THE SOUP THAT BREAKS ALL THE RULES
Most soups follow the same pattern: Start by sautéing aromatic vegetables to build a flavor base. Next, simmer the broth and the main ingredients. Season with fresh herbs, citrus juice, or olive oil and then ladle the finished soup into bowls. Pho, Vietnam’s famed beef and noodle soup, doesn’t read like other recipes.
The biggest selling point of this soup is its killer broth—a beefy, fragrant, faintly sweet concoction produced by simmering beef bones and water, along with ginger, onions, cinnamon, and star anise, for hours. Notably, those bones are often the only form of meat added to the “soup.” Actual pieces of beef aren’t introduced until serving time, when the broth is strained and ladled directly into large soup bowls filled with very thin slices of raw steak (typically sirloin) and cooked rice noodles. Onion slices, herbs, and scallions are often waiting in the bowls, too; the only “cooking” they receive happens on the way to the table. Condiments such as salty-sweet hoisin sauce, chili sauce, fish sauce, and lime wedges allow for individual flavor tinkering so no two bowls of pho are alike.
Getting the broth right is the key to this recipe. Homemade bone broth is an all-day affair. To turn store-bought beef broth into something worthy of this recipe, you need think outside the box. It turns out that ground meat releases its flavor into liquid remarkably fast. The grinding process breaks up muscle fibers so a single pound of ground beef can transform 3 quarts of packaged broth in just 45 minutes. Ladle this cheater broth over tender noodles and steak shaved ever so thin and you have made perfect bowls of pho.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
Blanch and Then Simmer Beef
A brief (2-minute) blanch thoroughly agitates the ground beef so that its proteins and fat slough off but the meat doesn’t cook long enough to wash away much flavor. The quick rinse rids the surface of any stubborn clingy bits. In short, blanching and rinsing the meat yields a clearer, cleaner-tasting broth.
More Than Meaty
Once the ground beef is blanched, it’s ready for a 45-minute simmer in a mix of store-bought broth and water, where it will release its beefy flavor. This also is the opportunity to build out the fragrant dimension of the broth with onion, fresh ginger, and fish sauce, and warm spices such as cinnamon, star anise, and clove.
Strain Twice for Clarity
Start by pouring the broth through a colander to discard the solids like the quartered onions and pieces of ground meat. Then strain the broth again through a cheesecloth-lined fine-mesh strainer to get rid of the smaller bits.
The Skinny on the Beef
To cut thin slices against the grain, freeze the meat until it’s very firm (chilling also helps prevent the meat from overcooking in the hot broth). Then, stand the meat on its cut end and using the sharpest, thinnest blade you have, slice the meat.
Soak and Then Boil the Noodles
Simply soak strands of thin dried rice noodles in warm water and then briefly boil them. Soaking helps the noodles shed excess starch and makes them soften evenly and quickly in the boiling water.
A Balanced Finish
We’ve pared down the usual list of tableside garnishes and condiments to the essentials: bean sprouts for crunch, basil, lime wedges, hoisin and chile sauces, and additional fish sauce to balance the broth with heat, acidity, and freshness.
You can almost see the bold flavors in this pot of dark broth and bowl of brightly colored soup.
Vietnamese Beef Pho
SERVES 4 TO 6
- 10 minutes to blanch and rinse ground beef
- 1 hour to make fortified beef broth (freeze and slice steak while broth simmers)
- 15 minutes to soak and cook rice noodles
- 5 minutes to reheat broth and assemble soup in bowls
- Dutch oven (at least 6 quarts) with lid
- Colander for rinsing beef, straining broth, and draining noodles
- Fine-mesh strainer for clarifying broth
- Cheesecloth for clarifying broth
- Second Dutch oven or pot for cooking noodles
Substitutions & Variations
- An equal weight of tri-tip steak or blade steak can be substituted for the strip steak; make sure to trim all connective tissue and excess fat.
One 14- or 16-ounce package of rice noodles will serve four to six. Look for noodles that are about ⅛ inch wide; these are often labeled “small.” Don’t use Thai Kitchen Stir-Fry Rice Noodles since they are too thick and don’t adequately soak up the broth.
- 1 pound 85 percent lean ground beef
- 2 onions, quartered through root end
- 12 cups beef broth
- ¼ cup fish sauce, plus extra for seasoning
- 1 (4-inch) piece ginger, sliced into thin rounds
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 tablespoons sugar, plus extra for seasoning
- 6 star anise pods
- 6 whole cloves
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 1 (1-pound) boneless strip steak, trimmed and halved
- 14–16 ounces (⅛-inch-wide) rice noodles
- ⅓ cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 3 scallions, sliced thin (optional)
- Bean sprouts
- Sprigs fresh Thai or Italian basil
- Lime wedges
- Hoisin sauce
- Sriracha sauce
- Break ground beef into rough 1-inch chunks and drop in Dutch oven. Add water to cover by 1 inch. Bring mixture to boil over high heat. Boil for 2 minutes, stirring once or twice. Drain ground beef in colander and rinse well under running water. Wash out pot and return ground beef to pot.
- Place 6 onion quarters in pot with ground beef. Slice remaining 2 onion quarters as thin as possible and set aside for garnish. Add broth, 2 cups water, fish sauce, ginger, cinnamon, sugar, star anise, cloves, 2 teaspoons salt, and peppercorns to pot and bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, for 45 minutes.
- Pour broth through colander set in large bowl. Discard solids. Strain broth through fine-mesh strainer lined with triple thickness of cheesecloth; add water as needed to equal 11 cups. Return broth to pot and season with extra sugar and salt (broth should taste overseasoned). Cover and keep warm over low heat.
- While broth simmers, place steak on large plate and freeze until very firm, 35 to 45 minutes. Once firm, cut against grain into ⅛-inch-thick slices. Return steak to plate and refrigerate until needed.
- Place noodles in large container and cover with hot tap water. Soak until noodles are pliable, 10 to 15 minutes; drain noodles. Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot. Add drained noodles and cook until almost tender, 30 to 60 seconds. Drain immediately and divide noodles among individual bowls.
- Bring broth to rolling boil over high heat. Divide steak among individual bowls, shingling slices on top of noodles. Pile reserved onion slices on top of steak slices and sprinkle with cilantro and scallions, if using. Ladle hot broth into each bowl. Serve immediately, passing bean sprouts, basil sprigs, lime wedges, hoisin, Sriracha, and extra fish sauce separately.
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