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Pho 101

I'm on the brink of my first attempt at making pho. From everything I've read, it doesn't seem all that difficult or complicated, but if my recipe search is any indication, it appears that there are (at least) two differing opinions regarding the basis for the broth -- chicken or beef. My gut tells me to start with a chicken broth for my first attempt because it's generally more flavorful than beef broth, but there may be some valid reason to start with beef broth instead.

So, I'd love to hear from some pho chefs (not to be confused with faux chefs) with some wisdom and guidance. Also, once the broth recipe is determined, I'd love your recommendations for added ingredients and toppings. Thanks.

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  1. "My gut tells me to start with a chicken broth for my first attempt because it's generally more flavorful than beef broth, but there may be some valid reason to start with beef broth instead."

    I'll definitely defer to those with more Vietnamese experience, but I believe a chicken broth is a less common variation that I'm not even certain is made in Vietnam... at least not widely. I believe pho is, by definition, a beef soup.

    Incidentally, isn't calling chicken broth more flavorful than beef broth like calling chili more flavorful than beef barley soup? Apples and oranges. And with pho, it isn't like a recipe where you use a little stock to add body to the dish. With pho, the broth IS the dish.

    In any case, I've made pho a couple of times with limited success. I think it's one of those things that isn't hard to do, but IS hard to do WELL.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Dmnkly

      I really do consider chicken broth or stock to be more flavorful than beef broth or stock. Maybe it's a personal taste preference, but when the broth/stock is my own homemade variety, made from good, fresh ingredients in both cases, simmered for hours on the stove, I just think the chicken has more flavor. Apples and oranges...? Maybe more like Fuji and McIntosh.

      As for the authenticity of chicken-based pho -- well, I suppose that's one reason for my post. A couple of the recipes I've seen refer to it as "pho ga" if it's made with chicken and "pho bo" if it's made with beef. So I've been led to believe there are choices to be made in the broth base.

      1. re: CindyJ

        I'm not necessarily suggesting that a chicken stock won't generally give you a stronger flavor, just that I don't think of the two as interchangeable. It's not a question of whether you'd rather have a stronger or weaker stock, it's a question of whether you'd rather have beef flavor or chicken flavor.

        And yeah, I've seen the pho bo and pho ga convention as well, but I believe the pho ga may even be an Americanization. Which isn't to say it won't be delicious, it just wouldn't be what people in Vietnam would recognize as pho. Of course, as alluded to upthread, this isn't exactly my area of expertise, so don't take my impression as a definitive answer.

    2. Pho is traditionally made with beef, though there is a chicken version. Most recipes I've seen call for beef. I do recall seeing a recipe from Molly Katz's New York cookbook for pho (not pho ga) using chicken stock. However, this is a recipe she came up with herself.

      1. I'm not vietnamese, so take this with a grain of salt, but I've done a lot of experimenting and have found that my favorite broth is beef broth, made with oxtails simmered low with onions, celery, carrots, star anise (or, in a pinch, I've used cloves, allspice and fennel bulbs instead) and coriander (I like to use both seeds and stems), soy sauce and fish sauce. It takes a while to get the broth this way, but the bonus is that you can use the oxtail meat in the soup. I also like to use some sirloin, frozen for 20 minutes and sliced thin and put on top of the noodles raw right before pouring in the piping hot broth, cilantro, mint and scallions for toppings, as well as more fish sauce and some chili-garlic paste. I'm not sure I can claim any authenticity for this dish, but I think it's delicious and comparable to the pho in restaurants.

        1 Reply
        1. re: pslopian

          Doesn't the soy sauce darken your broth? It is usually omitted in traditional recipes.

        2. purists will say that pho is beef-based by definition. pho ga is becoming an acceptable variation, but when most people say "pho" they mean beef-based vietnamese style soup, and when they refer to the chicken variation they say "pho ga." kind of like "martini" and "vodka martini."

          purists aside, do what you'd like--you will be enjoying the soup later! maybe go to favorite pho restaurants and ask them whether they use beef or chicken broth in your favorite version of pho.

          1. Pho Ga is quite common in the pho houses at which I've eaten. I can't speak to the realities in the Vietnamese home, but my sense is that it's not uncommon there, either.

            At home in the US, at least, it will be far easier (and much, much cheaper) to make a good, deep, rich chicken stock/broth than to make a good beef broth. Making beef broth/stock takes a lot longer because the bones and meat are just different. You'll need a lot of beef bones to make such a stock as compared to the amount of chicken bones/parts you'd need to the same volume. So, at home, I'd choose chicken over beef. All of this presumes you're going to make the broth from scratch.

