Pho is a truly transcendent magical experience wrapped up in a simple bowl of beef noodle soup. It’s crazy to think that such a simple looking, yet deeply beefy and fragrantly spiced soup may be one of the greatest inventions in human culinary history.
Being Vietnamese, I think pho is unquestionably Vietnam’s greatest contribution to the world. The only question is if you can get a great bowl or not, because not everywhere has great pho. With this recipe though, it won’t matter, because you can make the best pho you’ve ever had from scratch right in your own kitchen. I bet you will even like it better than your local pho spot!
What is pho?
If you’ve somehow never tried pho, you’re in for a treat: It’s a cozy, deeply beefy, aggressively spiced soup that somehow manages to be light, fresh, and bright at the same time. It’s justly celebrated around the world because it’s the perfect mix of deliciousness and unpretentiousness.
The simple-seeming combination of soft and tender rare steak, melt in your mouth brisket, bouncy rice noodles, and that magical soup comes together to rival anything that’s ever come out of a Michelin starred restaurant, and I truly believe most any chef will readily agree with me on this.
If you want to know everything about pho, you can read this 3000 word ode to pho. It’s probably better to just read on and jump into the easiest, best, pho recipe you’ve ever tried, though.
Why this pho recipe?
I’ve been making pho for 20 years, and I’ve been eating it for way longer than that. I like to joke that I’ve been eating pho longer than I’ve been alive, because I even had pho through my mom, while I was in her tummy. Pho runs deep in my veins.
This is the best pho recipe I’ve developed over those last 20 years of making pho from scratch. It’s had 20 years of refinement, so everything it asks you to do has a purpose or a reason, and nothing is fluff.
It includes all the little tips and tricks I’ve picked along the way that you won’t find elsewhere (at least not all in one place), things like throwing your spices in at the end to preserve their subtle flavor, drying out your rice noodles so they soak up extra flavor, and separating out the process over two days for ultimate tastiness and relaxation.
I hope it’ll be the best pho you’ve ever had.
The best pho takes two days to make
Did I just say two days? Yes, because what this recipe isn’t, is fast. Technically you could make this exact pho in 6 hours. or even 45 minutes if you use an instant pot, but for best results, I recommend spending the full two days on it, because the two day process allows you to:
- Control the fat content. Fat is good but not everyone wants it. I use a trick from Ivan Ramen to strain and solidify the fat into a perfect little cube and only serve it to people who want it.
- Build a prettier bowl. When you slice hot slow cooked brisket, you end up with tattered crumbs. If you refrigerate the brisket first though, you can make clean, perfect slices.
- Relax and enjoy. Because you won’t have to rush to get dinner done on time. If you tried making pho all one day, especially if its your first time, you might find it’s more work than enjoyable. Splitting up the work eases the workload. On day 2, everything is prepared for you and you can concentrate on getting bowls out hot and perfect. This reason is the most important one. No one should wait 6 hours to eat.
How to make pho
- Day 1 – Make the soup. It takes 5.5 hours on the stove or in a crockpot and your house will smell cozy and delicious, or, if you prefer something a little faster (and maybe slightly less tasty), it takes 45 minutes in an instant pot. Once your pho soup is done, transfer the brisket to the fridge, then discard the aromatics and strain the soup into a separate container which also goes in the fridge. The meat on the oxtail will fall right off the bone – enjoy it as a chef’s treat, or just order a pizza and relax.
- Day 2 (Morning) – Your soup has probably now solidified into a jelly with little dots of fat on top. Remove the fat and melt it down over low heat in a small pot, then strain it into a small container and refrigerate. Rinse/slice the toppings, wrap them up, and throw them in the fridge too.
- Day 2 (Before you want to eat) – Half an hour to an hour before you want to eat, reheat the pho soup and season it to taste. We season just before eating because tastes change through the day, but also so that your whole house doesn’t need to smell like fish sauce. Make the noodles and let them dry out. Neatly slice your cold brisket and drop the slices in the soup to reheat. Thinly slice your steak if you didn’t buy it presliced. Then just build your bowls, adding the fat back in if desired, and go to town.
