How to build the perfect beef pho

This Vietnamese noodle soup is a warming dish, perfect for winter. And while there is contention over its pronunciation, consensus dictates that the beef bones be cooked low and slacken but for how long? And what meat should be used serve with it?

The first thing you need to know about pho is that it doesnt tend to verse with know. Most Vietnamese will pronounce it fuh, instead like the French term for flame, which is unsurprising, since the name is generally thought to come from the pot au feu casserole brought over by the French prior to their arrival in Vietnam, in 1858, beef was rarely eaten.

The most popular version, stimulated with beef( pho bo) is thus a relatively recent addition to the rich culinary scenery, but a wildly popular one. Though the dish originated in the northern city of Hanoi, these days the whole of Vietnam operates on pho, usually eating it for breakfast, or as a late-night snack.

Consisting of a deeply savoury, warmly spiced beef broth laced with slippery rice noodles and a modest amount of meat and generally served with handfuls of fresh herbs and a generous squeeze of lime its the perfect warming dish for this time of year( which is the one time I want to spend four hours constructing broth ).

Although its much easier to get pho here than it used to be in the absence of hole-in-the-wall pho vendors on every Vietnamese corner, selling the stuff more cheaply than you could ever is expected to be make it the gratification of cooking your own is almost as great as the pleasure of that first steamy slurp. Go on, give it a go next time youve got a morning free. You wont regret it.

The bare bones


J Kenji Lopez-Alts pho. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

Like Japanese ramen, or indeed a Scotch broth, a pho stands or falls on the quality of its base which, according to J Kenji Lopez-Alt of the US website Serious Eats, is traditionally make use of simmering beef bones and meat along with a few aromatics for around six hours. Six hours is nothing: Van Tran and Anh Vu write in their Vietnamese Market Cookbook that they cook theirs for more than 72 hours, although, to my relief, the recipe they devote is for a quick, after-work version.

No such shortcuts for chef Bobby Chinn, who writes in his book, Vietnamese Food, that it was not until I came to Hanoi that I learned how to construct Vietnamese beef stock, a lengthy process that apparently involves soaking the bones in cold water overnight before bringing to the boil three times in fresh water, until most of the impurities are removed, and then cooking gently for a long time to extract the gelatine. The process takes the best part of two days, though I dont, in all integrity , notice much of a difference in flavor between his version and Vietnamese chef and food writer Uyen Luus, which forgoes the initial soak, and only brings the pan to the boil once. Slow, steady cook, for at the least five hours, seems to be more important Luu adds yet more savoury flavour by simmering her bones in diluted chicken stock, but, good as this is, it shouldnt require the help.


Van Tran and Anh Vus pho. Photograph: Felicity Cloake/ Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

Lopez-Alts quick version, Tran and Vu, and Olive magazine all rely on ready-made stock instead beef in the latter two cases; chicken, somewhat surprisingly, in the first, on the basis that canned beef broths are universally pretty awful, while canned chicken broth tastes much more like homemade, and provides a comparatively neutral background to build a broth upon. Though this may be the case in the US, its relatively easy to get good-quality, gelatinous beef stock here, so, if youre in a hurry, go for that instead, and simmer it with aromatics for as long as youve got in order to extract the maximum flavour.

If, however, you can only find stock cubes, then you could do worse than follow Lopez-Alts advice and chuck in a few ground-up chicken wings and braising cuts of beef to boost its flavour, though Id advise against the gelatine he also adds. He says it takes the broth from pretty tasty to sticky, rich, lip-smackingly delicious; I think it makes it savour of ground-up hooves. And sticky is not a quality I especially value in my soup.

Better, if you can, to do it yourself. Any good butcher will be able to supply you with bones, many for free, and its a satisfy, fairly undemanding task for a chilly day.



Bobby Chinns pho. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

Luu, Chinn and Tran and Vu all char their onion and ginger before adding it to their broths, giving it a deep, faintly smoky flavor, enhanced by the black cardamom Luu also employs. Indeed, smoky and sweet seems to be the flavor profile here, with all the recipes employing both cinnamon and star anise. I also love the zestiness of Luus dried orange peel and coriander, and the faintly mentholated note added by her and Lopez-Alts cloves.

The mooli, or white radish, in Luus recipe is a puzzle, though it doesnt appear to be present in the finished dish, but Im not sure what proportion it might play in flavouring the stock, given that it doesnt have much flavour of its own. Suggestions welcome.