            If you're starting with packaged broth....I have personally never found a canned or boxed beef broth that I'd use to cook (or consume, really). I do like the Swanson Organic Low Sodium, Fat Free aseptically packaged chicken broth.

            The real difference maker one you've determined your broth, is the noodles which is really the whole reason for the dish (the broth is to keep the noodles warm, flavor them a bit and keep them separated for easier eating). Dried work, fresh (if you can find them) are much tastier in my opinion. Either way, refresh them in warm water, then boil them separately and briefly and drain them well before you add the broth to the noodles. We alway go with fairly standard toppings, cilantro, basil, lime, jalapeno, sliced onion, sliced beef or chicken, sometimes fried tofu. As for sauces, we use hoisin, sriracha and fish sauce.

            2 Replies
            1. re: ccbweb

              Can you say a little more about the noodles, please? Exactly what kind of noodles should I be using? How does one "refresh" them? For how long should they be boiled after they're refreshed? When you say, "...boil them separately..." are you referring to boiling BOTH dried and fresh noodles and then combining them? In addition to the boiled noodles, what other ingredients do you add to the broth?

              It seems that there are some ingredients (meat, onions, others) that need to be cooked briefly in the broth, and then the toppings are added. What would some of these other ingredients be?

              And are the sauces added as personal preferences like the other toppings, or are they added to the broth/noodles/meat mixture?

              1. re: CindyJ

                The traditional noodle for Pho is a rice noodle. I've had very thin (vermicelli) up to perhaps a 1/2 inch wide noodle. My preference is for a noodle on the wider side of that range, but not as wide as 1/2 inch. Really, any dried or fresh rice noodle (that doesn't have anything else in it apart from rice and perhaps some oil and/or water) will do just fine. You wouldn't use fresh and dried in the same bowl, I think. By boil them separately, I meant don't cook them in the broth, but cook them in their own pot of water.

                You "refresh" the noodles by soaking them in warm water (hot tap water will do). For fresh, it will take only 3 or 4 minutes to loosen them up so they start to come apart from each other. For dried noodles, it will take more like 20 minutes for them to rehydrate and loosen up. Then you boil them for perhaps 2 or 3 minutes and drain them well.

                When I make my broth, I start with a homemade chicken stock. I use a white onion cut in half and a 1 inch piece of ginger also sliced in half along the longest part; I put them both cut side down in a pot and let them sear, then add the stock and a piece of star anise, a stick of cinnamon and a few allspice berries. I let that simmer for about a half an hour. Then I add the juice of a lime, a tablespoon or so of fish sauce and taste, adding more of either or both if necessary. I assemble the rest in the bowl. I put the noodles in the bowl, then add whatever protein (if it's chicken, the chicken is fully cooked, if beef, it's raw but very thinly sliced and at room temperature) and ladle over the broth. I top it with the herbs, onion, hot sauce and so on. So, for us, apart from the fish sauce and lime in the initial broth, the sauces, herbs, hot pepper, extra lime juice are all added individually according to personal preference.

                Cooking the raw beef in the broth (or, rather, blanching it) is a great idea to keep the broth in the bowl clear....personally, I don't care about that when it's just me and my wife as I don't think it affects the flavor (and she doesn't eat beef anyhow) so I skip that step. It does make a difference for the appearance. Blanching the onion will soften the flavor a bit, which is a personal preference as well...I like the sharp bite and so leave it raw.

            2. I am a pho addict, and will affirm that it is probably one of the hardest dishes to prepare well at home.

              Beef and Chicken (or seafood) pho all taste really different, and are flavored differently, each having a different kind of stock as its base. So yeah, what broth you choose depends on what kind of soup you want. If you like chicken flavor better than beef, then you should make chicken pho, and maybe flavor the broth with lemon grass and cilantro, and add pieces of shredded chicken. But if you want the more common (and in my opinion more delicious) beef pho then you should start with beef broth, and serve it with pieces of thinly sliced rare beef, and if you also like different beef cuts--e.g. tendon, brisket, flank-steak, vietnamese beef balls, tripe. My favorite is beef balls, brisket and rare eye-round. But I wouldn't use chicken broth in a recipe for Beef pho. Either way, very thinly sliced onion, green onion and and cilantro go into the bowl with the soup and noodles, and lime, chile, raw bean sprouts, and thai basil are served on the side for diners to add according to their taste. A few other tips:

              After many, many attempts at beef pho (which are documented with photos on my blog) I have decided that making your own broth is really the only way to go. At least for beef pho, the flavor of the store-bought broth is all wrong, even after simmering with the pho-spices and adding fish sauce and other Vietnamese condiments. The only time I was entirely satisfied with my home-made pho was when I went to the trouble of making my own stock from ox tail. I did make really good seafood pho with purchased chicken broth, red curry paste, ground peanuts, and frozen seafood mix though.

