Pho for Beginners

Learn how to make hearty beef noodle soup. Pho for beginners, with a 5 star-level of yum!

Pho for Beginners

For beginners, pho might seem slightly intimidating. The beloved Vietnamese soup is an Asian food staple but if your family is not Asian, chances are you have only enjoyed it at restaurants. Of course, there is no shame in that, but such a huge part of the appeal of pho is that warm, cozy feeling it gives you. If only you could make it yourself for those late evenings after a tough day at work... Hush, right there. Yes, you can. The secrets to good pho are quality ingredients, attention to detail, and a dash of love! With some practice and a good recipe you are guaranteed to succeed. So without further ado, the definitive guide to pho for beginners!

What makes great pho so yummy?

Pho-lovers know that there can be no two pho's alike. Every Asian grandma swears by her own delicious recipe and so every Asian kid grew up eating it a little differently than the other. Add all the restaurant varieties to that, plus people's personal preferences, and it's actually pretty hard to tell objectively what makes good pho good.

But if we are going to teach pho for beginners, we have got to start with the basics.

What is pho?

What is pho?

Pho originated in northern Vietnam and got popular when the French arrived. They occupied Vietnam between 1880 and 1954 and they loved beef. Traditionally, Vietnamese people only used cows as draft animals. Since there was high demand for beef, though, cows started getting slain. Poor cows, but also poor Vietnamese workers, that could not afford the meat. So they started making use of the bones and scraps.

Noodle soup street vendors began to use beef broth for the soup and the result was what we now know as pho. The first ones to love it were actually the Chinese workers in Hanoi since the soup reminded them of a similar dish prepared in their homelands. Of course, a lot has changed since those early days. We now have an endless variety of toppings and seasonings. But since we are teaching pho for beginners here—one key thing you should remember. The basics are beef, spiced broth, and flat rice noodles.

But still what makes it good?

I did not answer the initial question, right? Well, the answer is—details. Pho is all about getting the correct balance of spices and seasonings. Ginger and onion are the two key flavors you need for that characteristic pho broth taste. Rock sugar, Saigon cinnamon, star anise, coriander, clove, and other spices make the undertones. Garnishes usually include green onions, sprouts, and Thai basil, as well as non-green yumminess like fish sauce, chili peppers, and lemon wedges.

Since the ratio of these seasonings is of ginormous importance, pho for beginners means you will have to follow the recipe word by word, at least the first time. Then, you can play around with proportions and different spices and garnishes until you get the taste you like best.

Northern Pho and Southern Pho

As we already said, pho originated in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, located in the northern part of the country. The northern version of pho is closer to that original, a simple beef noodle soup, while the southern recipe is more elaborate and usually calls for more than 20 different spices and seasonings. There are also those who claim that there is a third, 'American' or 'Californian' variety, which mostly refers to those oversized portions of grossly inauthentic pho some restaurants serve in the U.S. It's ok if you like that (after all, California sushi rolls are a thing and many people love them), but maybe try making the actual thing, too. Who knows, if you are only used to the 10 lb heaping version, the original might pleasantly surprise you.

For this recipe for pho for beginners, we will be making the simpler northern version of pho, which is much closer to the original. Since there are only three key ingredients (the beef, the broth, and the rice noodles) it's kind of harder to mess up. That being said, you will have to pay attention to the preparation of each and every one of those, because it will affect the overall taste.