Oxtail makes the best pho soup
Over the years I’ve tried everything that can make a good soup, and when I want to go all out, I splurge on oxtail. It has the perfect combination of collagen for body, fat for taste, and of course, beefiness for beefiness. It’s a little on the expensive side these days but totally, 100% worth it.
When we live in the desert and it’s hard to get oxtail, the next candidates on my list would be beef shank, beef ribs, then finally marrow/soup bones. But oxtail is by far the best option for the best pho soup.
How to make pho soup
- Blanch the oxtails. Rapidly boil the bones for 5 minutes to clear out any impurities that might be there. Tip: I like to use a small pot to blanch the meat faster while heating up my 8 cups of water in a larger pot simultaneously. That way, I can just use tongs to transfer the bones from the small pot to the big pot without a lot of effort, and it saves time because you’re heating up both pots at the same time, and also because then you don’t need to wash a giant pot; the little one just goes in the dishwasher.
- Char the onions and ginger. I use a blowtorch exclusively for this. You can char them in a pan on the stove or under the oven broiler, but a good blowtorch is a super essential kitchen tool that’s not very expensive, and bonus, you can make creme brulee.
- Simmer the oxtails, onions, and ginger as low as possible for 3.5 hours. I’ve tried this at 3 hours and 4 hours, and 3.5 hours is the right amount of time. You’re looking for something super low, like 1 bubble every 30 seconds low. Preferably put a slightly ajar lid on it. Check back at the 1.5 hour mark to make sure you have at least enough water to cover the bones.
- Char the other spices. This is an optional step that I always do. You don’t need a lot of time, just a brief kiss with the blowtorch. If you don’t have a blowtorch, toast the spices over low heat until they become fragrant.
- Drop the brisket and spices in at the 3.5 hour mark and continue simmering for another 2 hours. Tip: do you prefer your brisket to be on the fall-apart-ier side? Just drop it in right at the start. You’ll end up with a less flavorful brisket, but that’s easily fixed with a hoisin/sriracha dip.
- And you’re done. You’ll need to season it with fish sauce, salt, and sugar, but I save that for the second day.
Stovetop vs Crockpot vs Instant Pot
- Can you make this with a crockpot? Yes! You can do everything in a crockpot if you skip the blanching step since you’re straining it at the end anyway. Skip the blanching step and do everything else in a crockpot on high/low (as appropriate) and you’ll have the best crockpot pho ever.
- What about the instant pot? Also yes! The instant pot is one of my preferred ways to make pho when I want something simple, although, full disclosure: it’s not as good as the stovetop/crockpot version. Since the instant pot is about speed, you can just drop everything on high pressure for 40 minutes, and you’ll have some amazing (and amazingly fast) pho.
Ingredients for pho
While pho is easy to make, technique-wise, it can be a little daunting to gather all the ingredients. If it’s your first time, the spices can even seem a little much, but the spices are good for many, many bowls of pho, as well as many other awesome dishes.
- Oxtail. This is the key to the most amazing pho. It used to be super cheap back in the day. As it became more popular in recent years, it’s also gotten more expensive, but it’s 100% worth it. After you’re done making the pho soup, the meat falls right off the bone. I don’t usually include it in the pho because it’s not as aesthetically clean as all the sliced meats, but if you wanted to, you totally could. Tip: Have it with a little Thai chili crushed into some soy sauce as a reward for all that work you did.
- Brisket. If you want your brisket to be 100% fall apart in your mouth, cook it for 4 or even the whole 5.5 hours. Personally, i like mine to have a little body (the rare steak provides the softness anyway) so I only cook it for 2 hours, which both gives it structure and leaves most of the taste where it belongs, in the brisket. Tip: You probably don’t need a large brisket – the recipe calls for just 1/4lb per person – so if a large brisket is all you can find, switch it out for an equally as traditional flank steak.
- Sirloin. this is the traditional rare steak that is the basis of pho tai, the default (and amazing) pho bowl you get everywhere. It’s a tender fall-apart melt-in-your-month affair that’s raw when it comes to you on the table, both to show off the quality of the meat and to let you finish the cooking so that its as perfect as possible. Tip: If the thought of serving raw steak to your diners (or yourself) turns you off, cook it in the soup on the stove for 5 seconds or so, then serve it on a separate dish so it doesn’t overcook in the hot pho soup. Ask your butcher to slice this, or buy hot-pot ready meats.