The meat

Tran and Vu and Olive resist adding any extra meat to their stock, presumably on the basis that the cook day is so brief that theres little chance of extracting any flavor. Instead, they pour the simmer liquid on to sliced steak, marinated, in the former suit, in ginger, fish sauce and spice.


Olive magazines pho. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

Cold, rare meat makes a delicious contrast with the hot broth, but Im more taken with the tougher, more gelatinous cuts Luu and Chinn gently simmer along with the bones, until they nearly fall apart, which feel more reminiscent of the tendon soups served in Vietnam. However, if youd like to push the boat out, use both. Oxtail seems to give the best return in terms of flavor and body, though shin makes a good replace; Chinns brisket, though it does the job, tastes dry and boring in comparison.( Tendon is available from oriental experts, but Ive yet to find any to match the quality of the meat from my butcher. If you are able to, feel free to add it. The same goes for tripe, which Ive never learned to love .)


Fish sauce is a popular style of devoting the stock some extra savoury oomph and its easier to get hold of than Luus pork-flavouring stock granules and pho stock cubes. A little sugar balances it out; preferably the rock assortment if you have it, although ordinary white is fine, too.


Uyen Luus pho. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian


Apart from the obligatory rice noodles( which should be pre-cooked until just chewy, lest the hot broth tip-off them over the edge into mush ), the pho aficionado has a world of option when it comes to garnishes. Dedicated the rich, savoury flavor of the base, rather than the mimsy little sprigs preferred on western soups, Im a fan of anything sharp and fresh spring onions, lime juice, birds eye chillies, plus great generous handful of coriander and Thai basil( the rarer sawtooth herb has never done much for me, so I cant in good conscience send you to hunt it down unless youre already a fan ).

Beansprouts are also popular, though I cant abide the things. I can see how the crunch might be pleasant, though, so Ive included them; personally I prefer to chuck whatever other fresh vegetable is lurking in the fridge instead but, as I never caught so much as a whiff of a brussels sprout in Vietnam, this is between you and your authenticity god.

As accompaniments, youll find hoi sin and chilli sauce on just about every coffeehouse table in Vietnam, and Luus chilli oil and extra fish sauce wouldnt go amiss either. But, before you add any of them, please take a moment to appreciate the complex flavour of your lovingly constructed broth you may well find it doesnt require anything else to warm your cockles.


Felicity Cloakes perfect pho. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

The perfect beef pho

( Serves 4-6)
1.5 kg beef bones
1.5 kg oxtail
1 onion, unpeeled
200 g ginger, unpeeled
2 black cardamom pods
5 star anise
2 cinnamon sticks
4 cloves
1 tsp coriander seeds
2 strips of dried orange peel
50 ml fish sauce
1 tbsp rock or soft light brown sugar
600 g broad flat dried rice noodles
4 spring onions, sliced
2 birds eye chillis, finely sliced
4 handful of bean buds( optional)
400 g sirloin or fillet steak( optional ), thinly sliced
1 lime, cut into wedges
Large bunch of coriander, to serve
Large bunch of Thai basil, to serve
Sriracha, hoisin and chilli oil, to serve( optional )

Put the bones and oxtail in a very large pan and cover-up with cold water. Bring to the boil and then boil for about 10 -1 5 minutes, until scum rises to the surface. Drain, discarding the water, rinse the bones and meat well, and clean the pan.

Meanwhile, char the onion and ginger on a rack situated over the hob, or employing a jolt torch, or( and only if neither of these things are available) the grill or a hot griddle pan, until well blackened, which should take about 15 minutes. Peel off the scalp as far as possible.

Put the bones and meat back in the pan and cover-up with three litres of cold water, or as much as you are able to fit in. Add the onion and ginger, the spices and orange peel( preferably in a muslin pocket or similar to construct life easier subsequently) and bring to the boil. Then turn away the heat and simmer gently for at the least five hours, skimming as necessary, until the oxtail is falling off the bone. Strain, retaining the oxtail and, if you have day, cool the broth and skim the fat from the top if desired. You should have about two litres.

Add the fish sauce, sugar, salt and black pepper to the broth to savour, and pick the meat from the oxtail.

Cook the noodles according to the packet instructions and divide between four bowl. Pour the hot broth over the noodles and scatter with spring onion, a little chilli and the bean buds, if employing, then lay the picked oxtail and sliced raw meat, if employing, on top. Serve with the limes and remaining chilli on the side along with the herbs and condiments.

Pho friend or foe? And is it worth the difficulty of making at home? Which other meals in a bowl are in your winter repertoire ?

Read more:

About the Author

Leave a Comment: