Pho, specifically beef pho, is probably the most popular dish in Vietnamese cuisine. This blog post is a step-by-step guide on how to make this popular dish the authentic way – the way your grandma used to make it. It also provides you tips and tricks on how to get the perfect broth, which we all know is the key to a good bowl of pho.
The recipe that all of my friends ask me for is my Vietnamese beef pho recipe. This dish shouldn’t be confused with it’s sister pho recipe chicken pho. This noodle soup has a beef broth, some veggies, and topped with hoisin and sriracha sauce. In my opinion, it’s one of the best dishes in Vietnamese cuisine and one that is probably the best known dish in Vietnamese culture. After many many iterations, I finally mastered this recipe recently, and now I am so excited to share with you my ultimate guide to the perfect traditional beef pho.
The history of pho
Pho originates from a city called Nam Dinh, but many people associate its origins to Hanoi. At the end of the 19th century during French colonism, the high demand for beef led to an excess of beef bones. This led to the Vietnamese, specifically in Hanoi, to perfect the Nam Dinh broth using those bones. This is how the pho broth came to be. Pho gained popularity over the years and now there are different versions depending on where you are in Vietnam. In the North where pho originated, the bowl of pho you get has a few simple toppings. In the South, the pho has a variety of toppings with a sweeter broth. There are also different variations utilizing different proteins like the super popular pho ga or chicken pho.
How to make authentic beef pho or pho bo
The meats are the key to any good authentic beef pho recipe
The first step in creating a good pho is of course creating the broth. It took me a very long time to perfect my pho broth because my mom’s recipe wasn’t perfect. I asked her why she skipped a few steps and she responded, “I’m lazy.” lol But trust me, you don’t want to skip any steps if you want good broth.
The key to any good pho broth is the meats. I use a combination of beef shank, ox tail, and beef chuck – 1.5 pounds each. You want meat that has a good amount of fat on it because pho is not a lean broth at all. In addition, you must have meat with bones on it. The bones and fat are what give the broth a rich and full flavor.
Charring the onion and ginger is important for beef pho
The next component of the broth is the charred onion and ginger. This is one step my mom skipped. She used to just throw them into the soup as is. Don’t do that. Cut the onion and ginger in half and broil them for 20 minutes. Doing this adds a roasted, earthy flavor to the onion and ginger and will bump up the flavor of the broth. However, the downside is it does make the color of the broth darker, so if you want a lighter color broth, I would recommend not charring the onion and ginger.
Which spices are traditionally used in a pho broth?
The last component of this broth is the spices. In my broth, I use 1 cinnamon stick, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, cardamom seeds, and star anise. This is a similar spice combination for other beef based noodle soups like bun bo hue. My mom used to use only star anise which made the flavor of the broth very weak. In the past, I used to just throw in all the spices, but they would turn up in my bowl as I was eating my noodles. So this time around, I used a cheese cloth to create a little spice pouch for them. To create the spice pouch add the spices to the center of a 5×5 piece of cheese cloth and seal it with some butcher’s twine. After I finished cooking the broth, I removed the spice pouch from the broth.
Naturally sweetening the beef pho broth
A good pho broth is slightly sweet, so one thing I love to do is add daikon instead of adding processed sugar. This is my personal touch to this recipe. Pho is already a fatty dish, so adding more unhealthiness didn’t really appeal to me. Daikon is naturally sweet, and it adds just enough sweetness to round out the broth.
How long should you simmer the broth for?
Daikon is the last thing I throw into the broth before letting it simmer for 2+ hours. The longer you simmer the broth the better. I give the broth at least 2 hours of simmering time, so all the flavors from the spices and beef bone come out into the broth. Some people simmer the broth for hours longer, and some even do it over night. Making the broth is a very time consuming process, but the taste you are rewarded with in the end is worth it.
How do you get a clear broth?
