Phở Q&A with Chef Andrea Nguyễn

Chef Andrea Nguyễn (Photo: Common Thread Creative/Genevieve Pierson)

Chef Andrea Nguyễn (Photo: Common Thread Creative/Genevieve Pierson)

Published May 24, 2017

Vietnamese are very critical with their phở broth because it's the ultimate preference for comfort food: It is warm, hearty and deliciously refreshing. The best part is, you can eat phở for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As a phở fanatic, I've noticed that you cannot expect two bowls of phở made in two separate kitchens to ever taste the same. There are many recipes of phở and everyone claims to make “the best phở." 

What do you think is the secret to making the best or most delicious phở?

Andrea Nguyễn: I always wonder about people who claim their recipe is the “best” because who is the judge of that? Unless you’re making phở on an industrial level in a factory, phở varies from batch to batch, just like any other food.

As a professional home cook, I focus on my personal bests. For good phở, that requires practice. It’s boring sounding but good cooking requires practice. It’s like exercise – you have to keep at it to be in the game. When you cook, you’re in tune with your ingredients and the process. You can finesse and perfect things much better.

What beef bones are best for a savory broth? Is pressure-cooking or simmering better, for a more flavorful phở?

Andrea Nguyễn: Marrow bones are great but blending bones is awesome too. Marrow bones have gotten very pricey these days due to people who enjoy making broth. I’m not one to use oxtail because it mutes the flavors of phở too much. Good phở dances with subtleties.

I love an old-fashioned stockpot-simmered phở. The flavors are spot-on and I love to observe the transformation of ingredients. On the other hand, pressure cooker phở is faster to make. It lacks the subtle qualities of a stockpot version but you can make phở in about 1 1/2 hours.

For the health conscious phở lovers, is it possible to make healthy phở?Is there a substitute for bánh phở that is more nutritious?

Andrea Nguyễn: Brown rice phở noodles are on the market. Annie Chun brand sold at the supermarket is alright. Or, you can use zucchini noodles (zoodles) instead of rice noodles. Or, just have phở less noodles or without noodles.

How do you count calories for a bowl of phở?

Andrea Nguyễn: I don’t count the calories. phở is broth, noodles and boiled meat. If you’re concerned about calories, enjoy a smaller portion. As a nurse once told me, “It’s not what you do once in while but what you do every day that impacts your health.”

Can you make phở with the same taste but less sodium, sugar, and calories - say for those who have diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol?

Andrea Nguyễn: I would use smaller portions of everything in the bowl. In The Pho Cookbook, I offer options for not using sugar in the broth, as well as tips for using less salt. You can’t have good phở without salt because that is what helps to create a đậm đà (boldly flavored) experience.

How do you feel about premixed phở -- that is, the powder spice mixes or bouillon?

Andrea Nguyễn: Why let someone else determine the flavor of your phở? There was a time when I bought a bunch of Oh Ricey instant phở packets. They contain MSG, very little noodles (great for the dieting eater) and some strange packets of fat (I threw that away). After eating them for a while, they tasted the same to me. If you make phở yourself, you can build a phở bank in your fridge and freezer! I gift my mom frozen phở: broth, cooked meat from the broth, and meatballs. She recently told me that to celebrate my dad’s positive visit to his cardiologist, she broke out my beef phở and whipped up a couple of bowls for them.

Why do people add rock sugar to their broth, phở broth, any broth? Is there a healthier substitute for rock sugar? Or is it needed at all?

Andrea Nguyễn: Rock sugar is not a bad thing. It’s a semi-unrefined sugar that helps to round out the flavors of many noodle soup broths. What’s bad is when too much rock sugar is used in a broth. You’re eating a savory dish, not dessert. In The Pho Cookbook, I have work arounds such as Fuji apple and maple syrup for people who want unrefined or fruit-based sweeteners.

Lastly, Vietnamese cooks have a lot of tricks up their sleeves, how do you like to make your phở delicious?

Andrea Nguyễn: My approach is to keep things straightforward and true. Before leaping into making phở yourself, consider the following:

1. Start with good beef bones:

Avoid neck bones. Look for knuckle bones and leg bones that contain marrow. At Asian markets, you'll find beef bones cut and bagged in the refrigerated section. Vietnamese markets will sometimes have the leg bones at the butcher counter. You can specify how you want them sawed; ask for two- to three-inch sections.

If you have to buy a little more than what the recipe calls for, lucky you! Your broth will be extra beefy. Miko in Seattle said that his bones were on the biggish side but he bought more than what was called for. I suggested that he thrown them all in for a more intense broth. There was more fat than usual, but Miko refrigerated the broth and lifted the congealed fat off.

From eating phở in Việt Nam and observing how the cows there live low-key lives grazing in the countryside, I was inspired to make phở broth from the fragrant bones of grass-fed and natural beef. The experiments have consistently yielded amazing results, with the essence of beef captured every time. To find the bones, ask a butcher who breaks down large beef carcass sections into small retail cuts.

2. Aim for a clear broth:

This is achieved by parboiling and rinsing the bones, which greatly reduces the amount of residue in the broth. You may think you're pouring essential flavors down the drain, but you're not. The bones exude their essence during the three-hour gentle simmer. Cooking at a low heat also helps produce clear broth.

3. Char the onion and ginger:

It imparts a wonderful brown color and deepens the overall flavors. DO NOT skip this step.

4. Don't dilute.

Why simmer broth for hours to create an intense flavor and then dilute it with water? I never got that approach. As my friend Linda Carucci points out in her helpful book, Cooking School Secrets for Real-World Cooks, bones give up their all after about three hours of simmering. Unless you're simmering industrial quantities of bones (then you don't need my help), there's no need to simmer the broth for half a day. The only time that'd you need dilute the broth is if you added too much fish sauce or salt and need to correct the seasoning.

5. Leave some fat:

Despite all the talk about obesity in the United States, I like some shiny globules of fat floating in the broth. They lend a richness that underscores phở's beefiness.

6. Serve it hot:

To cook the raw beef and warm the cooked beef and noodles, the broth must be boiling when it's ladled into the bowl. But hot phở shouldn't be left to sit in the bowl. The noodles will absorb too much broth.

7. Freeze it!

Leftover broth and cooked meats may be frozen for a treat on another day.

To order Andrea Nguyễn's The Pho Cookbook, click here.