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The Perfect Pho Broth


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#31 cookfast

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Posted 07 May 2009 - 12:35 PM

One more thought. Are the essential oils from these spices fat-soluble? Could the oils be accumulating in the fat layer that forms at the top of the broth? I wonder if removing the fat layer the next day is effectively removing all of the spice flavor from the broth.

I just noticed a detail in the Pho 75 dude's recipe, where he strains and defats the broth BEFORE adding the spices. I wonder if removing the excess fat first is a critical step to keeping the flavor and aroma in the broth.

#32 v. gautam

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Posted 07 May 2009 - 11:00 PM

All the essential oils are terpenes YYYYYYY structures, di to sesquiterpenes. Evaporation, extraction with steam is one way they are extracted, say from rose petals! So you are releasing everything to the atmosphere by simmering uncovered.

The other poster also has a point that some fractions are fat soluble, or at least soluble in non-polar solvents like alcohol, and removing the fat removes some flavor. That is why the Vietnamese blanch the bones first, to remove a slight amount of superficial grease and protein scum. Then get shank type meat, move down toward the ankles, and also some oxtail from Chinese grocers who sell tail from cows over 30 months: older, leaner, more flavorful for soup meat.

Having blanched and washed, put in spices. Please do not buy the spices in the little pho packets sitting in Oriental groceries! Rather, go to Indian groceries where there is the chance for higher turnover but choose your shop carefully. If you are in Silicon Valley or in places with high So. Asian populations, you have a better chance of fresher spices, but not necessarily: the packers can be unscrupulous.

Penzey's etc. may be better, but the Indian grocers still offer a pretty fair deal in my opinion. I am just anxious that others not feel cheated! You won't be, I buy my spices there!! Do a trial run, being a scientist and be prepared for failure.

Load up your dutch oven with the high dosage of spice I indicated, raw onion, a smaller shot of raw ginger AND DID YOU NOTICE the ALCOHOL EXTRACT + ALCOHOL INPUT of TAKADÏ's Hon. Mother?!!! That Alcohol IS SEHR GUT!! It pulls out more flavors from the spices. Please very gently pound the black & green cardamoms to open them up and very lightly bruise their seeds. Please leave their husks on.

We generally put a dough seal on the lid to seal it tighty and let the oven do the cooking. Stick it in, set it to 225-250F (or lower) and forget it for some hours. If you have a separate portable electric oven for turkey cooking and can seal it with dough, there are temperature controllers that can regulate current + temperature precisely and fit between wall socket and appliance. You can set it to 180- 190F and forget about it for 9-10 hours. Switch off and let cool. Skim fat with strainer. You will have clear wine like stock.

Even that may not be necessary. Low settings may be obtained, e.g. 180F in large oval crockpots. Sometimes these are on clearance sales at Walmart, $34, esp. those with indwelling temperature probes! The edges of the glass lid easily can be sealed with a dough ring, there is a nice ledge. Pressure does NOT build up because of the slow cooking, no head of steam.

#33 cookfast

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Posted 08 May 2009 - 10:49 AM

All the essential oils are terpenes YYYYYYY structures, di to sesquiterpenes. Evaporation, extraction with steam is one way they are extracted, say from rose petals! So you are releasing everything to the atmosphere by simmering uncovered.

The other poster also has a point that some fractions are fat soluble, or at least soluble in non-polar solvents like alcohol, and removing the fat removes some flavor. That is why the Vietnamese blanch the bones first, to remove a slight amount of superficial grease and protein scum. Then get shank type meat, move down toward the ankles, and also some oxtail from Chinese grocers who sell tail from cows over 30 months: older, leaner, more flavorful for soup meat.

Having blanched and washed, put in spices. Please do not buy the spices in the little pho packets sitting in Oriental groceries! Rather, go to Indian groceries where there is the chance for higher turnover but choose your shop carefully. If you are in Silicon Valley or in places with high So. Asian populations, you have a better chance of fresher spices, but not necessarily: the packers can be unscrupulous.

Penzey's etc. may be better, but the Indian grocers still offer a pretty fair deal in my opinion. I am just anxious that others not feel cheated! You won't be, I buy my spices there!!  Do a trial run, being a scientist and be prepared for failure.

Load up your dutch oven with the high dosage of spice I indicated, raw onion, a smaller shot of raw ginger AND DID YOU NOTICE the ALCOHOL EXTRACT + ALCOHOL INPUT of TAKADÏ's Hon. Mother?!!! That Alcohol IS SEHR GUT!! It pulls out more flavors from the spices. Please very gently pound the black & green cardamoms to open them up and very lightly bruise their seeds. Please leave their husks on.

We generally put a dough seal on the lid to seal it tighty and let the oven do the cooking. Stick it in, set it to 225-250F (or lower) and forget it for some hours. If you have a separate portable electric oven for turkey cooking and can seal it with dough, there are temperature controllers that can regulate current + temperature precisely and fit between wall socket and appliance. You can set it to 180- 190F and forget about  it for 9-10 hours. Switch off and let cool. Skim fat with strainer. You will have clear wine like stock.

Even that may not be necessary. Low settings may be obtained, e.g. 180F in large oval crockpots. Sometimes these are on clearance sales at Walmart, $34, esp. those with indwelling temperature probes! The edges of the glass  lid easily can be sealed with a dough ring, there is a nice ledge. Pressure does NOT build up because of the slow cooking, no head of steam.

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Thanks for the detailed information, I appreciate your time.

I've seen oxtails mentioned a lot in the context of pho. Do oxtails provide a different flavor than the bone+chuck combination I've been using? I get the leg/knuckle bones at a local Asian market - they have oxtails too, but I've never used them before. Would I just use bones and oxtails? In other words, are oxtails a direct substitute for the meat?

I got my spices from Spice House online. I've been very happy with the quality of their spices and the prices are reasonable. I stay away from the pho spice packets, because I like the control of building from scratch and knowing exactly what goes into my food. I've got enough of the spices to last probably 20 batches of pho. :)

You mentioned using untoasted spices. I've always toasted the spices - is there a reason that untoasted is better for this application? And what about the raw onion and ginger as opposed to charring them?

I definitely plan to try the low, controlled heat method with a sealed vessel, as I can see the advantages of this technique. Unfortunately I don't have a dutch oven, but I've wanted to buy one for a long time. Probably won't happen overnight, but soon.

#34 Ce'nedra

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Posted 08 May 2009 - 11:06 PM

I think oxtails just happen to be one of, if not the, most flavoursome bone part. Naturally, that creates a more intense flavour for the soup.
As for toasting spices, my mum doesn't do this (she doesn't even use ginger) and she makes the most brilliant pho. I kid you not.
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#35 v. gautam

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Posted 09 May 2009 - 12:30 AM

Oxtails add body & depth without clouding: please do not use American style oxtails that are from younger, very fat animals, very expensive too. Asian stores carry tail from OLD, dairy CUTTER grade animals, much thinner, cheaper too!! More easily/effectively cleansed in the preliminary blanching.

Oxtail has meat, bone and some tissue between vertebrae that provides gelling for just enough body to the broth. So it is a complete package, no need to buy meat & bones separately. You also should eat the left over or make it into a hash. Tissue that are in constant motion and stress [e.g. having to support the mass while moving], like calf muscle, shin meat, neck, tail, etc. seem to accumulate the flavor and other components necessary for a good broth.

Toasting spices, in the Indian context, is when you want to do several different things in near-waterless meat braises that are SEETHED in fat, or for adding as a flavor enhancer at the very end. Those applications are not indicated here in water extraction. Toasting imparts a certain flavor but also drives out aromatic oils to the atmosphere! You can create a little toasted powder, that we call garam masala powder, cassia, green cardmon whole, and cloves [sparingly] and hold this. You may experiment for one bowl by sprinkling in 1 small saucepan of broth a pinch of this garam masala to see if it wakes up the flavors before serving. That is what is done in India. Whole spices during braises or water cooking, plus perk up with toasted powdered spices at finish. Just try, but only one experimental bowl of your many bowls!! And go up in the heating saucepan by pinches. Light toasting to deeper toasting, as you choose, adds another variable like coffee roasts!

Ginger is a personal taste. Very long cooking makes ginger taste steamy. The point here is not to generate steam, even when cooking long. You decide what to include.

Dutch ovens, enamelled cast iron 5 qt, can be had new for around USD 35-40 at Target, Chinese manufacture. They are good enough for 95% of everything you need to make, including complex biryanis! Or lamb pilafs. Fill them 2/3 or more, and that will easily be 5-6 lbs of oxtail, and you will have enough broth for 15-20 big bowls of pho. plus you can add you gan-na tendon here as well so you can enjoy that with your pho, or your tongue, too, tripe nicely blanched, librillo tripe + honeycomb tripe. Put them all in and you are good to go.

This type of cookware is very affordable and 8 quart Club aluminum dutch oven lined with non-stick also affordable. Thunder/Tarhong is a brand to look out for, for decent prices. Don't get fooled by big European names. Leave those to people with more money than sense.

If you are not very freaked out by bits of protein swimming in your pho broth, a stainless steel PRESSURE COOKER, 6 or 8 quart is great. Load her up as per safety directions with blanched oxtail, any shin bone & meat, ear, tripe, tongue, tendon, spices. Bring her up to pressure gently and let her rock gently without any loud escape of steam for the appointed time or less because you are going to cool until the pressure drops by itself. You will have one fantastic broth, still very hot.

Skim with strainer and then paper towel. Get your cutting board out, and slice all the goodies, slice your raw steak, fix your greenies & noodles and you are good to go.

That same fine mesh skimmer will fish out the whole spices and some of the coagulated protein. Eat the protein with rice. Us Asians never throw food away. After all we eat clotted blood [protein] with relish, so what's wrong with that other protein? I find cosmetically clear broths and all weird in this instance when so much gunk gets dumped into the pho while eating [jungles, chile sauce, 5 billion types of meat, you name it, what can you see of the broth anyway???

Happy experiments. Don't freak out the family!!

Edited by v. gautam, 09 May 2009 - 12:45 AM.


#36 dmreed

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Posted 18 May 2009 - 06:25 PM

Also, on the cloudy issue, if you are adding raw/rare beef to your pho you're going to get cloudy broth in any case.  :)


I don't recall raw beef making the broth cloudy (I basically always eat pho tai when I eat a pho restaurants). At home, I always try to keep some very thinly sliced eye of round in the freezer for when I make pho at home. I don't recall any cloudiness from the beef but I do notice it from the noodles.

I will pay more attention next time I add the beef.
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#37 Ce'nedra

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Posted 19 May 2009 - 04:51 AM

I'm not too concerned with cloudiness personally. In fact, some of the best pho I've had tend to have a certain tint to them -still transparent in a sense, but not exactly clear.
Most of the 'crystal clear' pho broths I've had tend to have a significant amount of msg in it...not that I have anything against msg actually -I do eat food with msg -but a substantial amount causes me to become dehydrated.
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#38 mickeyh

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Posted 26 August 2011 - 09:54 PM

Wow, made me appreciate my lunch time bowl of Pho a lot more. Read in a cooking mag that the name comes from the French dish Pot au Feu..that same article says Banh is a take-off on Pain. So I guess if the Vietnamese can do their variety of Pot au Feu we can liberally play around with Pho. Pain is Banh everywhere.

#39 takadi

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Posted 11 May 2012 - 08:58 PM

Wow, I have not been on this forum, much less this thread, in many many years. But alas I am on that pho kick again and my obsession has returned. I decided to try my hand at making pho for the last month and I suddenly remembered this thread and my old attempts. I have definitely tweaked the recipe and my way of thinking about pho and I think I'm heading in the right direction. It is not quite there though

I added 2 or 3 pounds of beef knuckle and marrow bones along with some whole chicken wings that I put slits in and split the bones open, and a few large oxtails. I parboiled those for 10 minutes and then drained and throughly washed everything. Then I rubbed everything all the bones in salt and put them in cold water, which I brought up to a simmer. I simmer those for about an hour. During that time, I charred over open flame a three inch knob of peeled ginger and two large onions, and wash the excess burnt parts away. After the hour simmer, I added the rest of the ingredients including the spices. For the spices, I used 4-5 whole star anise, 10 cloves, 6 pieces of cassia bark, half of a black cardamom pod (thao qua), a half teaspoon of coriander and a half teaspoon of whole black pepper. I simmered for about another two hours, adding small amounts of salt in small increments along the way. Added fish sauce and rock candy sugar at the end

The verdict: I shouldn't have added any sugar, as the charring of the onions added more than enough sweetness to the stock. So it ended up being almost cloyingly sweet which just ruined everything. Extremely disappointed. Besides the sweetness, I found the aroma of the star anise was a little overpowering, so I am going to push it down a notch next time. The broth was also on the bland side, and as I had done before in the past years, I think I have waterlogged my stock again. So next time I will use significantly less water. Also the oxtail was still tough, so I suspect that not only had too much water contributed to not enough flavor, but I don't think I cooked it for nearly as long as I should have or on a temperature that was high enough. I kept it at an extremely low simmer the entire time. I'm thinking next time I will add more oxtail or perhaps some meat to up the intensity as well.

So why did I simmer the bones an extra hour before I added everything else? In past attempts, I've noticed that when I added the aromatics and spices in the beginning and simmered for the entire duration, the stock acquired a sort of "muddy" overcooked taste that was extremely unpleasant. I suspected that the flavor is that of overcooked onions, so I've decided that the onions and ginger get at most two hours of simmer time. This paranoia was sort of in the back of my mind when I was making this soup. For some reason I thought reducing simmering time of the bones and meat and simmering more gently would result in a "fresher" tasting broth. I've concluded that it takes way more time for the collagen and flavors to be extracted with beef bones so I think I will take it further next time and simmer the beef bones for wayyy longer before I add everything else

On the up side, the ginger flavor complemented the broth nicely. In the past I've made the mistake of adding way to much ginger, and I've learned that ginger comes through VERY strongly. So be very cautious with it. Another mistake I've made in the past was adding too much fish sauce to make up for the lack of seasoning and flavor. Once you go overboard with fish sauce, your soup will be completely ruined. It will taste like a salty garbage can

As a side note, in attempt to "fix" the overly sweet broth, I decided that I would dilute the stock with more water and fish stock and simmer it for another hour or two. At the end I noticed the flavor had slightly improve and had acquired a very subtle beefy flavor that I could barely detect before but now had the broth tasting a little more normal. I also have a theory that simmering the bones with the seasonings and salt might form new flavor compounds as it cooks away, perhaps even forming natural "MSG" when the sodium combines with dissolved proteins in the water. Just a half assed guess, but it was the reason why I added salt to the bones at the very beginning

I will rework my recipe when I get the chance and get back to it

Until next time

Edited by takadi, 11 May 2012 - 09:39 PM.


#40 HowardLi

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Posted 12 May 2012 - 04:04 PM

Out of curiosity, did you ever do some blind MSG tests to see if that was, in fact, what caused your headaches?

#41 takadi

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Posted 25 October 2012 - 08:21 PM

Though some might appreciate these videos



#42 radtek

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Posted 25 October 2012 - 10:15 PM

I've been eating pho for 20 years but only recently have been trying to approximate it. As a convenience I'll get the pho base in the jar and simmer it with beef neck bones. Comes out a lot darker but my purist friend after having a bowl asked me how I got so close. He has since gone my convenience route minus the meat and bones. He's a vegitarian...

Now, I've heard that some places have one of those "endless stock-pots" of broth that they have kept going for years, and this is their "secret" to the fabulous flavor they have. Somehow I doubt this.

To get clear broth/stock one needs to barely simmer the pot. Simmer too hard up to boiling gets you cloudy broth- which I've never had in a Vietnamese pho but have had in all Thai versions.

Thanks guys, I'm gonna read this more thoroughly and try making it from scratch. Adding the spices in the last 10 minutes may be the key. I'll do it in a bouquet garni so they can be removed easily.

#43 susanxjx

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Posted 27 October 2012 - 09:45 AM

Hi Takadi. I really respect your perseverance to make pho. I did similarly. However, after the first try, I did put a few drops of pho powder and it was exactly like the one i ate before in a vietnamese restaurant in California.

#44 Jaymes

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Posted 27 October 2012 - 01:16 PM

I'll admit I have no real interest in making pho at home, due to the fact that I'm surrounded with excellent Vietnamese restaurants, all of which offer steaming bowls of pho, delicious and affordable.

But, for what it's worth, if I did decide to try to make it myself at home, I'd probably start by doing some research into recipes/methods for traditional French pot au feu (like this one from A Bourdain: http://www.culinate....book/Pot-au-Feu). After all, it was during the "Indochine" days of French occupation that the Vietnamese began their love affair with "feu/pho." They had to start somewhere, and I'm sure it all began with the traditional French methods.

Just a suggestion...

#45 takadi

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Posted 29 October 2012 - 05:39 AM

Since my first post my views towards MSG have changed dramatically. Umami does tend to be that "it" factor that separates restaurant pho from conventional homemade recipes, and no amount of fish sauce can make up for that in the end. It explains why so many people including myself always end up with a broth that tastes bland. However, I do find that when MSG is used as a primary flavoring ingredient, through powders/bullion/ajinomoto like in the vast majority of pho restaurants, it makes the broth very unremarkable, flat, and one note, although they still have that telltale "lipsmacking" MSG tastiness. And although I have no real evidence, I am still convinced that *overconsumption* of MSG as opposed to the mere consumption of it can lead to those tell-tale symptoms of thirst, numbness, etc. Most restaurants especially where I live also make little to no emphasis on the spices, which in my opinion is the most important aspect of the broth.

Nowadays, it's not that I'm spending countless hours making pho, something I can easily get at a restaurant for 7 bucks, because I'm some masochistic snob (although that could have been a perfectly plausible explanation a few years back). It's simply because almost every pho restaurant I go to nowadays really don't give a crap about their food anymore. If they manage to make really good pho one day, it's rare and very inconsistent. Most of the time it's just sipping on overly sweet MSG laden water downed broth. They all lack depth and taste cheap. It's upsetting to me sometimes because it's as if that's what they think customers expect, and to some extent I think it's true. It's as if they realize customers just drown everything in sriracha and hoisin sauce anyway and throw away the broth at the end, so it's probably not worth it to them to spend that extra time making really good broth with lots of bones and plenty of spice. I'm at a point where I feel restaurants simply don't deliver anymore and it becomes worth it to slave away in the kitchen just to get my pho fix. So my goal isn't just to re-create restaurant quality pho anymore (which just means crap quality pho to me now), it's really to make something that I can deem worthy and be proud of. And I think I'm getting really close. I will probably post a new recipe sometime in the near future, as I'm still trying to figure out good ingredient proportions. Haha, sorry I get a little emotional when it comes to pho....

Most pho cooks these days, though they won't tell you, will use some kind of umami enhancing ingredient in their pho. It's always their secret or special ingredient, whether it be sa sung from the old days, dried shrimps cuttlefish or scallops, powders, or just straight up MSG. My grandma uses dried shrimps sometimes but her favorite ingredient is that wonton soup powder from Dynasty. In my experiments, I've found that the only way around adding flavor enhancers that makes for a decent broth is to brown/roast the bones beforehand, use lots of meat to flavor the broth, and salt well throughout the cooking process, especially at the beginning.

Edited by takadi, 29 October 2012 - 06:19 AM.