Cook the Book: Phở

Cook the Book: Ph\u1edf

"This phở might not be quite as nuanced as the restaurant version but it's still entirely satisfying."

[Photograph: Caroline Russock]

Some people go straight for the chicken noodle when they are sick, but when I feel under-the-weather, only one soup inevitably makes me feel better. No matter how bad I'm feeling I can usually manage to get myself to the nearest Vietnamese restaurant, if only to get my phở to-go. It's the ideal mix of savory, herbal, spicy, and hearty, and never fails to improve whatever is ailing me.

Aside from being my go-to cure-all, phở is the ultimate customizable soup—broth and rice noodles are a given but the rest of the dish is entirely up to you.

Choose your cuts of meat, meatballs, or a selection of offal, and then when your bowl arrives, you can customize it even further with basil, bean sprouts, cilantro, limes, chiles, chili sauce, plum sauce, vinegar—really the possibilities are endless.

But for all of my phở enjoyment, I've never ventured to make it at home. The complexity of the broth paired with my total lack of Vietnamese cooking skills landed this soup pretty low on my priorities list.

Thankfully this week's Cook the Book selection, The Best Soups in the World by Clifford A. Wright included a recipe for a homemade version of phở.

The recipe confirmed my feelings: the majority of the work is making the broth. After reading Wright's instructions, I realized this broth wasn't all that different from making any other stock: meaty bones and aromatic vegetables and spices, simmered long and low. In other words, something that I could handle.

I made a pilgrimage to my nearest Asian market and returned home with pounds of beef soup bones and chicken wings. I dusted off the old lobster pot—it was the only one that could handle all of the ingredients—and began my phở broth.

The process was easy: onions browned and then removed, meat and water added and boiled, then the rest of the aromatics go in, skimmed occasionally and simmered for six hours. By the time the broth was finished it was incredibly phở-like—the cinnamon and anise came through beautifully and the stock was insanely meaty.

The next day I took off the layer of fat and set about assembling the rest of the phở ingredients. I got my hands on lovely basil, bean sprouts, and some shabu-shabu beef.

With the noodles soaked and the broth boiling, I set out all of the phở garnishes and tucked in. The broth was wonderful: warm and spiced with the perfect slick of fat on top and hot enough to cook but not overcook the meat. Along with all of the accompaniments this was a pretty great home approximation of phở.

Next time I might go heavier on the beef bones and lighter on the chicken, and be a bit more generous with the salt, but I was quite happy with the results. This phở might not be quite as nuanced as the restaurant version but it's still entirely satisfying. On a cold winter night it was an absolute joy to eat.

  • Yield:8


  • For the Broth
  • 1 tablespoon peanut oil
  • 2 large onions, cut into 1/4-inch slices
  • 2 1/2 pounds meaty beef soup bones
  • 2 1/2 pounds cooked chicken carcass or chicken wings, backbone, and/or feet
  • 5 quarts water
  • 2 carrots, peeled and julienned
  • 4 slices fresh ginger, peeled and julienned
  • 1 small cinnamon stick
  • Seeds from 5 pods cardamom, lightly crushed
  • 2 star anise
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 2 whole garlic cloves, crushed with their peel left on
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • For the Soup
  • 1/2 pound beef sirloin, sliced very thin across the grain in bite-size pieces
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large onion, sliced as thin as paper
  • 2 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
  • 2 cups (1/2 pound) fresh bean sprouts
  • 6 tablespoons chopped cilantro (fresh coriander) leaves
  • 4 fresh red or green serrano chiles, seeded and sliced in rings or julienned
  • 2 limes, quartered
  • 6 to 8 ounces rice sticks (thin rice noodles), soaked in hot water for 30 minutes, drained
  • 1/4 cup Vietnamese or Thai (nuoc mam or nam pla) fish sauce or more to taste


  1. 1.

    The day before you plan to serve the soup, in a large stockpot, heat the peanut oil over high heat, then add the sliced onions and cook until browned on the edges, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the onions and set aside.

  2. 2.

    Place the beef and chicken pieces in the stockpot and cover with the water. Bring to a near boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, skimming the surface foam, for 15 minutes. Add the reserved cooked onion slices and the carrots, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, cloves, garlic, and peppercorns. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce to low and simmer, partially covered, for 6 hours, skimming the surface of foam when needed. Strain the stock through a strainer into a large bowl. Strain again through a cheesecloth-lined strainer back into the cleaned stockpot or bowl. Refrigerate overnight or until the layer of fat forms on top, then remove and discard the fat. You will use 12 cups of broth. (The broth can be frozen at this point if you wish.)

  3. 3.

    When you are ready to serve, attractively arrange the sliced beef sirloin, seasoned with salt and pepper, on a platter and garnish the platter with the paper-thin-sliced onion and scallions. On another platter or plate, attractively arrange the bean sprouts, cilantro, chiles, and limes.

  4. 4.

    Thirty minutes before you want to serve the soup, bring a pot of water to a boil over high heat. Turn off the heat, then add the rice sticks and let sit for 30 minutes. Drain the rice noodles and place equal portions in each of the 8 soup bowls. Cover and keep warm.

  5. 5.

    Meanwhile, bring the beef broth to a boil over high heat and add the fish sauce and 1 teaspoon of black pepper; taste and add more broth if necessary. Pour the broth into a chafing dish or soup tureen and place over a portable warmer to keep hot in the center of the table for diners to serve themselves. Serve the soup, allowing each diner to add some beef and onion to a bowl. Ladle hot broth over the meat, stirring to cook the meat. Add the bean sprouts, cilantro, chiles, and a squeeze of lime to taste.