So, I decided to get crazy and make Vietnamese Pho. It’s soup, right? How hard could it be? Fairly involved, actually. See the recipe at bottom.
In the end, it was very interesting and the results were amazingly delicious. But I decided to go with a very “authentic” and manual process, so it was a lot of work. Interesting, and fun. But fairly involved.
First I had to buy a lot of ingredients that I didn’t already have. This meant trips to two different International Markets. However, that’s my idea of a really fun Friday night, so it didn’t really seem like “work” to me. Maybe you already have all these spices and beef bones so you can skip that part. Or maybe you enjoy shopping and poking around in new stores like me. The best part of this project is that now I have most of the ingredients to make Pho probably ten more times!
One of the more interesting parts of this project was getting the thin-sliced raw beef. I went to my local Kroger and found they just happened to have a sale for $3.99 a pound, which was handy. I picked up a nice 2-lb roast and took it to the butcher counter. I asked if they could slice it nice and thin for me. She said, “Oh, are you making Philly steak?” And I was like, “No, I’m getting this to make Vietnamese Pho. But now that you mention it, Philly cheesesteak sounds pretty good.” She thought that was funny and smiled. Five minutes later I had 2 lbs of thin shaved raw beef for only about $8.
The actual cooking took most of a day, but really I wasn’t in the kitchen for the majority of it. It’s a lot of set and forget, so I was actually working in my office through most of it. Just be careful to set an alarm on your phone so you don’t get distracted and let something burn.
The first step is to cover your beef bones with cold water in a nice big stock pot. As for the bones, I bought four leg bones at the international market for like $4.00. I also had a porterhouse steak in the fridge, so I cut that bone out and used it. You use what you have. I’ve read articles that recommend knuckle bones and shin bones and whatever. Maybe that makes a difference, but I think mine turned out pretty yummy.
You’ll want to parboil your bones to get out most of the “impurities”. I think “impurities” is a polite way of saying you cook the blood out of the bones. Regardless, you bring it to a boil and let it churn for about five minutes. The water gets super cloudy and muddy and gross. Better to get all that out now, right? Pour off that water and gunk, including rinsing the bones. Also, be sure to clean out the pot as well.
Once you’ve cleaned it all up from the parboil, you’re ready to start boiling them in earnest. Cover the bones again with 6 quarts of cold water and set on high heat.
While the bones are heating up again, it’s time to start kicking up the flavor profile of all the other ingredients. The coolest technique I learned here was to broil the onions and ginger until they are charred and blackened. I don’t think that would have ever occurred to me. But it did smell amazing and it did seem to bring something extra to the broth. If I had it to do again, I would definitely user fresher ginger and more of it. I might even peel it, even though many recipes specifically said you didn’t need to do that.
The rest of the spices can be toasted in a dry skillet to bring out the maximum flavor. I’ve used this technique many times for peanuts in Thai cooking and especially roasting my own chili peppers for my homemade chili powder. It absolutely makes a huge difference in the flavor profile and I recommend it just about anytime you use fresh spices. Just heat up a skillet on maybe med high, and toss the stuff around for 3-4 minutes. You’ll smell the aromas release and that’s when you know they’re ready. This particular combination of spices smelled absolutely heavenly.
I’m not a giant fan of fennel, so the mix I used seemed a little heavy on that particular spice. Next time I won’t use as much. I wouldn’t skip it completely, but feel free to increase or decrease to your liking. I also used Sichuan Peppercorns, which wasn’t in most of the recipes I read. I really love the flavor and even with roasting them first, and simmering them for so long, the broth wasn’t spicy hot at all. It’s just added flavor at that point.
You’ll want to prepare the other ingredients now. Measure out your Fish sauce, salt, and sugar. I read a lot of opinions that using the Vietnamese Yellow Rock Sugar instead of plain table sugar makes a huge difference in the end broth. I found it fairly easily at the market and it was only maybe $2.00, so I used it. I can’t imagine it would really ruin your broth if you can’t find it. Pick your battles, right?
Eventually your bones will start boiling again. Turn down the heat to low and it’s time for everyone into the pool! Yep, pour in everything. It’s one big happy family and ready to simmer together for three hours.
As you near the three hour mark, it’s a good time to start making the noodles for your Pho. I bought a nice package at the market and just followed the directions. I got the Large Banh Pho noodles. Most recipes I read called for the thinner noodles, but I like them wider. The kids and I aren’t masters at chopsticks yet, so I wanted to give us a chance. Your mileage may vary. Get the noodles you want and cook to package directions.
You gotta admit, it doesn’t look like much at this point. But three hours of gentle simmering and occasional stirring gets you a very rich and complex broth. It will look like this:
Still kinda ugly, isn’t it? But, oh man, the smell. The whole house just reeks of deliciousness. It’s a happy smell.
