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Several of my associates and I consider ourselves phở connoisseurs, of a sort, and one thing we've noticed is the drastic variation in the quality of the broth served at various establishments.

The best takes on it - in terms of my own tasting experience and the comments I'm used to hearing/seeing from friends/reviewers - seem to have a few things in common:

  1. A potent, but not completely overwhelming, beefy flavour. The broth needs to be flavourful enough to eat on its own, but the taste of the noodles as well as any post-serving accompaniments (scallions, basil, etc.) should still be detectable.

  2. An absence, or at least a minimum, of grease or "scum" forming on the top. If it's visible, it's way too greasy, but even an invisible amount can still noticeably (adversely) affect the mouth-feel.

  3. A pronounced tan or even slightly reddish hue; translucent is normal, transparent is a red flag.

Now I am aware that a certain amount of this is going to be affected by the ingredients and proportions, and I think I'm already doing the right things in that area (knuckle and leg bones with about 20% marrow, a generous amount of 1:5 flank:oxtail) but I am convinced that my inability to achieve this perfection in-home is influenced in large part by the chronology.

I've read a lot of recipes and they are all wildly divergent on their timings; if possible, I'd like to understand more about the significance of each stage and subsequently how long the unfinished broth should be left in that stage.

The basic order always seems to be similar:

  1. Bones in cold water ("soak") - in about 10-20% of recipes, anywhere from 2 hours to overnight
  2. Bones in boiling water (pre-clean)
  3. Bones in simmering water (post-clean), with fat-skimming
  4. Bones and meat
  5. Bones, meat, and spices (sometimes spices are added before meat)
  6. Bones, meat, spices, and vegetables
  7. Bones, spices, and vegetables (meat removed/reserved - only in some recipes)
  8. Strained with fish sauce and (sometimes) sugar added
  9. Same, with cooked noodles added
  10. Ready to serve - raw/rare meat and garnishes added

What can be said about the length of time that the broth spends in each of these stages? How important is each one, and what effect can it have if the timing is off - either too long or too short?

(For example, when making a traditional French or North American stock, it's important not to let the mirepoix sit in there too long, because most of the volatiles are extracted within an hour and afterward you're just churning in starches and mush. And when simmering just the chicken bones, most of the gelatin has been rendered within about 8-12 hours for an 8 quart pot. I'm sure that there are similar guidelines and rules of thumb for phở, but I have no idea what they are.)

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Note: This is posted in the spirit of soup week. Please participate with your own questions. :) –  Aaronut Feb 1 '12 at 1:53
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+1 for Pho. Pho broth = liquid happiness. –  Jay Feb 1 '12 at 1:59
    
@Aaronut A quick trip to Vietnam is in order :-) Like most Asian cooking there are vast differences in recipes, by region, or by your mother. Fatty Pho (fried rendered fat) is popular too, but probably just for the manual labourers. Have seen knobs of butter floated on Pho just before serving :-/ –  TFD Feb 1 '12 at 4:02
    
@TFD: I've seen all of that too (except for the butter thing). But here I am talking specifically about the classic Phở Tái or Phở Đuôi Bò & Tái (and generally the Saigon style). There are all sorts of funky ingredients you can see in it (some are even made from chicken), but this is generally the first item on the Pho menu in any Vietnamese restaurant. ;) –  Aaronut Feb 1 '12 at 13:33

2 Answers 2

This is not the answer you are directly looking for, but may be the trick

Some local Phở brewers soak the onion skins in alcohol (rice cooking wine) to extract a stock flavouring (I suspect this is Quercetin?). The resulting dark liquor is added to the broth when the meat is added

This certainly kicks up the broth flavour, a bit like MSG does in Chinese cooking (sort of)

Worth a try...

I don't think there is a magic order or timing to making Phở, as long as the flavours are extracted, and not destroyed, it comes out OK

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+1 as I've never thought of chemically extracting onion flavor with liquor. –  Nathan C. Tresch Apr 29 '12 at 5:44

Like @TFD, this answer isn't directly what you're asking, but I've found that using these techniques has lifted my Pho broth to restaurant quality. Put all of the bones in a roasting pan and cook them at 500 degrees until your fire alarm goes off or the bones crack. Okay, so, just do it for 4-5 hours, and drain the grease every 15 minutes or you really will set off your alarm. I'm almost certain that's what you're missing, since you don't note it in your steps and it allows a great deal more flavor to come out in the boiling process. This step will also dramatically reduce the oil and scum that comes out into your product so the finished broth will be lighter and cleaner feeling on the pallet.

Another tip is to use both leeks and onions, and to caramelize the onions and leeks before adding them to the boil. This step brings way more sugar to the surface of the veg and that sugar will impart way more flavor to your broth. Definitely do not add sugar when doing this as this renders extra sugar completely unnecessary, and even unwanted: Refined sugar imparts a sweetness that is, in my opinion, cloying on the pallet. That is to say, sweetness from refined sugar is harder to wash off my pallet than sugar brought out through caramelization. It also tends to overpower the unrefined sugars present in the onions already.

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