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Pho: absolutely infuriating journey

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We made pho all the time while I was growing up. Later, when I was trained in French stocks, it was interesting to me to see the overlap in techniques as well as the many differences. I went through a long phase when I made the chicken version mostly, back in my poor student days, but can now luxuriating in the beef version. It does take a lot of time and effort, but it's totally worth it for me, as so many restaurants make such shoddy versions. Honestly, the smell in your home as the broth simmers is simply, deeply luscious.

Andrea Nguyen has an excellent recipe at her site:


A few tips from my own experience:

-- Don't use bones that have been frozen (marrow darkens).

-- Instead of blanching the bones, I rub them well with lots of salt and then rinse them in hot water. Much less hassle and waste.

-- Never, never allow the water to come to full boil. I bring it only to a simmer, and then keep it at a bare shiver for 8 to 10 hours. At the first simmer, I also stir in some cold water and make sure to mix up the bones, too; this helps bring out more proteins for skimming.

-- Skim well at the beginning especially; after an hour or two, you can skim less frequently.

-- Make sure bones are always covered by water. Dry bones above water will turn dark.

-- Add some dried scallops for umami.

-- My aunt likes to throw in a daikon for sweetness.

-- Along with whole cloves, Ceylon cinnamon and star anise, I use long peppercorn, black cardamom and fennel seeds.

-- Not worth making a small amount. Use as big a pot as possible and freeze any extra broth (assuming friends don't eat it all).

My stocks come out pale and clear, and I actually don't bother straining. We just fish out the bigger bones and then serve right from the same pot it simmered in. I know, heresy. But, really, keeping the fuss factor down while making sure there's maximum flavor is the key to making homemade pho bo as fun and comforting as it is delicious.


Edited by wanderingspoon (log)

Thy Tran

Wandering Spoon

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Just a quick note about pork bones: I know of some cooks who will throw a few in for a hint of sweet meatiness. More often, though, you'll see oxtails added.

The best one I ever made at home included oxtails. I could not place why it was so close to the best I have had, but the sweetness factor makes sense.

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  • 2 months later...

Some tips from my experience - my Vietnamese boyfriend has told me that my Pho is the best he has eaten - and he only moved here from Vietnam 6 years ago! His mother has also said mine is vastly better than hers. The way I learnt was originally from a few recipe books and online resources and then I used my boyfriend as a taste tester for things like saltiness, sweetness, etc.

1. Burn the onions, ginger, and garlic on a gas hob - and I mean really burn them - until the skins are black. Remove the blackened skins when using

2. Use black cardamom (green cardamom is not a passable substitute)

3. Use cassia bark (not cinnamon - there is a difference in flavor).

4. Don't let it boil vigorously (your soup will go murky)

5. Use 100% oxtail for the bones (use the meat in the dish) and large chunks of gravy beef for the broth meat (slice it thinly in the final dish)

6. Use rock sugar if you can - it is better than palm sugar or normal sugar in pho

7. Add some daikon for natural sweetness.

Be sure to cook your noodles right - soak them in hot tap water for about half an hour - drain then drop in boiling water until done - usually less than a minute.

Some Vietnamese people add hoisin sauce to their broth (their own bowl only) and others use it to dip the meat from the broth. Maybe your restaurant is adding the hoisin in the kitchen. Also, a squeeze of lime or lemon juice can really lift the broth to new heights.

Here is my most recent pho:


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Hi, I am the original poster of an old thread of me going through a similiarly infuriating journey. It has been many years since my first post and my point of view towards MSG has changed. The last reply on that thread had me thinking : what if the secret ingredient really is that umami factor? I was talking to my grandmother about a secret long forgotten ingredient that was used often in the North during the birth of pho call "sa sung". It is basically a type of sea worm-like invertabrate that is dried and then simmered along with the broth. It is supposedly the thing that gives it that "pho" essence, that aroma and sweetness. My grandmother would describe toasting it a little, and the moment it was put into the broth, the intensity of the aroma would increase many-fold. With easeness of use, chepness, and availability of MSG I suspect that's why no one knows about it anymore. There is actually an article about it you can read


Anyway this story reminds me of a common vietnamese habit of using dried seafood to add umami and depth to otherwise non-seafood broths like Bun Thang. I decided to try my recipe again but this time I added whole dried cuttlefish. I tasted it and I was definitely on to something - some gap was filled that was missing in all my other usages of pho, very reminsicent of restaurant pho. There were definitely some issues with the broth due to some problems in my technique (do NOT use beef neck bones) but the umami/glutamate element seems to be that "it" factor that restaurants are getting but home cooks are not.