So now we have a giant pot of delicious broth, but we have quite a bit of flotsam and jetsam in our way. A Chinese “Spider” works great to scoop out all the big pieces of bones and such. Get out what you can.
It’s ugly business, but keep your eye on the prize, my friends.
Once you scoop out all those brave soldiers who gave their lives for our lunch, you still have quite a bit of small stuff. Setup a nice big bowl with a fine mesh strainer and filter out the gunk.
And what’s left is the richest, most amazing broth you’ve probably ever made. Oh my goodness. Mine ended up translucent, not the clear variety you get at a restuarant. I suppose maybe I could have strained my broth further through cheesecloth or something? But, between you and me, I’m not so picky on how clear the broth looks. It’s all about flavor and this stuff was gold.
I cleaned out the pot again and put the broth right back in to heat up to almost a boil. You want it nice and piping hot when you serve it.
And now for the fun part, though I’ll admit my son and I were so excited about this treat that I didn’t really take good pictures. He was absolutely shocked when I pulled out the giant pile of shaved raw beef. “You’re not going to make me eat raw meat, are you?” I’m happy to report he loved it, by the way.
It was a fun finish to a long project. We had all the ingredients ready to go, and we assembled it just like they do in the restaurants. I scooped noodles into a bowl and covered it with a good helping of the shaved beef, then poured over a couple big scoops of piping hot broth. My son marveled at how the thin slices of pink beef quickly cooked in the near boiling liquid.
We squeezed our lime juice, and tore cilantro and Vietnamese basil into the soup. I gave mine a healthy shot of Sriracha sauce, but the boy passed (he’ll learn.) I would have dosed it with a big scoop of Hoisin sauce, too, but alas I was out. I guess I need another foray to the market!
All in all, this was a fun and delicious project. The boy loved it so much that he ate two bowls and even later had a cup of just the broth.
In hindsight, really this is just a variation on making bone broth, which is a time intensive hobby. The results are yummy, but they also sell high quality bone broth pre-made for not too much money. I think next time I would be very tempted to not start from bones but to just buy bone broth and simmer it for a bit with the Pho spices. Call me a slacker, but I’m not sure I did anything amazing. I’ll check prices, it might be really affordable.
And, BONUS, this project also gave me a chance to make a corny slideshow for Facebook, which I’ve always wanted to do.
I hope you are tempted to make Pho at home. It was fun and I learned a lot and it wasn’t really difficult. Let me know in the comments what you think.
Be good, and eat well!
Homemade Vietnamese Pho
To Make the Broth
- 5 pounds of beef bones
- 6 quarts cold water
- 2 medium onions
- large piece of fresh ginger, halved
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
- 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
- 5 star anise
- 5 whole cloves
- 1 black cardamom pod
- 1 1/2 tablespoons Kosher salt
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons yellow rock sugar
To Serve In the Bowl
- 1 pound “banh pho” noodles
- 1/2 pound raw beef, sliced very thin
- 1/4 cup thinly sliced onions
- 1/3 cup chopped cilantro leaves
To Serve Alongside
- Sprigs of fresh Thai basil
- Bean sprouts (optional)
- Sliced chilies, jalepeno or otherwise
- Lime wedges
- Fish sauce
- Sriracha sauce
- Hoisin sauce
Add beef bones to a large pot and cover with cold water. Apply high heat and bring to a boil and let churn for 5 minutes. Impurities and foam (sometimes called scum) will be released. Drain bones, discarding the water. Rinse bones with warm water and clean stockpot to remove all residue. Add the bones back to the stockpot and cover with 6 quarts of cold water.
Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place rough chopped onions and halved ginger onto baking sheet. Broil on top rack for 15 minutes, turning occasionally. You want a nice even black char all around, but not total charcoal.
When the stockpot is nearing a boil again, start toasting the cardamom seeds, fennel seeds, star anise, cloves, coriander seeds, and black cardamom pod in a frying pan. Use low heat, shaking and stirring until fragrant, which should take about 5 minutes. Do not use any oil or liquids.
Once the bones are boiling again you’ll want to lower to a simmer. Add charred onion and ginger and toasted spices. Pour in the salt, fish sauce and rock sugar. Simmer the broth, uncovered, for 3 hours.
Use slotted spoon to remove bones, onion and ginger from broth. Pour the remaining broth through a fine mesh strainer. You can cool the broth and remove the fat for lower fat broth, but you’ll lose some of the flavor.
Clean the pot again and bring the broth to a gentle simmer over medium heat.
Prepare your noodles per package instructions. Drain noodles and divide between bowls, roughly filling the bowl half full.
Carefully put slices of raw meat into bowls over the noodles, then pour over the hot broth. Finish each bowl with onion slices and cilantro.
Serve bowls with a plate of optional garnishes above.