Recipe for Northern Style Pho for Beginners (Pho Bac)

Recipe for Northern Style Pho for Beginners (Pho Bac)

Ingredients:

  • 5 lb beef leg knuckle bones (parboiled for best taste) or 3lb. of any beef bones plus 2 lb. Oxtail
  • 5 shallots
  • 1 5'' piece of ginger
  • 2 pieces dried cardamom (crushed)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 tbs. cloves
  • 1 tsp. fennel seeds
  • 2 tsp. coriander seeds
  • 1/3 cup fish sauce
  • 2 lbs beef brisket
  • 2 lbs small flat rice noodles
  • Cilantro leaves
  • Thai basil leaves
  • 1 yellow onion, soaked in cold water for 20 minutes and thinly sliced
  • 2 chiles
  • 2 tbsp rice vinegar
  • thinly sliced scallion greens
  • salt to taste
  • pepper to taste

Although pho can be made with chicken or pork, and there are even some vegan and vegetarian varieties, we will be sticking to the original recipe that calls for beef. For the broth, we will need leg bones. The best variety is leg or knuckle bones because they contain the largest amount of gelatin, which in turn would make for a thicker, richer broth. If you can't find that, any beef bones will do, but you might have to add some oxtail to achieve the same flavor.

Before making the broth itself, we will be boiling the bones for 10-15 minutes to get rid of any impurities. This not an obligatory step, but it is what yields the best results. After this initial boiling, rinse the bones well and throw away the water. Now you are ready to make the broth. For this pho for beginners recipe, you need:

  • 5 lb beef leg knuckle bones (parboiled for best taste) or 3lb. of any beef bones plus 2 lb. Oxtail
  • 5 shallots
  • 1 5'' piece of ginger
  • 2 pieces dried cardamom (crushed)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 tbs. cloves
  • 1 tsp. fennel seeds
  • 2 tsp. coriander seeds
  • 1/3 cup fish sauce
  • salt to taste (I like at least 1 tsp, but since the fish sauce is salty, you might want to put less)
  • Plus, for the first 1 1/2 – 2 hours boil the beef for the soup with the broth. For this recipe, we will need 2 lb beef brisket.

  1. Par-boil the bones for 10-15 minutes. Throw away the water and wash them thoroughly.
  2. Peel the ginger and the shallots and cut them into thin slices. Roast them in the oven for around 5 minutes at the highest temperature, with the oven rack on the highest spot. You could also char them with the peels on, but since this is pho for beginners, I find this option keeps the recipe less messy
  3. Place the spices in a mesh bag.
  4. Throw the bones, the charred ginger, and shallots plus mesh bag with spices in a pot with 6 qt water. Add the beef brisket, too
  5. Bring to a boil and cook for 1 1/2 – 2 hours or until the meat is soft.
  6. Take the brisket out and place in a bowl of cold water for 10-15 minutes.
  7. Cook broth for 1 1/2 hours more. Take off the stove and stir in the fish sauce. Set aside and once cooled refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

Beef

Remember the beef you are cooling in that bowl of ice cold water? Take it out once it is completely cold and drain it well. Slice it thinly crosswise and then refrigerate.

Noodles

The best variety to use is small flat rice noodles. You need 2 lbs.

Any pho for beginners recipe will warn you to soak the noodles first. Not all mention that the water should be ice cold and the soaking time – at least around 20-30 minutes (1 hour is best, but not everyone can manage to do that).

After soaking, rinse the noodles and pour boiling water over them. Let sit for around 10 minutes (or until al dente). Rinse them once again and you are done.

Assembling the Bowls

Assembling the Bowls

You know those fancy Instagram pho pictures? Yes, we're about to make something similar.

Take the broth out of the fridge and remove the congealed fat from the top. Warm it up at medium heat for about 20 minutes. Then remove from the heat and strain it (the point is to get the broth to be as clear as possible).

Combine 2 tbsp. of rice vinegar and 2 chiles sliced crosswise in a small bowl.

Divide the rice noodles among 8 bowls. Top with the cool thinly sliced beef. Throw a few cilantro leaves, 1-2 pieces of thinly sliced scallion greens, someThai basil leaves and 2-3 thin onion slices over that. Pour the broth and grind some pepper over the bowls. Serve with the chile and vinegar bowl on the side.

Got any favorite pho tips and tricks, or a cool and easy recipe for pho for beginners? Share them in the comments!

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