Pho Broth: The Soul of Vietnamese Pho

Updated 06-19-19. There are three elements that make up a bowl of Vietnamese pho: the broth, the rice noodles and the toppings (meat, garnishes, etc.)

If you are a pho lover, you may be a fan of the noodles or of the way the meat, herbs and spices play together in your mouth as you slurp your pho to the last drop. Regardless, there's no denying that the pho broth is the most important element of Vietnamese pho. Pho broth is the soul of the dish. It is what makes the dish Vietnamese pho.

It's not a bowl of pho until the broth goes in.

Pho note: This article on Pho Broth is both a how to make pho broth and a philosophical look at the meaning of the broth in pho. If you are looking for the nuts and bolts of making pho, go directly to the latest Beef Pho Recipe infographic, or check out these 2 articles: Top Pho Bo and Pho Ga Recipes You Must Try Yourself and Quick Beef Pho Recipe with Quoc Viet Foods’ Pho Soup Base.

Giving Meaning to the Soul of Pho

Pho brothCan you imagine Vietnamese pho without its broth? It is probably impossible to do so. You may try to cook up all kinds of soups, pour it in the bowl and try to call it pho. You may resort to be creative with different meats and adding new herbs and garnishing to the mix, but it's just not pho. The pho broth is what gives the soup its distinct character. There's not necessarily only one way to make pho broth, but a good pho broth must follow certain rules and standards.

In fact, the key to a successful bowl of pho is the creation of a good pho broth. Pho lovers judge the bowl of pho served to them in a restaurant by sipping the broth first without putting in any seasoning or garnishing.

I see many people (mostly non-Viet and younger Viet generation) dumping in sriracha and/or hoisin sauce into their pho as the bowls arrive at the table. My question is, don't they wonder how the broth tastes? Is it good or is it not good pho broth? If it's not good pho broth then maybe they should try a better place.

But I digress. If there's any doubt about the quality of a bowl of pho, just take a sip of the broth to find out. If the pho broth is good, we feel immediately at home; the familiar, the warm, the good, the satisfying. But if the broth is not up to expectation, the pho eating experience becomes labored, beside the fact that one is wasting the time and money with this darn bowl of pho.

You can be forgiven for serving undercooked or overcooked banh pho (the pho noodle). You can be forgiven for not having all the right meat types or garnishing. But mess up the pho broth and your pho is ruined. Conversely, serving a great pho broth will make up for your other shortcomings many times over. There is no one perfect technique for making pho broth, but with practice and attention to to basic techniques, one can create a very good broth, with the right pho taste.

How to Make Pho Broth

There is no single perfect technique for creating good pho broth.

Many Vietnamese say that the best pho you will ever taste is the one cooked by your own mother, grandmother or other matriarch of the family. Such person would have very strong preference of how good pho broth is made. These ideas and knowledge, in turn, are handed down from generation to generation. I can tell you, this is more of a myth than fact, but will be the subject of a different post.

For now, let's move on to making a good pho broth.

Oh one more thing: the following is more applicable for home made pho. For restaurant operation which must produce very large quantity of pho with consistent quality day in day out, the specific process, procedures, equipment and number of staff/cooks are much different, more demanding, and certainly a lot more involved than shown here.

Clear pho broth potsAlmost all pho recipes will have many common elements between them, from the ingredients that go into the broth to the length of time required in making it. Vietnamese culinary experts Andrea Nguyen's and Mai Pham's beef pho recipes call for the following ingredients:

  • Yellow onions
  • Ginger
  • Marrow-rich beef bones and beef knuckle bones
  • Additional beef chunks
  • Star anise
  • Cloves
  • Salt
  • Fish sauce
  • Yellow rock sugar

Here's a generic process. Many recipes call for preparation using two stockpots of boiling water. The beef bones and chunks are parboiled in one pot in high heat for up to five minutes. This is to remove all the impurities on the outside of the beef. Andrea Nguyen recommends rinsing the bones in warm water before being transferred into the second stockpot, while Mai Pham says that it is fine to just transfer the bones and the chunks without rinsing. If you have room for 2 large pots, then use 2 pots; it will save you a lot of time while keeping your stock pure. But if you can use only one pot, then it will work too.

In any case, the second stockpot is kept at a simmer for an hour and a half, with any scum rising to the top skimmed out regularly. The spices are then added, either as they are or wrapped in cheesecloth. Before they are put into the broth, the onions and the ginger need to be charred in open flame. Mai Pham recommends toasting the star anise and the cloves lightly in a dry pan before they are put into the pot. Again techniques vary, but either roasting or charring will help release much more of spices'  fragrance.

After the hour and a half has passed, the boneless beef chunks are removed. The remaining broth is allowed to simmer for another hour and a half or so. The pho broth is then strained and seasoned with fish sauce, salt and rock sugar. At this point, the pho broth should look clear and free from impurities. It is perfectly acceptable for it to taste strong and even salty at this point as well because the taste will be toned down once the broth is poured over the unseasoned rice noodles and meat.

