being cold).
- Dip enough rice noodle portion into boiling water cooked (about 1-3 minutes, a little stiff is fine, it will expand more with Pho broth). Use a mesh tong or something to transfer noddle into serving bowl).
- Arrange all the toppings over rice noodle being cooked meats/tendon first, meatballs, and finally the raw eye round on top.
- Sprinkle on thinly slice onion, green onion and some ground pepper.
- Repeat for every bowl. (I usually just batch cooking noodle into bowl then arrange toppings on all. Just be quick or have someone helping).
- Make sure the broth is very hot (could just adjust to high heat/boiling if need) and ladle the broth all over the raw meat.
- Enjoy while hot with side veggies and condiments.