- Spices & Aromatics. In order of importance, my pho spice mix is: star anise, cinnamon, cloves, coriander seeds, white (or black) peppercorns, cardamom, fennel, and cumin. You’ll also need onion and ginger. Tip: Look for Mexican or Indian spices in their respective aisles, they’ll usually be the same or better quality for 1/5 the price.
- Toppings. Toppings take a great noodle soup to the next level. For pho, we use lime wedges for brightness, fresh or blanched bean sprouts fior earthiness, fresh cilantro, sliced onions, fresh Thai basil, and jalapenos or thai chilis if you like spice. Tip: Know your audience. For me, the only absolute must are the onions and lime. Many days, I get lazy and skip the rest, which are nice to have, very pretty, but ultimately not needed and just languish in the fridge until they go bad (again, for me).
Pho noodles: dried or fresh?
Pho isn’t pho without rice noodles. As with almost all noodles, fresh pho noodles are best, but the dried stuff works too. Sometimes the noodles will be called rice stick or Thai rice stick noodles. For me, medium thickness is best.
Unlike with ramen or other noodle-intensive dishes, the rice noodles are super forgiving. In fact, it’s better if you make them in advance. Briefly blanch the noodles about halfway to your desired softness, then drain and rinse them in cold water and let them dry out while you do other things.
Letting the noodles sit and dry out seems counterintuitive since you just cooked them, but it’s the secret to flavorful noodles as they absorb the pho soup as they rehydrate.
Pho: the stress free way
If you’ve never served multiple bowls of noodle soup simultaneously before, it can be a little complicated, but this guide which was developed over many years of long experience, screw ups, and cold bowls can help you get all four bowls done at exactly the same time and temperature, with the least amount of stress or fuss possible:
- First you need good deep bowls that can fit at least 3 cups of soup.
- Heat your bowls by filling them with hot tap water for 5 minutes, then drain just before your noodles are done cooking. Heating up your bowls ensures that the soup absorbs the heat of the bowl, instead of the bowls sucking out the warmth of the soup instead.
- Boil a pot of water for the noodles. In another pot over very low heat, warm up your pho soup .
- Cook your noodles half way or so, then rinse them in cold water and drain. Divide evenly into each bowl.
- Prep the toppings: rinse and dry the bean sprouts, thai basil, and cilantro. Slice the onions and limes and plate everything. Put the bottles of sriracha and hoisin sauce on table.
- Slice your meats. The brisket should be 1/8” thick or so. Throw it in with the pho soup once it’s been sliced to warm it up. Slice the steak if you didn’t get that done for you at the shop, then divide both the steak and brisket evenly between each bowl.
- Once everyone is ready to eat, ladle the now piping hot soup over the raw beef in each bowl, then deliver to the tables.
- Eat as soon as possible, as loudly as possible, with as many toppings as possible.
I hope you enjoy!
An intensely cozy and beefy beef noodle soup.
- 1 lb oxtail
- 1/2 medium onion charred
- 2 oz ginger halved lengthwise and charred, about 3″
- 8 cups water
Pho Spice Mix
- 5 star anise
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1/2 tsp cloves
- 1/2 tsp coriander seeds
- 1/2 tsp peppercorns white preferred
- 5 cardamom pods
- 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
- 1/2 tsp whole cumin seeds
- 1 lb brisket
- 1 lb sirloin thinly sliced
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 2 tbsp sugar or to taste
- 1-3 tsp sea salt or to taste
- 4 portions fresh pho noodles or dried
Toppings for Pho
- 4 lime wedges
- 1 cup bean sprouts raw or blanched
- 4 springs Thai Basil
- 4 springs cilantro
- 1/2 medium onion thinly sliced
Skim the solidified fat from the pho soup with a fork and melt over low heat, then strain and refrigerate in a new small container. Prepare pho toppings as needed, cover and refrigerate.
When you are ready to serve
See post for more detailed 2 day, instant pot, and crockpot instructions.
Amount Per Serving
Calories from Fat 350
% Daily Value*
Saturated Fat 14.2g89%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.