The procedure described above is the most generally accepted way of cooking pho broth. But no two bowls of pho made from two separate kitchens ever taste the same, and techniques on how to make the broth vary from kitchen to kitchen. Some cooks, for instance, do not put fish sauce in the broth but instead leave it up to the guest to season it as he or she pleases. Some cooks also skip on adding beef chunks into the simmering broth and rely solely on the flavor of the dissolved marrow.

Note:

You should never let water evaporate completely to dry-out condition. If your pot dries out after a few hours of “simmering” then you’re probably boiling it the whole time, or don’t have enough water to begin with. You should be keeping an eye on the simmering and skimming the scum as needed. So just turn down the heat to have just a light rolling action in the liquid.

Most recipes should specify a yield amount, such as yield = 3 gallons. This means that at the end (or sometime during simmering as needed), you’ll need to add water to bring up to the yield amount. If this is the first time you make pho broth, then I suggest to follow the recipe first and see how it comes out, then make adjustments to fit your taste.

Time Is Essential in Cooking Pho Broth

Clear pho brothPerhaps the one thing that turns people off from making their own pho at home is the amount of time it takes to create the pho broth. There are stories of people hailing from Vietnamese immigrant parents all over the Internet, which say that their own mothers have given up making pho because of the time needed to cook it. If they want pho, they all go to a restaurant that serves pho to fulfill their craving for the dish.

How long should it take for beef bones to simmer in order to come up with a good pho broth? Mai Pham and Andrea Nguyen both recommend at least three hours to simmer the broth, but there are other recipes that state that the beef bones must be boiled gently for six to eight hours. For restaurant-quality pho, the time required to simmer the broth can take up to 12 hours or more.

Why is it necessary for the boiling to take that long? The explanation is simple: It takes time for the marrow in the bones to dissolve into the water. You cannot force it with shorter but harder boiling because a hard boil distorts the flavor of the pho broth. The flavor of the marrow is the essence of the broth; it must be brought out gently and doing so takes time.

The time it takes to create pho broth is definitely worth it, though, and you will end up with a broth that is so tasty you will want to slurp up every last drop. Some people resort to buying so-called pho broth cubes or canned pho broth, but the taste is just not the same. It is thin and watery compared to homemade or restaurant-made pho broth. I know, I know. Those are just quick fixes for a quick pho but I just had to mention them.

Pho is not pho without its broth. The broth is the element that gives pho its life and soul. If you can enjoy the pho broth wholeheartedly, then the rest of the ingredients in the bowl will be enjoyable too.

89 comments

  1. Carla Harold 15 February, 2015 at 13:15 Reply

    I got on to see how to make Pho since the local Vietnamese restaurant has turned me onto it. Now I see that with all the time involved I will just be a very frequent customer at the wonderful restaurant. I couldn’t even begin to do what they do and still get the quality. Thanks so much for everyone’s input. I know now to stick with doing what I am good at and leave the professionals to do what I can’t.

  2. Cuong 16 February, 2015 at 12:09 Reply

    @Carla Harold: Your sentiments are exactly why people in Vietnam do not make their own pho at home. It’s just too much trouble. People in the U.S. have the luxury and convenience of at least a decent kitchen and availability of ingredients from local supermarkets, plus we have the luxury of time time and nice air conditioned homes too. And you’re right, there are plenty of affordable and good pho out there, so go visit and support your local pho joints, people!

    • Cuong 25 March, 2016 at 13:32 Reply

      @Kyle: You should never let water evaporate completely to dry out condition. This is not the way to make any broth, soup, sauce or any food that’s meant to be consumed as a liquid (regardless of viscosity). If your pot dries out after a few hours of “simmering” then you’re not really simmering. You’re probably boiling the water. So turn down the heat to have just a light rolling action in the liquid.

      Most recipes should specify a yield amount, such as yield = 3 gallons. This means that in addition to keeping the simmering lightly and skimming the floating scums, you’ll also need to add water at the end to bring it up to the yield amount, or to taste. Then bring it back up to near boiling to ensure everything is hot, then you’re good to serve.

      Thanks for the question. I think it’s important enough for me to add a note to the article.

