Beef Pho – Getting Back to Basics

Vietnamese Comfort Food

Pho was one of the first meals I remember eating (besides baby food). I have memories of my mother standing at the stove, skimming the foam off the broth of a big pot of pho. Most of the time, she made chicken pho (pho ga), but on special occasions she would tackle the tedious task of preparing beef pho (pho bo) from scratch. Every family recipe is different and is passed on from generation to generation; with little amendments here and there as daughters and sons make it their own.

My mother’s pho is very basic, it had to be. My sister and I were extremely picky eaters and my American father, who passed away a little more than ten years ago, wouldn’t even touch pho. Today, in America’s larger cities, there’s a pho place around every corner. When I was little pho was “exotic” and the few restaurants that served it didn’t cater to the western palate. My mother’s compromise between her culinary heritage and her American born children’s pickyness was to, essentially, neuter most of the food she cooked for us. Growing up, there was no tripe or tendon served on our table and fish sauce had to be quickly thrown into the cooking pot while none of us were looking.

Thankfully, as I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to embrace more traditional Vietnamese food. My recipe, which is based on my mother’s, has been brought back to a more classic flavor profile. I will not lie and tell you this is a quick and easy meal that can be thrown together with little effort. What I will tell you is that, with the right ingredients, you can make a pot of pho that will make every restaurant version you’ve ever eaten seem bland and boring by comparison. Even picky Thogg thought this was the best pho he’s ever had. Guess what, he even ate the tendons!

One last piece of information before the recipe, use the best quality ingredients you can find and try to stick to either Thai or Vietnamese brands for both the soy sauce and fish sauce. Using a poor quality fish sauce will make you an unhappy camper when it comes time to try a bite. Below, I give recommendations for brands. This recipe makes a very large pot of pho. I used a 24 qt pot and had a little over 1/3 full. You will need a large pot for this but you can probably get away with a 10-12 qt soup pot. If you run out of room, omit some of the water, make it more concentrated and add the water back in after you remove the beef bones.

Ingredients:

  • 5 lbs beef bones (a few marrow bones mixed in with knuckle bones is perfect)
  • 1 1/2 lbs beef tendon (optional)
  • 2 large white onions
  • 2 American shallots (or 5-6 of the smaller Asian shallot variety)
  • 20 whole black peppercorns
  • 25-30 whole coriander seeds (my seeds were on the small side, if yours are larger you can use a little less)
  • 10-12 whole green cardamom pods
  • 7-8 whole star anise
  • 2 sticks of cinnamon (about 2.5″-3″ long)
  • 6-7 carrots – washed but not peeled
  • 2 large stalks of celery – washed
  • 1x 6″ piece of daikon – washed but not peeled (this is a long white radish you can find in most Asian markets)
  • 1 bundle of green onions – washed
  • 3″-4″ piece of ginger
  • salt – to taste
  • palm sugar – to taste (you can use regular or raw sugar granules if you don’t have palm sugar)
  • fish sauce – to taste (I recommend Red Boat from Vietnam but it is hard to find. Three Crabs brand is not as good but will work)
  • soy sauce – to taste (I recommend Golden Mountain, which is a Thai brand)
  • rice noodles (either dry or refrigerated)
  • 1 lb of any cut of tender beef, sliced very thin against the grain (try freezing it for a bit, this makes it easier to slice it thinly)
  • green onions – for garnish
  • cilantro – for garnish
  • Thai basil – for garnish
  • bean sprouts- for garnish
  • lime wedges
  • Sriracha
  • Hoisin (this is the brown condiment served at most pho places that is salty/sweet )

    The good stuff 🙂

Directions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Wash the beef bones in cool water and then drain. Sprinkle them with a several pinches of salt and fresh ground pepper. Roast them in the oven at 400 degrees for 1/2 an hour to 45 minutes. When they’re done place them in your soup pot.

    Roast em up!