              Even then, the fact that I don't have bowls that are large enough to hold a lot of broth and keep the noodles warm make the end result slightly less than perfect. So big, preheated bowls are really important.

              A trick that most recipes don't mention is to blanch the thinly sliced beef for just a second before adding it to the (warmed) soup bowls. If you add it directly to the hot broth it clouds the broth as it cooks, forming an unappetizing scum. I blanch it just long enough to avoid this but also leave the center of the slices rare.

              1. Pho is our go-to comfort soup at home. I make pho broth/stock in bulk, freeze it, and then just pull it out as needed for a bowl or two. Oxtails are nice, but here in Los Angeles they have gotten a bit pricey. Some beef shank, beef bones, a chicken foot or two for gelatin (lip smacking body) and some chunks of a fatty and gristle laden cheap beef work well. The aromatics I use are ginger, garlic, onion, black peppercorns and star anise. (some char the veggies for added flavor) I have this at under a simmer overnite, then strain and let sit till fat hardens for easy removal. At prep time I heat the broth, toss in the fresh rice noodles, let the noodles soften (maybe 3 minutes) and then dish up. For my lazy teen I prepare the bowl heaping on really crisp bean sprouts, sliced onion and cilantro. On the side I offer basil and lime wedges along with sliced jalapenos, hoisin sauce and Sriracha. Yes, the noodles added directly to the broth will cloud it. You can add a step and blanch the fresh noodles in a separate pot of water, or soak the dried ones and then blanch them when they are soft, put a mound in the bowl first, ladle over hot broth and then let diners add in the above items. Oops- of course the beef. We just stick with very thin sliced beef that I toss into the broth a few seconds before pouring, or if doing the noodle first way, I set on top of noodles and pour over boiling broth. Now, I also get a little off the traditional path and will make the broth/stock with a combo of chicken and beef and still finish with raw beef. I just do not care for the chicken as the main meat as a personal preference.

                4 Replies
                1. re: torty

                  Do you roast the oxtails first? If not, do you blanch the meat in a separate pot of water and then make stock with the blanched meat? Trying to avoid the 'boiled meat' smell...

                  1. re: Gooseberry

                    My Vietnamese coworker swears by a broth made of oxtail that is "boiled then boiled again," by which I think he means blanching. He claims this cooks off the blood, improving the taste and making the broth clear. Haven't tried it myself..

                    1. re: spopodopolis

                      This works for making chicken soup as well. Boil the chicken first to get rid of the grime.

                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        Blanching is often done for stocks where clarity in colour is needed; the blanching is supposed to remove a lot of the impurities. I guess it wouldn't hurt to do that here!

                  1. pho ga is indeed authentic and one will find it in Vietnam just like pho bo. Pho bo is more extravagant, and pho ga is cheaper to make because chicken is cheaper than beef. but it is not a question of authenticity,

                    for pho, the only acceptable type of noodle is "banh pho" or pho noodles. One cannot use thin rice vermicelli (bun) or anyother kind of noodle. The package will say banh pho on it. You may use the dried version, and that is perfectly fine. But if you live in an area with a large Vietnamese community, there may be fresh banh pho available at your local Vietnamese grocery.

                    I recommend trying the beef version first. Maybe just cuz I like it better.

                    1. Okay -- now I'm absolutely convinced that my first attempt at making pho will be beef-based. Although I've never made pho, I have made beef broth. In my experience, the flavor of the broth is always more intense if I roast the meat and onions first and then place them in the stockpot with the other ingredients for a long simmer. Should I consider doing this for the pho base, or would I end up with an undesirable end result if I did?

                      14 Replies
                      1. re: CindyJ

                        Charring the onions is pretty traditional, but roasting the oxtails and soup bones is not. I don't think it would "ruin" it, but it would be different than the norm.

                        In addition to my pho link posted above, check out this updated one on more of my thoughts on perfecting pho:

                        Also see this helpful recipe and guide:

                        The above website also has a recipe for chicken pho for when you are ready to tackle that. I prefer the depth and richness of beef pho, which is what my mom made at home. Unfortunately, I haven't made pho in a long time, but your inquiry (coupled w/ rainy weather outside) is stirring up my motivation. Please let us know how your first attempt turns out!

