Beef Noodle Soup - Pho (Phở bò)
Most Vietnamese families I know do not make beef phở at home. Though not particularly hard, it is time consuming and it can be pretty expensive to buy all the ingredients for a one family sized batch.
As a disclaimer, I've only cooked beef phở three times now so I probably still have things to learn. I decided to give it a try after moving away from Northern Virginia to Nashville, Tennessee, where I have been wary of ordering phở in restaurants because I am pretty picky about it. The first time I made it, I simmered the bones, aromatics, and spices for a very long time. At the end of the simmering process, I strained the broth and skimmed off some fat. The broth was good but something was missing. I charred up some more aromatics and added more spices and it was much better. The second time I made pho, I used a lot more spices and aromatics but still had the same problem. My hunch is that the flavors from the spices gets lost when simmered for that long.. maybe they're fat soluble and get skimmed away. Whatever the reason, I decided that next time I make phở, I would only simmer the bones by themselves and only add the aromatics and spices toward the end. I tried this and it produced the best phở I've made.. so far at least!
- Using 4-5 lb bones will make 8-10 bowls. Scale as needed.
- 4-5 lb beef marrow and neck bones (you can also use some shin bones with meat attached, and oxtail)
- 1 ounce rock sugar (2 tablespoons of brown sugar can be substituted)
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- 3 medium onions, quartered
- 6-10 inches of ginger, halved lengthwise
- small handful (8-10) anise stars
- 1 tsp whole cloves
- 1 Tb black cardamom pods
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- a few small sticks of cinnamon
- 1 tsp coriander seeds (optional, usually used more in chicken pho)
- 1 tsp fennel seeds (optional)
- plus additional quantity to adjust taste of broth
- Pho noodles. Fresh noodles (Bánh phở tươi) are best but dried can be used
- 2-3 lb beef (common cuts to use are flank and brisket, chuck instead of flank works too)
- 2 lb eye of round, very thinly sliced
- cilantro, chopped
- green onion, chopped
- onion, very thinly sliced
- Vietnamese basil
- Sawtooth herb (culantro)
- Bean sprouts (can be blanched if you like)
- Wedges of lime
- Sliced bird chiles
1. Cover beef marrow and neck bones with water and bring to a boil. A bunch of scum will come to the surface.
2. After boiling a couple minutes to get out some of that scum, pour out the water and rinse the bones and pot.
3. Recover the bones with cold water (about 1.5 gallons) and add 1 ounce rock sugar, 1 Tb kosher salt, and 1/4 cup fish sauce. Bring to a bare simmer but do not let the pot boil or the broth will not be as clear.
4. Peel the onions and cut them in half. Slice some large pieces of ginger in half lengthwise. Broil the aromatics or use a grill or gas burner to get a good char (5-10 minutes), turning halfway through. Add two of the onions and equivalent amount of the ginger to the broth, setting the other third aside.
5. Toast the spices for a minute or so, until they start to get fragrant: a small handful (8-10) anise stars, 1 tsp whole cloves, 1 Tb black cardamom pods, 1 tsp black peppercorns, a few small sticks of cinnamon, 1 tsp coriander seeds (optional, usually used more in chicken pho) and 1 tsp of fennel seeds (optional). Add the spices to the broth. Here's the amount I used:
6. Let the broth simmer for a very long time, 6-10 hours. Soon after adding the spices, add some hunks of beef and cook the beef until it is tender but not falling apart (time depends on how much beef you are using, about 1.5-2 hours). The two common cuts to use are flank and brisket. When the beef is done cooking, remove from the broth, let cool, and chill for easier slicing. If you are using shin bone with meat, pick the meat off now too. After 4 hours also remove oxtail if using (either remove the whole oxtails to serve bowls with oxtail, or if you want to simmer the bones longer, pick the meat off and add the bones back in).
7. When the beef stock has simmered long enough to extract everything from the bones, remove the bones from the stock and then skim off some fat. There will be quite a lot, skim it but leave a good amount for flavor. You can save the fat to add back into bowls for those who prefer a fattier broth.
8. During the long simmering, you'll lose some of the taste of the spices in the broth and now you want to adjust the seasoning. Taste and see if you need more onion and ginger taste, if so add in the aromatics you had reserved. Toast up another batch of the spices, you might use the same quantities or just half, depends on how your broth is tasting at this point. Let simmer for one hour.
9. After the additional hour of simmering, strain the broth through cheesecloth to remove any of the floating bits and spices. Taste the broth and add more seasoning if needed, usually salt.
10. When near ready to eat, slice up the beef that had been cooked in the broth earlier and add to the broth to let it heat up.
11. Meanwhile get a pot of water going for the noodles. The best noodles are the fresh noodles that come in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. "Bánh phở tươi" means fresh pho noodles.
Pull apart the noodles somewhat.. it is often easier to do this submerged in a bowl of cold water if the noodles are on the harder side. Then put in a mesh strainer basket with a handle and dip in the boiling water for just less than 10 seconds, then divide into bowls. Splash the noodles with some fish sauce if desired. If using dried noodles, cook as directed. Dried pho noodles come in a variety of widths. The fairly thin noodles are closest to fresh noodles. Look for a thickness as pictured below:
12. Top the noodles with the heated up cooked beef, very thinly sliced raw beef (usually eye of round), very thinly sliced onions, chopped green onions, chopped cilantro, ground pepper. I don't do tripe or tendon but if you had wanted either you would have let those simmer in the broth like the cooked meat from before for however long they need. Then ladle in your hot broth. It must be at a boil in order to cook the raw beef.
13. Slice in a bird chile to desired level of hotness. Jalapenos are what the restaurants serve but I like bird chiles. Serve with lime wedges, bean sprouts, Vietnamese basil, and sawtooth herb (culantro) if desired.