The hallmark of a good pho broth is one that is clear and clean. There are a couple little tips and tricks that help you get a clear broth. The first tip is to scoop away any impurities. As you simmer the broth, you will see little bits and pieces of things from the meat float to the top. Scoop them out of the broth. The second tip is to not let your broth boil for too long. It’s okay to boil your broth then lower it to a simmer, but if you boil the broth too much, it will create a murkier broth. Finally, this is a bit of a controversial tip, but as I mentioned, charred onion and ginger make your broth darker. This is a traditional way of prepping both ingredients before adding them to the broth, and I personally like it because it adds a nice roasted/umami flavor to it, but it does make your broth darker. If you rather have a clearer broth over that umami flavor, then don’t char your onion and ginger.
What kind of noodles should I use for pho?
The one part of this pho recipe that I had some trouble finding the ingredient for is the noodles. Over the weekend, I found some fresh pho noodles which made a HUGE difference in my dish. I found them at a local small grocery store called Hiep Thanh Market. You can also get the noodles at large Asian grocery chains such as 99 ranch. If you don’t have any Asian markets near you, I would use whatever rice noodles you have available to you. In terms of the fresh noodles I used for this pho recipe, I was absolutely amazed how well it absorbs the pho broth. In the past, I bought only dried noodles which left me with a plastic-y taste in my mouth no matter which brand I bought. Going forward, I’m for sure only buying fresh noodles. Fresh pho noodles also only take 5-10 seconds to cook which is an added bonus!
Making your bowl of pho your own
The final step before you get eating is to load your bowl of pho with toppings. The toppings is where you make your bowl of noodles your own. I like to put everything on it. Vietnamese mint, bean sprouts, hoisin sauce, A LOT of sriracha, fish sauce, pepper, jalapeno peppers. I think everything adds flavor, so why not?! One thing that many people add but I don’t is thinly sliced rare steak. Make sure to slice it super thinly, so it cooks through when it hits the broth.
How do you store pho?
Store pho in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days and up to 3 months in the freezer.
Pho is best eaten the day after
Like all soups, pho is best eaten the day after, so if you can, make the broth the night before you want to enjoy it. Letting the broth sit in the pot with all the aromatics allows them to further infuse the broth with their flavor.
Did you make this Traditional Vietnamese Pho?
If you made this hearty Vietnamese classic, I would love to see!
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How to Make Authentic Vietnamese Pho (Pho Bo)
- Put the beef shank, ox tail, and beef chuck in a large pot with enough water to cover the meat. Bring to a boil. Once the water boils, take the meat out and set aside. Pour out all the water and put the meat back into the pot. (Throwing away the water gets rid of most of the impurities and any gross flavors from the meat.) Add fresh water to the soup pot until it just covers the meat and the salt. Be careful not to add too much water as it will make the soup weak in flavor. Bring water to a boil.
- While the water is boiling in the step above, place the onion and ginger in the oven for 20 minutes on broil. Set aside.
- Next, saute the coriander seeds, fennel seeds, cardamom seeds, star anise, and cinnamon stick for 1-3 minutes until you smell a toasty aroma. Add all the spices to a piece of cheese cloth. Tie the corners together to create a spice pouch. Set aside.
- Once the water in the soup pot boils, scoop away any impurities you see. Add the onion, ginger, daikon, and spice pouch. Simmer for an hour. Continue to check on the soup every 15 minutes and scoop away any impurities you see. This will ensure that your soup appears clean.
- Once the soup has simmered for an hour, take out the beef chuck and slice into thin pieces and set aside. Simmer for another 30 minutes and then take out the ox tail and beef shank. Remove the meat from the bones. Thinly slice the meat and set aside. Put the bones back into the soup pot.
- Simmer for another 1 ½ hours more. The soup should be done after this time period. Take the spice pouch out of the soup and throw away.
- Cooking the noodles: Boil water and add in the pho noodles. Let it simmer for about 2 minutes or until noodles are done. If you are using fresh noodles, submerge noodles in boiling water for 5-10 seconds and they're done!
- Put some noodles in a soup bowl. Add fish sauce, bean sprouts, cilantro, and green onions on top. All these toppings are optional. Leave off any you don't like! Top it off with some of the beef chuck, beef shank, and ox tail meat you set aside earlier. Finally, ladle enough soup into the bowl so that it covers the noodles and toppings to your liking.
- Optional: Season with hoison sauce and sriracha to your liking.