Pho bo, the most aromatic and satisfying noodle soup from Vietnam, and probably the country’s most high-profile cultural export, needs little introduction. But for those of you who have yet to encounter a magical bowl, the key to any good pho broth is the long-simmering of beef bones (I prefer marrow bones and oxtail) and an infusion of ginger, cinnamon, cloves, anise, and other spices.
It took me many years to work up the nerve to make pho–the long list of ingredients and many hours of simmering was simply too daunting–but once I got the hang of it and figured out which bones/cuts of meat work best (and are easy to obtain), I’ve been brewing up a pot every few weeks. The recipe below is my first attempt to put anything into writing, so please be forewarned that the ratios and proportions may need to be tweaked. The technique and ingredients, though, are pretty spot on. Lastly, I’ve limited the meat toppings to just two (sliced steak tips, and beef shank, both are relatively easy to obtain) but as any reputable pho menu will attest, there are many other options, ranging from beef tripe and meatballs (which you can buy pre-made) to beef tendon. If you are in an adventurous mood, drop me a message and I’ll give you some pointers on the other stuff. Happy slurping!
3 lbs. beef marrow bones
2 lbs. beef knuckle bones
2 lbs. oxtail (see photo below)
1.5 lbs. beef shank (a little more if using cross-cut, see photo below)
1.5 lbs. steak tips, sliced thinly against the grain
1.5 lbs. fatty beef brisket (optional)
2 medium onions, charred and scored
3 3-inch pieces of ginger, charred and bruised
1 package pho spices (or 2 3-inch cinnamon stick, 3 black cardamom pods, 6-8 star anise, 6 cloves, 1 teaspoon coriander seeds, and 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns)
salt to taste (about 1/4 cup but start with less and add more to taste)
(NOTE: As with most Vietnamese soups, using a large pot, at least 12-quart capacity, is key to allow all bones and meat to be entirely submerged during simmering.)
3 packages fresh or dry pho noodles (also known as pad thai noodles)
4 scallions, thinly sliced
1 small onion, thinly sliced (about 1/2 cup)
3/4 cup cilantro, coarsely chopped
10 sprigs Thai basil, rinsed and dried
2 cups bean sprouts, rinsed and dried
2 limes, cut into wedges
4 red bird chili, optional
fish sauce to taste
Sriracha hot sauce
Soup: In a large (8 qt. or bigger) pot, bring water and 3-4 tablespoons salt to a boil. Working in batches and starting with bones first, boil bones and beef shank vigorously for 5 minutes. Remove and rinse bones and meat thoroughly before placing in a clean of pot water, making sure that they are completely submerged. As soup simmers, char ginger and onion either directly over a flame or broil in the oven. Watch ginger and onion closely and turn frequently to char asevenly as possible. And when I say char, I mean BLACK–see photo. Once cool, peel charred ginger and onion skins. Score onions in quarters and add whole to soup pot. Cut ginger into several section, bruise each piece with a pestle or knife handle and add to the soup pot. Skim off fat and impurities as needed. After about 1 1/2 hours, remove brisket and beef shank and submerge in cold water until cool. Slice thinly against the grain and set aside. Continue to simmer soup for an additional 8-10 hours, skimming off impurities and replenishing with water as needed. Note: You don’t have to simmer nonstop–just turn off the stove if you leave the house for a bit or decide to turn in for the night, and restart the simmer again later.
About 2 hours before eating time, quickly toast spices in a toaster or in a dry pan for 1 minute, then place into a cheesecloth (or a large mesh tea ball), tie close and add to soup pot.
Make sure to taste the broth every 30 minutes or so to see how it is coming along. The end product should be very aromatic, though it shouldn’t taste bitter from the spices. Remove spices after 1 hour. Season broth with salt as needed.
Remove and discard bones and spices. Skim thoroughly. It is not necessary to strain the broth, but you can if you’d like.
While soup simmers (or really at any point), slice the steak tips as thinly as possible against the grain. For nice and thin slices, you can even pop the steak tips into the freezer for a couple of hours before slicing. Refrigerate sliced beef in a covered container until you are ready to assemble the bowls.
Noodles: I much prefer fresh pho noodles to the dry ones, but use whatever you can
get. If using dry noodles, soak them in some warm water for 10 minutes and drain before cooking. Bring a pot of water to a boil and cook noodles in small portions, dunking each portion (placed in a strainer like this one) into the water for 30-40 seconds (longer if using dry noodles), using chopsticks to swirl them for even cooking. Noodles should be softened but
slightly firm to the bite. Place cooked noodles into individual serving bowls. Note: each package of dry yields 4-6 portions, packages of fresh noodles yield about 4 servings.
Assembly: On top of the noodles, place a few slices of cooked beef shank and then
some raw steak tips. Top it all off with a generous sprinkling of sliced onions, scallions, cilantro and a pinch of black pepper. Bring soup to a low boil and ladle some into each bowl, making sure to pour some directly on the raw beef to “cook” them. For those who like well-done meat, using a slotted spoon or mesh strainer, dunk the raw beef slices directly in the broth to cook them before placing them in the bowl. But really, rare is best!
Serve immediately with fish sauce, hoisin sauce, Sriracha hot sauce, and a communal plate of Thai basil, bean sprouts, lime wedges, and chili peppers, with each person adding what they like. Tip: Place dollops of hoisin and hot sauces in individual dipping bowls and dip as you eat–YUM.
Makes 8-10 servings, so be sure to invite some friends!