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Mom knows best...a few tips on perfecting PHO

  • c

After a few attempts at making pho bo, I was starting to feel like my version was progressing and getting some soul...until I tasted my mom's again recently. Her bowl of pho is just PERFECT, I mean PERFECT. The alchemy of the beef broth, ropey noodles, tender flavorful meat, and garnishes is PERFECT. Even the texture of her chopped pieces of green onion and cilantro tasted PERFECT in my mouth. Evidence of PERFECT bowl of pho is below.

Compare it to my bowl of pho in my linked report, and you'll see the subtle but important differences. Don't get me wrong, my pho is pretty decent for a novice, but tasting my mom's made me realize that it takes time (maybe even decades) to get it just right.

My original pho recipe came from watching my mom and jotting down notes, but here's a perfect example of how a recipe and observation can only take you so far. There is an art and finesse that can only come from experience and culinary feel.

Unfortunately, I didn't watch my mom make this last batch of pho, but I queried her intensely when I realized hers tasted so much deeper and more soulful than mine. What was the difference?! I had to know...

So here's what I'm going to try next time (building upon my current recipe):

1. Use soup bones instead of beef neck bones.
2. Make sure to pre-marinate the chuck roast for several hours to overnight.
3. Don't add any onion in beginning. After at least an hour of simmering, saute some chopped onion in a little oil til sweet and lightly browned and add to broth.
4. Skim off any foam in beginning but don't skim off any fat til the next day, if at all.
5. Add fish sauce and salt earlier than I used to. Add after first hour or so of simmering. This helps flavors to meld and seasons the chuck roast and oxtails for eating later.
6. Simmer for at least 4 hrs. if not 5.
7. For the pickled onions, soak sliced onions in mixture of white vinegar, water, and a little sugar.

My pho will probably never taste like mom's, but I'm excited to work on mine so that it has its own signature and style that I can be proud of.

Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

Image: http://i2.photobucket.com/albums/y45/...

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  1. Rock on with your pho bo perfecting self, Carb Lover! The featured recipe in yesterday's Sunday New York Times magazine was pho bo - I thought of you. Check it out online.
    The noodles in your photo look more like wheat flour noodles, not rice stick - are they?

    3 Replies
    1. re: Niki Rothman

      Thanks for the NY Times tip. I linked the recipe below for those interested. It was adapted from Mai Pham's book. While the ingredients look pretty good, doesn't sound like it simmers long enough. I also notice that recipes in books call for alot more (quantity-wise) aromatics than I or my mom use. I don't like broth that's too heavily infused w/ star anise or cloves.

      My mom's pho is more in the Hanoi-style, so it's more subtle and garnishes are kept to a minimum. Although my dad (from the South) douses a shocking amount of Sriracha into his bowl. My parents taught my husband to mix some Sriracha and hoisin in a small bowl to dip cooked oxtails into, and he really liked it.

      I do use rice noodles, but they are the fresh kind. They're labeled as "banh pho tuoi" and can be found at Viet markets. I can't go back to the hard dried kind now; they taste more gluey even if you don't overcook them.

      Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/28/mag...

      1. re: Carb Lover

        Finally somebody has put my feelings about star anise as a flavoring agent in food. I feel that it is often way overused and gives a sameness to many dishes that gets tiring.

        Thanks for the pho info!

        Isn't it amazing how our moms make certain dishes that are never as good when we make them, even though I feel as if I'm as good a cook as my mom was.

        My mother used to make a cake called a "Spanish Cream Cake" that I always requested for my birthday. Although I have her handwritten recipe, it's never quite as good. Perhaps that's because it was always made for me rather than my making it for myself. Her Swedish meatballs are just that little bit better than mine and I don't know what is missing in mine (or perhaps should be taken out).

        1. re: oakjoan

          Ditto to both your negative comments regarding cloves and star anise in pho. Star anise actually has some toxicity issues too and should not be used for more than just a hint of flavor.

    2. That's it, I'm coming over for lunch! Beautiful CL. I don't feel ready to attempt pho--seems so complex and overwhelming. I'm not sure why...it is afterall just beef soup.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Funwithfood

        Let me know when you're visiting your in-laws, and we'll have some pho! :-) Remember that pho is good for anytime of the day...breakfast, lunch, dinner, pre-dawn after a late night of partying.

        My hope is that the more I post about pho, the more people will give it a try and report back so I can learn from them. It's not hard to make at all, but after my humbling experience, I wouldn't say it's easy to achieve the level of my mom's or your favorite pho shop.

        Seems to be getting too warm for pho, but I'm reminded of how they eat it at 100F in Vietnam w/ wilting humidity.

      2. p

        looks absolutely fantastic, i am inspired to try my hand at this broth again.

        Link: http://tongueandcheek.ca

        1. Thanks so much for another pho report. I'm trying to figure out the perfect cut of beef to serve raw/rare. What cut does/did your mom use? I think my mom uses sirloin, but I'm not sure.

          Also, stupid question, but which bones are soup bones? Is that what they're simply called? What shape do they look like in case I'm shopping at an Asian butcher counter and they don't know what "soup bones" are?

          1 Reply
          1. re: Alice Patis

            Not a stupid question. My American butcher shop labels them "soup bones", but they're essentially thick beef marrow bones. They're the kind that I've used for Fergus Henderson's roasted marrow bones w/ parsley salad, which I've posted a report and photo on. They should be fairly cheap. Some might enjoy sucking out the residual marrow after the long simmering...mmmmm.

            I generally use sirloin for the rare beef; my mom and dad don't do the pho tai thing. The trick is in slicing it perfectly thin and even, against the grain of course. Freezing it briefly can help, but my mom is so good she doesn't need to freeze. She seemed to spend forever slicing up the small cut of sirloin (husband and I aren't as precise or patient), but the perfectly tender texture was worth it.

            Hope you and others try your hand at pho bo at home and report back!!

          2. Thanks for posting- beautiful photo! I tried to make it- using the recipe from Mai Pham's cookbook, but was disappointed in the result- it was bland which seemed strange considering the ginger, star anise, etc. Maybe it wasn't simmered long enough. I don't think the recipe calls for more than a couple hours. I'll have to try again- just have to get motivated. I also have to watch my mom make her spring rolls and write everything down. One of these days....

            1. Carb lover, great recipe. i love the determination in perfecting a bowl of pho. i just tried it recently as well. http://eatdrinknbmerry.blogspot.com/2...

              2 Replies
              1. re: eatdrinknbmerry

                Congrats on making your first pho! It looks great. The process can be very rewarding...I haven't made it recently, but now you have me thinking about it. Please share any tips or lessons learned as you go along...

                1. re: Carb Lover

                  HI CarbL, i'm totally using your recipes on my next round. Thanks for posting - super helpful.

              2. OMG fabulous! I'm still having the noodle issue.

                I've switched from the dry to fresh/frozen and still don't know what I'm doing wrong. They are still either too hard or too soft.

                Any noodle tips?

                Thank you so much for all of the other tips, steps and ideas on the perfect Pho Bo.

                1 Reply
                1. re: mar52

                  Mar52, if you're using fresh noodle packs, make sure you soak them in a bowl of water for at least 10 minutes. When you're ready to eat, make sure your pot is boiling vigorously, cook the noodles for no more than 8-10 seconds. It will still be a lil' undercooked, but by the time you finish adding soup, garnishing and sending it out to the dinner table, they'll be edible. Because you are not shocking the noodles with cold water, the noodles will continue to cook. It's critical that pho noodles are al dente.

                2. Oakjoan, I don't even know what pho bo is <one of the great things about this bbs is exposure to new things> but I sure would like to see your recipe for Spanish Cream Cake.

                  1. Thanks for the tip. When you say "pot is boiling vigorously" is that the Pho you are referring to or a separate pot of water for the noodles?

                    I'm noodle challenged!

                    Thanks again!

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: mar52

                      I think eatdrinknbmerry is referring to the pot of water for the noodles. I agree that fresh noodles should be soaked a bit before cooking. I usually only cook one serving of noodles at a time by nesting the noodles in a "spider" spoon. I plunge briefly and then remove to the bowl. When my mom cooks for the whole family though, she cooks the whole package of noodles like pasta. I forget whether she prefers to rinse the noodles after cooking...I'll have to ask her...

                    2. Thanks!

                      I'll keep trying. There's no stopping me!

                      1. Man I can't tell you how much I love you right now.

                        I've been on a quest to make the perfect pho broth for a year now, making it on and off every other month. And it always turned out strange tasting. Too bland, too muddy, too fishy, too medicinal. Not enough beef, not enough "umami", not enough of that quintessential pho taste.

                        I basically came to the same conclusions as you. Seasoning the broth while it's simmering allows for complex flavors to develop as different sodium compounds form (sort of like making natural MSG if you will). Also, oversimmering the vegetables components like the onions will make it taste "rotten" and overcooked. After much researching I found that the "fat cap" plays a large role in the flavoring of the stock as well (fat equals flavor they say). I might experiment also by mixing chicken bones and meat with the stock as well for an added richness, perhaps as an alternative to the wonton soup mix (my grandmother SWEARS by that stuff btw, lol). I've considered roasting the bones or browning them before simmering them, but for now I'll stick with the parboil method

                        A couple questions though:

                        1. I saw you added garlic and bayleaf to your aromatics. I was wondering what kind of flavor that adds, as I never saw those two ingredients used in traditional pho stock before. My grandmother uses a ton of garlic in what she calls "Pho Ap Chao", where she stir fries the beef with Cai Lan before adding it to the soup.

                        2. The meat component of my pho stock has always been brisket and the meat that surrounds the soup bones. Does chuck give a different flavor profile?

                        3. What do you do with all the meat that was used in the stock? Do you briefly dunk it in the stock until it's cooked and then set it aside to be put into the soup, or do you just allow it to simmer with the rest of the stock for the entire duration and then throw it out afterwards? Or is the meat still usable after the duration of the simmer?

                        4. What do you marinate the chuck roast in?

                        I've heard some pretty strange methods being used for pho. One lady I've ran across soaks her star anise in sherry and proceeds to use the sherry as a flavoring agent in her pho. I've also heard that some cooks in Vietnam use a special dried sea worm called ruoi.

                        Basically though, I found the best way to start making pho broth is, at least in the beginning, to keep it simple. The personalized complexities come much later.

                        1. Awesome! I've been living abroad for sometime and have not been able to find good pho anywhere. So I should definitely try at home....

                          It is difficult to find fish sauce where I live (Spain). Any suggestions for substitutes? Could I use anchovy paste? How important is fish sauce to the broth?

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: mielimato

                            Fish sauce is pretty important and should be widely available at any multicultural supermarket (these days, most supermarket chains have "ethnic" food aisles, and they almost always have fish sauce). But if you are really in need of a substitute, a light soy sauce with anchovy paste will be a good substitute, or oyster sauce, or just plain salt (though you won't get the richness that fish sauce lends)