I am a relatively recent convert to the comfort food du jour, pho (pronounced fuh). Whether you’re hungover, ill with the flu, or just need a pick me-up, this Vietnamese beef stock and rice noodle soup is exactly what the doctor ordered. The perfect bowl of pho requires hours of simmering a stock with exotic spices and beef bones, as well as access to an array of imported condiments.
Because the recipe seems long and complicated, I usually just trot over to the nearest (delicious, authentic) pho joint to get my fix. However, I’ve been feeling a bit adventurous lately, and with a bit of prodding, decided to try my hand at this pho-to recipe*.
First, I would like to commend “wolfosaurus” for creating what amounts to the most easy-to-follow and unpretentious pho recipe I have ever seen on the internet. It is laid out simply, with accompanying images, and the ingredient list is perfectly manageable if you have access to an Asian food store nearby. Below, I’ve roughly transcribed the recipe with an addition or two of my own.
serves 4-6; cooking time 6 hours, active cooking time approximately 45 minutes
- 1 pack beef marrow/bones (1kg, about 2.2 lbs)
- 40 grams or about 3 tablespoons of cane sugar
- 1/2 tsp cooking salt
- 1 large onion, halved
- 1 chunk fresh ginger, about 2 inches long, halved
- 1 tbsp coriander seeds
- 4 star anise
- 1-2 cinnamon sticks
- 4 cardamom pods
- 5 whole cloves
- 10 whole peppercorns
- fish sauce (optional and to taste)
- spring onion (scallions)
- 1 package of rice noodles, any kind. I used flat noodles but will try vermicelli in the future.
- 1 pound VERY thinly sliced, high-quality beef
- hoisin sauce
- sambal sauce
- fresh basil
- fresh jalapenos
- mung bean sprouts
- Fill a large stock pot with water, up to about 3-5 inches from the top. Bring it to a roiling boil. Add the beef bones and let boil, covered, for 10 minutes.
- Drain the water and rinse gunk off the bones. Rinse the stockpot. Make sure there isn’t far and debris still sticking to the pot or rinsed bones; this will help to keep the broth clear.
- But the bones back in the pot, and add water just so that the bones are submerged by ~1 inch. You are going to set this to simmer, making sure the water does not reach a boil again for the rest of the cooking process. Again, this is to keep the broth clear. Before the next step, heat the oven to a high broil.
- Next, you are going to toast the cinnamon sticks, star anise, cardamom, coriander and peppercorns in a small skillet. Heat for about 3 minutes over medium heat, making sure to shake the skillet. When fragrant, remove from heat; after cool, wrap in cheesecloth or a linen sachet.
- In a small roasting pan, add the halved onion and ginger. Broil for about 5 minutes on each side, until charred.
- Next, add the onion, ginger, spices in their sachet, salt and sugar to the pot of simmering stock and bones. You can also add fish sauce here. You are going to let this simmer for a minimum of five hours, and up to overnight. You can do this with a lid on, or uncovered; if you do it uncovered, make sure to occasionally add water to keep everything submerged. The original author of this recipe recommends skimming the fat off the top as needed, but with the step below, I found it unnecessary.
- When you have simmered the stock as long as desired, strain it into a separate bowl, setting aside the chunks of bone, onion, ginger, and spices. It may be wise to strain it a few times, and through a fine strainer or cheesecloth, to remove all the detritus. Set the liquid in the fridge to cool completely. This will allow more effective fat-skimming off of the surface of the stock.
- Bring a couple cups of water to a boil and add the rice noodles for 3-5 minutes, and drain. Slice some scallions and jalapenos, and slice the lengths of beef into chunks.
- Bring the stock to a boil once more when all the additions are ready. Prepare bowls for each diner, placing a serving of beef and noodles in each. pour the boiling broth over it and as the bowls cool, add your other condiments including scallions, basil, jalapenos, bean sprouts, sauces and lime juice. Time to enjoy some pho!
After gathering all the ingredients, and, no joke, requesting a whole day off of work to attempt this recipe, I began to get nervous. Was it arrogant of me to attempt, and possibly butcher, a beloved staple of Vietnamese cuisine? How could I ever do this dish justice with my limited exposure?! I’ve never even had a home-made batch of pho. But oh, if you have, I am terribly jealous. Making pho at home must be a real treat for the experienced pho-natic**, because during the process of simmering the stock– and for many hours thereafter– my apartment smelled AMAZING.
Even if my efforts yielded something inedible, I certainly learned a thing or two from this recipe. Since I’ve only simmered beef bones into a stock once or twice, I didn’t know how to make a clear stock. Now I understand the importance of a)cleaning the gunk from the bones, and b) not boiling the stock as it’s simmering and absorbing the flavors; I can use this in other recipes to improve the appearance of homemade soups.
I also learned to heed the instruction to use thinly sliced (both length and width-wise), high-quality beef for this recipe. I could only find frozen beef that was as thinly sliced as I needed. If you are working with meat from frozen too, make sure it is completely thawed and perhaps salted a bit to draw out excess moisture. If the meat is too thick or not thawed completely, it will make the stock cloudy as it flash-cooks in your bowl.
I ended up with a decent bowl of pho, but it wasn’t as high quality as our local pho restaurant. My immediate ideas for improving the next batch include: adding more fish sauce to the stock, using vermicelli noodles, and perhaps seeking thinner or different cuts of beef. If I’d gone with totally fresh, thinly cut beef this might be a more expensive recipe to endeavor; when I made this batch, the most expensive ingredients were the spices, which I bought in bulk and now have in ample supply. Each serving for this recipe was about $7.45.
Below is a picture of the finished product. Note the utensils: chopsticks of course, but also the Chinese soup spoon, a necessary addition. It could be QUITE messy otherwise! I am glad I took a chance with this recipe even though it’s so far from anything I’ve cooked before; if you are as pho-addicted as I am, I’d recommend you try it too. Even if it takes me one hundred tries to get it right, I look forward to the day when I can make a bowl of pho, as good as what I can get down the street, right in my own kitchen.
*Sorry for that pun.
**And sorry, again.