                        1. re: Carb Lover

                          Okay -- I've done my grocery shopping, including a really interesting stop at the Asian grocery, and I'm about ready to begin. But before I do, I'm going to need to review all of your posts and links and come up with a (more-or-less) definitive recipe. That may be more time consuming than actually making the pho -- that is, unless you happen to have your recipe, with all of the modifications, that you're able to post here.

                          1. re: CindyJ

                            you'll report back when you're done, won't you CindyJ? :)

                            1. re: soupkitten

                              I've posted a description of my first pho-foray below, but here are a couple of pho-tos (the puns are endless, aren't they!) I took along the way.

                          2. re: Carb Lover

                            Now that I've got the broth simmering, I've got more questions.

                            First about the meat: Does the chuck roast get a "pre-boil" like the meat bones do? It would make sense to do that if that step reduces the impurities and makes for a clearer broth, but your instructions don't call for that step.

                            Next, should the entire chuck roast (all four pieces) be simmered in the broth, or should some of it be reserved and then cooked with the heat of the broth at serving time? My concern is that chuck roast usually becomes tender with low and slow simmering, and I wonder if it would be too chewy if the only cooking was in the soup. In one of your posts you said you use a "combination method" and I assume that's what you meant. But I've also seen recipes that call for using a better cut of meat (i.e., sirloin) that's thinly sliced and added to the soup at serving time. What's your thought on that?

                            Now about the seasonings: Because I don't know when you'll respond, I'm going to start with 1 tsp. of fish sauce and 1/2 package of the wonton soup base. And, based on your modified notes, I'm going to add those after 1 hour of simmer time (not 1.5 hours). Would you do it differently?

                            And lastly, what's the best way to cook the noodles?

                            One final comment -- When it came time to add the chuck roast and the onions, I found the 8 qt. stockpot to be too small, so I transferred the contents to a 12-qt. stockpot. MUCH better.

                            Thanks once again. I'll let you know how it turns out. Although I'm preparing the broth today, we won't be having the pho until tomorrow.

                            1. re: CindyJ

                              CindyJ, I like your motivation to just dive right in to pho-making! Since I haven't made it in a very long time and am no expert by any means, I'll try my best to answer your questions from my limited perspective. Your pot of broth is probably already done and has been sitting in the fridge overnight, no? I can't wait to hear how it turns out...

                              I don't think my mom par-boils the chuck roast. Turning the heat to high after adding the chuck and skimming off any scum and impurities that rise should be good enough.

                              I simmered the entire chuck roast as part of the broth base. That meat can then be thinly-sliced and added to your pho bowl, but it's the well-done kind (which my mom prefers). For those who like the raw beef (tai), slice any good cut of raw beef thinly, fan on top of noodles, and pour in hot boiling broth to finish. My mom may actually swish the raw beef in the hot broth first before putting on top of noodles...not sure. How you slice both the cooked and raw meat is of critical significance, as my mom is an expert slicer which always makes the meat super tender and melt in your mouth! I don't know her secret yet...

                              Your timing of seasoning sounds fine to me. Of course, you'll end up adding more fish sauce as the broth cooks and you taste it. Do you know how much total fish sauce you ended up using?

                              For the noodles, I like to use "fresh" pho noodles, not the dried kind. At my Asian market, they are found in the open refrigeration area sometimes near the fresh tofu. I soak them for about 15-30 min. in tepid water. I then mound one serving on my spider utensil and dip into boiling water to soften for just a few min. If you like firm, al dente noodles then cook less; if you like soft noodles, cook more. Remember the hot broth will further soften them.

                              My mom is always making pho for a large group, so she cooks the whole package like you would pasta, drains it in a colander, and runs a little cold water through it while separating w/ chopsticks. She has been making this dish for decades, and yet I feel like her pho-making remains a mysterious art to me...

                              Photo of mom's pho during Christmas visit:

                              1. re: Carb Lover

                                Well, I'd like to report that this was a VERY interesting culinary journey for me, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I don't do a lot of Asian cooking, and some of the flavorings and seasonings (star anise, fish sauce) are products I rarely use, so I put my faith in the recipe I was following. Also, I didn't really have a sense of the desired outcome, so it was difficult for me to know exactly how to adjust the seasonings.

