Since my trip to Vietnam in February, I’ve been obsessed with making a big bowl of Pho Bo (beef noodle soup). This soup is made from a rich beef stock that’s flavored with with charred onion, ginger, clove, cinnamon, black pepper, and star anise. Bowls are then filled with slippery rice noodles, and finally topped with a heaping of Thai basil, sliced onion, chiles, mint, fish sauce, lime wedges, and bean sprouts. Phew! All of these ingredients work together to create the perfect balance of rich comforting soup and bright fresh herbs. My favorite part are the thin slices of raw beef that are place on top to be quickly cooked by the hot broth. Making an authentic homemade Pho Bo has always seemed like a huge undertaking, but I finally set aside some time and gave it a go. This dish is no quick Tuesday night dinner. It’s definitely a commitment (give yourself about 5 hours total). Most of the flavor comes from simmering all the goodness out of the beef bones–and that takes patience. But the rewards of a beefy stock are well worth the time spent. And smelling like beef bones for the whole day isn’t the worst thing in the world either.
The first step in this recipe is to get a nice char on the onions and ginger. A broiler works well to brown a large batch such as this in the shortest amount of time. While the onion skin goes into the stock, discard the really burnt bits.
Here in Singapore, I feel very lucky to just be able to stroll into the local protein and produce market in Chinatown to pick up my beef bones and Thai basil. The stalls are super busy in the morning, and by the early afternoon it’s starting to close up. I got here just in the nick of time today. If you can’t find them in the grocery store, ask your local butcher. He probably has some in the freezer.
This stock takes a lot of bones–about 5 1/2 pounds. You didn’t want a watery broth did you? Try to buy nice shin bones that aren’t too long, with some marrow in the center. And if they have any meat on them, the better.
Palm sugar adds a hint of sweetness to the broth (along with the onions). It usually comes in hard blocks.
I don’t have a 12 quart stock pot yet, so had to make due with 2 smaller pots. Not the most ideal situation but it worked. I had to start out with less water than I was going to, but i ended up with a concentrated and flavorful broth in the end.
These are the rice noodles that I used. The width is fairly thin (1/8-inch), but you can use whatever rice noodle you can find. They’re soaked in water prior to cooking to speed up the cooking process.
The finished product! It’s important to slice the raw beef as thin as possible so the the hot broth can cook it. I used a bit of chuck along with the brisket but found the texture to be a little dry (it was a very lean cut). The piece of brisket was better, due to all of the fat which renders out during cooking but keeps the texture moist. Pile up a big plate of the garnishes for everyone to pick from. Most of the fun of this dish is dressing up your bowl before slurping it down. The rich meaty broth is perfectly balanced by the acidity from the lime juice and the fresh crunchy herbs.
Note: The strained broth can be made a day before to save time on the serving day. Make sure to cool the broth down as quick as possible after making it to prevent spoilage.
For the soup:
1 pound onions, halved (skin left on) and root ends removed
5″ piece of ginger, halved
9 star anise
6 whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
5 1/2 pounds beef soup bones (preferable in 2 inch lengths)
5 quarts water
1 1/2 pounds beef brisket (or chuck if you want a leaner meat), cut into 3 or 4 pieces
3 Tablespoons fish sauce
1 ounce piece palm sugar, chopped or grated
4 teaspoons salt
1 cinnamon stick
For the bowls:
12 ounces sirloin steak
1 13 ounce package rice noodles
1 large onion, sliced paper thin
5 scallions, sliced thin
For the garnish:
2 bunches Thai basil
1 bunch cilantro
1 bunch mint
2 cups bean sprouts
4 limes, cut into wedges
5-10 thai chiles
grated palm sugar
- Adjust oven rack to broiler position and preheat broiler. Line baking sheet with foil and place onions and ginger on pan cut side up. Broil until flesh starts to become charred, then carefully flip and broil until skin is charred. Discard the really burned pieces of skin. Set aside.
- In a small skillet, lightly toast star anise, cloves, and black peppercorns over medium heat until fragrant, about 1 minute; set aside.
- Place beef bones in large 12 quart stockpot and fill with water to cover. Bring to boil over high heat and boil for 2 minutes. Drain and rinse bones. Clean stockpot and return bones to pot with 5 1/2 quarts water, charred onions and ginger, toasted spices, brisket, fish sauce, palm sugar, salt, and cinnamon stick. Heat over high heat until boiling, then reduce heat to simmer. Continue to simmer for approximately 3 hours, skimming off any foamy residue that may collect on top.
- At the 1 1/2 hour mark, check to see if brisket is tender, or continue to cook until it is. When brisket is ready, remove from pot, place in bowl and cover with water for about 10 minutes. (This prevents it from drying out and turning dark). Remove from water, place on plate, cover and refrigerate until you are ready to assemble bowls.
- After 3 hours, remove bones from pot (reserve bones) and strain stock through cheesecloth into another large pot. You should have about 3 1/2 quarts broth. Set broth on stove and let rest about 15 to 30 minutes. Using a fat skimmer, skim as much fat as you can from surface of stock. (The stock can be made ahead and chilled. Simply remove any hardened fat from top of chilled broth). When bones are cool enough to handle, pull off any meaty bits to add to soup bowls and then discard the bones.
- Place sirloin in freezer for 15 to 30 minutes to partially freeze. While sirloin is freezing, Place dry noodles in bowl and fill with cool water to cover. Place onion slices in bowl and fill with cool water to cover for about 30 minutes and then drain.
- When sirloin is partially frozen, use a sharp knife to slice 1/16-inch slices, place on plate, cover and chill until ready to assemble bowls.
- Adjust beef broth to taste and bring back to a simmer. Fill large pot 3/4 full with water and bring to boil.
- In the meantime assemble bowls for the soup: Slice cooked brisket into 1/8-inch slices or 1-inch chunks and divide amongst bowls. Cooking noodle servings one at a time, drop a handful of noodles into pot of boiling water for about 15 seconds. Remove with strainer or tongs and place in bowl. Repeat with remaining noodles.
- Divide soaked and drained onions amongst bowls. Sprinkle scallions over bowls. Divide sliced raw steak between bowls. Ladle simmering soup into bowls, making sure to cover beef so that it cooks.
- Serve immediately with basil, mint, and cilantro leaves, bean sprouts, squeezes of fresh lime juice, and hot chiles, fish sauce, and palm sugar to taste.