The article above suggests using conpoy or dried scallops, which is a commonly used technique in chinese cooking to enhance chicken stocks, but they tend to get expensive and their quality can vary.

Edited by takadi (log)
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  • 3 weeks later...

I'm a soup fanatic - from when I was a kid. For pho - it IS the broth.However I disagree with some of the posts above.

Skimming is not necessary. This 'scum' looks strange, but is nothing more than proteins that cook out and float up. There are still lots of this in the meat and a little in the broth. These will come out later. Many cultures associate these with bad spirits or karma, etc. because it's from cooking an animal. It's superstitious, and has no bearing on flavor or look. I know because I used to strain all this off, now I don't bother. I even think that leaving these in actually help clear the soup later (like a clarifier when making beer). If you cook a broth for only a short time, however this effect does not work, and skimming may be necessary. I have a trick with chicken soup though too - but it'll have to be another post. Upon long slow simmering these proteins will coagulate and completely sink out and be strained away later. My broth comes out quite clear in the end. You can argue back on this one, but I'm not going to change my mind.

I use left-over meats, bones, and scraps for the broth mostly. Oxtails have become ridiculously expensive. I do use them occasionally, for the meat, which I cook less than the broth ingredients. Soup bones, shin/shank is wonderful, and I use ribs (which are sneaking up in price now too!). It's not that important - but do include bones! DON'T trim the fat either, it adds lots of flavor (there is lots of non fatty water-soluble goodness in what looks like pure fat!), and will be nearly completely removed later! Not sure about the neck bone thing - they really aren't avaiable here. And the post about frozen bones adding darkness - I've never seen this happen. I save up bones and freeze them to make the broth later, and it is quite light (I have to roast the meats to get it a little darker).Beef feet can add lots of sumptuous gelatin to the broth. These are quite inexpensive and available at Latin markets in the US as well as Asian ones. They are a good source of tendons too!

I don't soak the meat or clean it with salt. It is good to rinse well though. I suspect that these other methods are also due to superstitions, and possibly when getting meat from less sanitary sources. Maybe home butchered meats too that might pick up a bit more of the gamy or livery flavors from the process.


I roast half the meats till browned. I usually get a broth, slightly brown, but not like the photo above this way.

I add salt at the beginning of the cooking, but add the spice and vegetable later

I use star anise, cassia cinnamon, and black pepper. Sometimes I add celery seed. I only put a little in an 8 quart pot - maybe an inch of cinnamon, two star anise, and 1 TBS of whole peppercorns. You can add more if you like it more spiced. When I started getting pho years ago, the versions I preferred were lightly spiced.

I add two onions - charred on a grill (or on a gas burner). I usually don't add any other vegetables, except sometimes celery, or Asian celery because I like it. I would not add parsnips to this broth - they are not used in Vietnam that I know of - more from the UK? I think daikon adds too much cabbagy flavor, which I like in other soups, but not this one. You could add various mushrooms for umami, but they will add mushroom flavor - which is not typical in pho - but it might be OK?

I then put it in a large pot, and completely cover with water. Cook for a few hours, covered, on a simmer.Then I add the spices and onions, etc. and cook for a few more hours.

Cool, and strain into a clean container (don't cool too much before straining as it may congeal from the gelatin)

Now cool completely and remove the fat off the top. You can really remove all you can. A little will remain, or will come in with the meats in the bowl.

Before using in pho, you heat up what you need, and add water if it's too concentrated. Add sugar (rock or palm if you like), fish sauce (umami is in this!), a few scallions (I like to anyway), parsley (I sometimes add this - probably no Vietnamese, but I like it). You can even add commercial beef broth flavorings if you like. I won't tell. Many restaurants do this! I like the Korean brands as they taste like beef. I don't usually add any however. MSG might be added now too. Cook for awhile until melded. Taste to make sure it's perfect (a little on the salty side will work, as it weakens in the bowl - but the bowl can be modified too). A little salt and freshly ground pepper can be added too. White pepper is sometimes added, but mostly to non-beef pho. It's completely different than black pepper. Then I strain this and use for the pho.

Noodles are an important consideration too. Not all rice noodles are the same. I've bought hand-made dried rice noodles that fell apart upon pre-cooking! They were perfect put in soaked with the hot broth put on top. You have to know the brand. However, most are best soaked for awhile in cool water, then cooked for 2 minutes in highly salted boiling water, then strained and added to the pho bowl (I will rinse a bit too). Fresh rice noodles are even better, but again beware as I've found ones loaded with preservatives that taste awful!

The other ingredients are all up to you. I like book tripe sometimes (available at the Mexican grocery nearby) - blanched in salted water and cut very thin (it's supposed to be a little crunchy). The time of blanching varies so you have to test till it's just like you desire. Tendon - I usually get these out of the bones I cook instead of buying them. Meatballs (commercial ones), rare beef (not tenderloin as I think it's tasteless), and well cooked beef (I like short rib, shank, and/or oxtails).

I grow lots of herbs so I will mix this one up a lot. Basil (thai, lemon, lime, italian, etc.). holy basil (it's not the best in pho), mint, cilantro, Vietnamese coriander (the aquatic smartweed plant), rice paddy herb. I've also used arugula, dill, and other non-tradional herbs occasionally. Dill is used in Vietnamese cuisine, though I've never had it in pho at a restaurant. It's pretty good in it though.

Bean sprouts seem ubiquitous, but sometimes I don't have any - julienned summer squash works well. Blanched green beans would probably work.

Greens - like lettuce, endive, etc. are great. Water spinach works very well in pho - and I grow that too!

I don't like Hoisin or any sauce in my broth - or hot chiles either. I dip some of my meats in this on the side when I eat it. I'm a little particular with this. I do add lime, but not all the time. There is a sort of non-refined soybean sauce that I think is really good, but it's difficult to find. I really like it instead of Hoisin. I also like sa-te sauce too - a Thai version, but I've seen it at a few Vietnamese restaurants too (not the peanut satay sauce, it's mostly chilies).

I like some thinly sliced onions, maybe some scallions, and sometimes other veges that are in-season. I've tried really ripe tomatoes once and they worked very well! You really mix it up here.

Most of the time I think my pho is better than that available at restaurants!

Edited by loki (log)
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  • 4 weeks later...

I know because I used to strain all this off, now I don't bother. I even think that leaving these in actually help clear the soup later (like a clarifier when making beer).

I think you may be onto something. At least in consommes, the scum from ground meat combined with the albumin from egg whites help clarify a stock later on. Perhaps the scum is left on will do a semi decent job clarifying, though I'm not sure if it's any better than parboiling the bones first. I personally parboil bones not just to clarify the stock but partly due to my own compulsiveness and not ever being 100 percent sure about the source of the beef. It's a ritual I perform to "cleanse" the meat of any off flavors (especially if they've been in the freezer for a while), however fallacious that might be

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  • 2 weeks later...

Yeah, I really think that's what happens. It works best with a true simmer, at least later in the process. Both albumen and the 'scum' are proteinaceous, so they likely collect the little bits of cloudy material in a similar manner. Gelatin is also used to clarify beer, at least by home brewers, and it acts in a similar way - though not when hot.

I recently found an article in Saveur about Pho - rereading an issue I read in one sitting. http://www.saveur.com/article/Recipes/Pho-Bac It's pretty good. The only thing I am not so sure about is the addition of fish sauce later. I do it early. I don't mind additional later, but it definitely comes out as 'fishy' - which I don't mind, but others may. It may be that the early addition does nothing useful - I'm just not sure.

Oh and the author just uses beef bones for the broth... She also uses Black Cardomom or Elatchi in the broth. I recently - well about a year and a half ago found out that it's not the same species as what I knew as Cardamom. I thought it was yet another form - knowing that there were at least three - green, white (aged and processed a bit), and the seeds removed from the pod. Well NO, it's a different species of the same family - the Zingiberaceae (ginger) plant family. And it's a very different flavor with camphor and smokeyness (from what I gather from the processing - over fires?). And there is another twist, there are two species, one primarily used in India and it's surroundings, and another used in China and SE Asia. I don't have any! I need to visit my Vietnamese grocer (well they are actually Cambodian) again!

I actually like to make this a little differently each time - and work into it what's fresh out of the garden. Also - what I like in the heat of the summer (more delicate and accented with bright herbs and citrus) may be a bit different than in the cold depths of winter (spicier and richer).

I just made some pho and beef shank works really well for the well-cooked beef - it's so silky and rich with gelatin, and looks nice in slices too! I prefer the rare beef to be flank or near the short ribs - I like a little more bite and like the flavor better than tenderloin, which I think is too delicate for my tastes.

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And there is another twist, there are two species, one primarily used in India and it's surroundings, and another used in China and SE Asia. I don't have any! I need to visit my Vietnamese grocer (well they are actually Cambodian) again!

No wonder...I got some black cardamom from the mother of an Indian friend of mine and I noticed the pods were smaller than I was used to seeing black cardamom. I wonder if there are any flavor differences...I myself didn't eally notice anything different. Black Cardamom is pretty important to the flavor of pho though, especially northern style pho

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