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Feb 19, 2008 01:04 PM

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.