  2. In the mean time, take all your spices (whole black peppercorn through cinnamon) and dry roast them in a small stainless steel or cast iron pot/pan over medium heat. When they take on some color and become very fragrant they are done. If they start popping, you’re definitely done. Remove the spices and place them in a large tea strainer or tie them in some cheese cloth. Place them in the soup pot.

    Toasted and ready to go.

  3. Peel the onions but leave the very last layer of papery skin attached. Dry roast the onions and shallots in the same pot/pan. Do NOT blacken the onions, you just want to achieve a little singe here and there. Unless the roots are very dirty, leave them attached. Slice the onions most of the way through from the stem end, leaving the two halves attached at the root end. At a 90 degree angle from your first cut make a second slice, again leaving the root end joined. It will look a little like a tulip with the root end holding it together. This helps the onion stay in one piece during the cooking process. Do the same to the shallots. Add them all to your pot.

    Shallots getting a light char in a dry pan.

  4. Tie the green onions with some butcher twine or with some cheese cloth. If you have a large spice strainer (like a tea strainer but for spices) like I do, you will probably be able to shove the green onions inside it along with the spices. Cut the carrots and celery into halves or thirds. Rinse the ginger, slice it in half and then give it a quick crush with the flat of your knife. Add all of this to the pot too.

    Veggies give stock flavor and sweetness.

  5. Rinse off the tendons and place them in the pot too. This is my thought on the tendons… they are meant to be eaten but if that thought grosses you out I would implore you to cook with them and discard them later. They will give your soup more flavor and more collagen (a silkier mouth feel).

    Tendons – you may think they’re gross but the collagen in them will thicken your stock and give it a pleasing silkiness.

  6. Add enough water to cover everything by at least a few inches. I’d estimate I added somewhere in the ball park of 15 cups and then another few cups during the cooking process. Add a few pinches of salt, about 1 Tbs of soy sauce, about 3 Tbs of fish sauce, and 3 Tbs of palm sugar. If you are worried about the saltiness, you can always omit the salt, and add less soy and fish sauces. You can always add more later. Bring everything to boil and then lower it to between a simmer and a low boil. Skim off any foam that forms for the first half hour, or until you’re sure no more foam is coming to the surface.
  7. Let it cook for at least 4 hours, checking on it every half hour or so to skim off the fat (there will be a lot of it) and add more water if needed. When the tendons become soft – I like them almost falling apart – the stock should be about done. Give it a taste. Add more sugar, salt, soy sauce or fish sauce as needed. If you added any fish sauce, I would advise you let it cook for another 5+ minutes before serving so. Raw fish sauce has a very different taste to cooked fish sauce. If your stock is very concentrated you can add more water. A note about the sugar, you soup should not be “sweet” but if it seems one dimensional even though it is salty try adding some sugar. Something magical happens when you get just the right ratio of salty, umami, and sweet.
  8. Pull out the bones, veggies, and spices and discard them. Take the tendons out and put them aside for slicing and serving with your soup (or discard them if you don’t want to eat them). Strain the broth through a fine mesh strainer. If you braised your meat and skimmed off the foam the broth should not be cloudy.
  9. If you bought fresh rice noodles you can use a strainer and cook them directly in your hot broth, it will only take about 15-30 seconds before they soften. If you are using dried noodles, cook them according to the directions (I would recommend to use salted water so they aren’t bland).
  10. Place a serving of noodles into a large bowl, add some sliced green onions, chopped cilantro,the thinly sliced raw beef, and sliced cooked tendon. Ladle piping hot broth (it has to be hot enough to cook the raw beef) over your noodles. Serve to your guests with the usual accompaniments on the side: basil, bean sprouts, cilantro, lime wedges, sriracha and hoisin.
  11. If you made enough for left-overs, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you see your broth has become jello in the fridge. This is from the natural collagen in the bones and tendons, and it is what helped add a whole new dimension of richness to your soup. Enjoy your pho knowing there was no added MSG or “flavor additives” like they do in most restaurants. I haven’t found one yet that didn’t add powdered “pho base” which usually has quite a bit of MSG in it.
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