By Lili Tu
Making good stock takes time and effort. There is no shortcut because the flavourful broth is the key for pho – Vietnamese beef noodle soup. However, making an awesome bowl of pho is not rocket science, it’s easily achievable. And once you start making pho yourself, the follow tips will help perfect your recipe to your own taste.
There is a range of bones that can be used for stock. Oxtails have the deepest flavour of all, while marrowbones add a distinctive beefy aroma to stock. The meat in beef spare ribs and neck bones could make the stock cloudy if simmering too vigorously but again they add a special layer of sweetness to it.
Personally, I found the combination of them gives the best flavour for the stock. You can use any combination to create intense or lighter broth.
Cooking at a low heat and skimming to remove the scum that forms on the surface helps produce clear broth. However, in order to skip babysitting your stock in long hours, the cleaning and blanching the bones at the start are very important.
Soak the bones in salt water for 30 minutes then blanch the bones in boiling water for 3-5 minutes, until the liquid come back to the boiling point. After that rinse them thoroughly with cold water. This will help achieve clear stock that free of impurities. Don’t worry that you are pouring the essential flavor down the drain; the bones only release their full flavour after hours of simmering.
You will still need to skim the scum that forms on the surface when the stock first reaches it a boiling point after fresh water and spice were added. Then you can lower the heat so the stock is at a gentle simmer. After this point, you can leave the pot bubbling away on the stove.
Fat in broth
You’ll probably find a lot of fat in the stock, much more than you wish. That layer of fat is essential to seal the temperature of the liquid. It acts like another lid for your pot. So only get rid of them when the stock is fully cooked.
Turn the heat up bring the stock to the almost boiling point, the fat layer will come to the top so you can get the fat out using the ladle or the Japanese fine mesh skimmer.
If you are not in the rush, place the pot in a cool place overnight or refrigerated the broth and lifted the congealed fat off the next day. This is the most effective method.
In the shop when they only have one pot of stock for both chicken and beef pho, balance the intense beefy flavour in the stock is important. Boiler chicken, chicken carcasses or chicken wings could be added in. Many Vietnamese home cooks also add in boiler chicken to beef pho stock to lighten it up and create their own blend of flavour.
Root vegetables, such as daikon, have mild flavour can be added for extra sweetness to the stock. Don’t use the normal western combination of onions, leeks, garlic, celery and carrots as they could overpower the aroma of the spices in pho.
Brown onion, Asian shallots, and ginger, however, is a must and need to be chargrilled to colour and deepen the flavour of the stock in overall.
You could see that many stocks for noodle soup in Vietnam have dry squids or prawn to enhance flavour. However, for pho there’s only one secret seafood ingredient can be used: dried sea worm – called sá sùng in Vietnamese. They don’t have any aroma but add special deep flavour to the stock, similar to the taste of dashi. You only find this secret ingredient from the Northern region of Vietnam though.
I tried to add dashi to my pho broth and loved the umami element the dashi. It’s all natural flavour and replaces the essential of msg in pho. The only caution: don’t overuse it as you could pick up the smoky flavor of katsuobushi (shaved dried bonito).
I also find that msg is not needed when you make pho at home. Try to find the best fish sauce you can get, it will bring your pho stock to a new level.