                                That said, let me say I was skeptical about the outcome. My gut told me there wasn't enough meat to adequately flavor the broth, and a taste of the finished broth, even after the addition of a bit more fish sauce (which I used sparingly -- I only used about 3 tablespoons in total), wonton soup base, and salt had me thinking that this would be my first and last attempt at pho. What I didn't realize was that the "magic" happens at the table.

                                I used dried noodles, so I refreshed them and gave them a really quick boil. I placed them in the bowl along with some of the meat that had cooked in the broth, sliced scallions, bean sprouts, and about 4 very thin slices of uncooked top sirloin. Then I added the near-boiling broth. To top the soup, I had thinly sliced serrano peppers, chopped cilantro, lime wedges, sriracha and hoisin sauce.

                                All I can say is WOW! I think the couple of drops of sriracha and hoisin sauce I added to my bowl really gave it that extra dash of complexity and personality I was hoping for. And now I understand why the broth is made as it is; although it's got some complexity of its own, it's really the vehicle for delivering all of the other goodies.

                                Remember my very early concern about beef broth not being flavorful enough for my liking? Well I was partially right about that, but in the end, that's what made it so right for this dish. The broth isn't designed to be a stand-alone meal; but it is an integral part of a very complex dish.

                                So thanks for walking me through this. Now what I really need to do is get the recipe down so I can use it again.

                                1. re: CindyJ

                                  I'd agree, Cindy, that most of the time, pho broth needs a little doctoring. And you're right, that's part of the point. BUT, I have, on a few occasions, found one that I can't bear to season -- and I'm a total condiment fiend. It's hard to find, and even harder to make, but there are pho broths out there that would amaze you.

                                  In any case, glad to hear it turned out well!

                                  1. re: CindyJ

                                    Thanks for the report back, CindyJ. It sounds like it was an overall success for your first time! It looks very tasty...

                                    I agree about the "magic" that you describe w/ the combination of the broth and all the fresh ingredients and condiments; however, the broth itself should be fairly rich and complex on its own. You'll have plenty of time to experiment.

                                    Did you use soup bones as well as oxtails? How long did you simmer for? You could also increase the amount of any aromatics like star anise, clove, cinnamon, ginger. Just don't go overboard. My mom doesn't use this, but I started to add a clove or two of fresh garlic as well as a bay leaf to my broth. Thanks for the inspiration to make pho at home again!

                                    1. re: Carb Lover

                                      I used oxtails and very meaty beef shanks, as well as about 2 pounds of chuck roast. I also used a couple of whole cloves, a bay leaf, a cinnamon stick, a piece of charred, peeled ginger and 3 "smashed" garlic cloves. The broth simmered a good, long time -- maybe 4 hours. Then I took it off the stove, strained it through a fine sieve into a clean pot, refrigerated the chuck roast, and moved the pot into our VERY cold garage for an overnight chill. Next morning I removed the nicely-congealed layer of fat from the top.

                                      Next time, I'll definitely increase the star anise, fish sauce and ginger. I'll also use additional beefy bones. And forgive me if this isn't authentic, but I do think I'll roast the meat before I add it to the stock pot; I think that really does intensify the beef flavor.

                                      This was fun -- time-consuming but not difficult. And, as a bonus, I've got a large container of leftover broth in the freezer.

                                      1. re: CindyJ

                                        "And forgive me if this isn't authentic, but I do think I'll roast the meat before I add it to the stock pot; I think that really does intensify the beef flavor."

                                        No reason to apologize. In the end, you should be doing what you find delicious :-)

                                        1. re: CindyJ

                                          No need to apologize about personal improvisations! I rarely follow recipes exactly and have been known to "break rules" or deviate from tradition. The key is to create a version that has your own signature style and character. Please let us know how the roasting of bones/meat changes things...

                                      2. re: CindyJ

                                        "although it's got some complexity of its own, it's really the vehicle for delivering all of the other goodies."

                                        I love this epiphany you came to! Too often do pho chefs get bogged down with "authenticity" when they fail to realize that pho can never reach its full potential without allow itself to become a canvas for the painter.

                                        In the end, all pho stock really is, is just a simple beef stock with a five spice aromatic profile. Anything can be made out of that foundation

                                        1. re: takadi

                                          Interestingly enough, since this last culinary journey, I've eaten pho out about three times. But the best pho I've had has been my own homemade version.

                              2. Totally off OP's question but IS IT pronounced FAUX or FA like Falala la la la la la.
                                I was told the latter. That is why I thought the restaurant Pho King Good was so funny.

                                3 Replies
                                    1. re: mochi mochi

                                      You've got to say it as if the sound is coming deep from the pit of your stomach ...