  3. Chewie 3 July, 2016 at 14:11 Reply

    Thank you so much for this article, I’m going to put it to good use when I next make pho. I’ve made my own pho three times now. The first was pretty bad, and I didn’t even save it. I roasted the bones first in the oven. The pho came out murky and funky smelling. The next batch was okay. I parboiled the bones this time, and rinsed them after. I also only simmered it for 3 hours. It came out tasting very bland, and too fish-saucy. This last time I made it is so far the best. Parboiled the bones, added even more star anise and less fish sauce, and don’t get me wrong, it’s good, but it’s not deep and intense like pho should be. And there’s still too much of a fish sauce taste/smell. I’m wondering if I’m adding too many spices. I sort of just combined the spices from a bunch of different recipes, using star anise, cloves, a cinnamon stick, coriander, fennel, and a cardamom pod. I think after reading your article that I’m going to one, simmer my bones at a lower heat and uncovered, and two add the spice mix in after an hour and a half. If I may ask, do you have a preference when it comes to fish sauce? Can I omit it entirely? Also, do you have any other suggestions you can give a newb like me to help make legit pho? Thank you in advance!

    • Cuong 4 July, 2016 at 21:49 Reply

      @Chewie: It’s good you’re trying things. The key is to making good pho (or any dish for that matter) is to 1) use a good recipe, 2) to understand what it’s trying to do with all the elements and ingredients within it, and 3) to follow its instructions closely. I’m not sure what recipe you used, but it sounds like you’re just mixing up different recipes into one. If this is so then it’s amazing you still got something edible

      If you have a good recipe and follow it, then you shouldn’t have the fish sauce taste or smell in your pho. Fish sauce is meant to be used sparingly to enhance flavor, never to give flavor. Good luck with your next pot.

  4. Roy 13 March, 2017 at 11:34 Reply

    Hello,

    Great article! Thanks for sharing 🙂
    I have a question about the spices. When I simmer the broth for a long time (6-8 hours), when do I put the spices in the pot? Do they need to cook as long as the bones?

    • Cuong 13 March, 2017 at 21:58 Reply

      @Roy: The answer is not that straightforward. I’ll start with this analogy. It’s similar to brewing coffee in a French press. There’s a reason why you don’t want to brew for much more than 4 minutes. For up to about 4 minutes, you would have extracted pretty much all “good” coffee flavor out of the coffee ground. Beyond that, all you’ll get is bitter coffee.

      Similarly for the spices, the longer you simmer, the more spice flavor you get out of it, but only up to a certain point. You didn’t mention what your recipe calls for (how much spices to use), so I’ll assume you don’t have a recipe. So I’ll go generic. In general, there are 4 factors to consider when it comes to how long to simmer the spices:

      1. How much broth (how big a pot) you’re making,
      2. How much spices (quantity) you’re using,
      3. Whether you keep the spices whole or you grind them to release even more spice flavors, and
      4. Personal taste.

      For the last factor (No. 4), some people prefer strong spice flavors, while others can’t stand them. The best thing to do is to test. Again without knowing how much you’re using and making, I’d suggest start putting in the spices about 1/2 hour to an hour before finishing the simmering. Then adjust longer or shorter time in future pots. In any case, remove the spices before final seasoning, whatever called for by your recipe (or whatever instructions you’re following).

      For your 6-8 hour simmer, this boils down to (pun intended) adding the spices in the last hour or 1-1/2 hour.

      Hope this helps, and best of luck.

  5. Chung 4 April, 2017 at 09:26 Reply

    My Mom’s pho recipe does not include cloves or sugar and cinnamon is a huge no, no to her. She was originally from N. Vietnam, so maybe that is the difference. She also simmers her pho broth overnight (8-12 hours) with the onion , anise, and ginger. She adds the fish sauce and salt when it’s done simmering. It’s always delicious. Roasting the onions is key. To keep the broth clear, she brings the bones to a boil and skims the scum off the top before bringing it down to the simmer.

    • Cuong 7 April, 2017 at 15:30 Reply

      @Chung: Sounds like your mom makes great tasting Northern pho style. I would love it I’m sure. Many people don’t realize it’s not just ingredients but also technique/process/procedure. I know people who have all “necessary” ingredients but still can’t make proper pho, and people who don’t have all the right ingredients (or lacking some) and still make awesome pho. I think the majority of newbies don’t know how to skim the scum, which is a very important part of making pho broth. Thanks for visiting and sharing.

        • Cuong 5 January, 2019 at 10:52 Reply

          @Chieko: Sounds like you know exactly what you want in your pho.

          Just to clarify, if there is any “sugar” called for in a pho recipe, it should be rock sugar and not just white granulated sugar. Rock sugar is much milder than white granulated sugar and gives pho the “right” taste which is vastly different from if white sugar is used.

          In Chung’s case and also your case, whatever works for you is what you should follow. From personal experience and through my consulting work, many people don’t realize that using or not using certain ingredients in pho has more to do with habits and however those habits were developed. This usually boils down to the time and location of when and where they learned how to enjoy and/or make pho. That’s usually how people developed their own habits and preferences. I can say with almost 100% certainty that an average person has not done a thorough test comparing various combinations of ingredients and spices to the point that he/she can pick the one combination he/she likes. More likely, it’s based on what’s available (or can be afforded) during that learning/developing period.

          Thanks for stopping by and sharing your experience.

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