Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Pressure Cooker Pho

Election Night Pho

Beef broth is something I've never ever made from scratch... tracking down marrow bones, beef shanks, and/or oxtails has always seemed intimidating and kind of a hassle. Something I don't think experienced cooks truly appreciate is how confusing the meat counter can be to a novice... you don't necessarily know that two different names refer to the exact same thing, or what other random cut might substitute for something you can't find. It can be really frustrating! There were countless times early on where I came back from the store empty handed simply because I didn't know the lingo. This is why it's nice to go to an actual butcher instead of a grocery store that is just rows of meat wrapped in cellophane with nobody in sight to ask questions. You won't save any money shopping at Whole Foods or a local fancy butcher, but you'll have a much better experience and hopefully pick up some ethically sourced meat in the process... and asking a butcher is probably what you are going to have to do to make this recipe. The primary ingredient in pho and/or beef stock is beef shanks (or shins - same thing) which are not something I see sitting out at the average grocery store... indeed, my local butcher didn't even carry them (though he could get them with a couple of days notice)... but I lucked out seeing them at Whole Foods.

Beef Shank (with bones), Brisket, and Chuck

Unfortunately, that means if you are paying Whole Foods prices then this recipe is not particularly cheap... $6 to $7 a pound was what I paid for my beef shanks (if I remember correctly)... which, if you live near a good Vietnamese restaurant, may make you question whether all this effort and money is really necessary when you can just get a big bowl of pho for a price only a little north of one of those pounds of beef shin? Well, if that's the way you think then what are you doing reading a cooking blog? Shouldn't it all be about the joy of cooking? Jeez!

In fact, I do think it's a pretty legit criticism and in the future I'd like to sub in (much cheaper) marrow bones for some of the shanks. The economics of this dish are still pretty favorable though, as even if I round up the prices of the 5 lbs of beef shank, 1 lb of chuck, and 1 lb of brisket involved here it's still going to be about $40 for 4 quarts of stock which is going to provide somewhere on the order of 6-8 bowls of pho. Given that I ended up thinking that those 7 lbs of meat and bones gave me waaaaay more meat than I needed (I saved some of it for sandwiches even), I did not even bother with any additional flank steak (traditionally it is sliced very very thinly and added raw to the hot broth when served so it is rare by the time you eat it). The broth is amazingly good, which I imagine is in large part due to the quantity of beef involved, but I'm thinking I could cut it back and still do well... which is what suggests to me subbing in a couple of pounds of marrow bones. I'll try that next time and hopefully be able to update this recipe.

Note that as mentioned above you can freely sub in oxtails for some portion of the beef shanks, but they are even pricier than the shin and sometimes even harder to find... a very popular cut of meat these days it seems... lot's of "Oh yeah we carry them, but we're all out right now." Your local situation may be completely different, however, so if oxtails are easy to get then by all means get them. This is why I say it's nice to be able to talk to a butcher and ask questions.

Broiler Charred Onions and Ginger

The key for me in this recipe was getting the traditional flavors of pho, but to avoid six hours of simmering. So I adapted Kenji's recipe at Serious Eats and this one from DadCooksDinner to get what I wanted. They are fairly similar recipes with the key differences being that 1) Kenji has you char your onions and ginger which is more traditional, and 2) the guy at DadCooksDinner uses a pressure cooker to get his broth done in about an hour or two instead of 6. Kenji also introduces a quick boil of the meat/bones with a subsequent water dump to get rid of the gunk and improve the clarity of the stock... which sounded like a really good idea. Pressure cookers are supposed to make clearer stock than normal, but how could it hurt to be extra careful?

Quick Boil to get rid of Scum

It adds another 20-25 minutes of work to the beginning of the recipe, but you have to char the onions and ginger anyway, so it's not too significant of a burden.

Another important consideration is what to do if you don't have a gigantic 12 quart pressure cooker (mine is 8 quarts), as it's going to be pretty tight in there with all that meat. You definitely want to err on the side of caution (I was almost certainly pushing it) and not go past 2/3 full or whatever your instruction manual says... your stock will just be more concentrated and can easily diluted to the target of 4 quarts afterwards.

Pressure Cooker Pho


Pho Broth

  • 2 large onions, split in half
  • 6" piece of ginger, split in half lengthwise
  • 5 pounds beef shin/shank, with meat attached
  • 1 pound boneless beef chuck
  • 1 pound beef brisket
  • 3 whole star anise pods
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 4 cloves
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce, plus more to taste
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • Kosher salt


  • pho noodles and/or vermicelli (aka rice stick) -  both are sold in packages with multiple servings
  • basil
  • bean sprouts
  • sliced scallions
  • sliced chiles (Thai or serrano)
  • limes, cut into wedges
  • raw flank steak, thinly sliced (optional)


  1. Preheat broiler and place onion halves and split ginger on a foil lined broiler pan. Broil 3-4" from heating element, turning occasionally, until nicely charred - about 25 minutes. 
  2. While the onions and ginger are broiling, cover the shanks, brisket, and chuck with water in your pressure cooker and bring to a boil. Dump the water in the sink and rinse the parts with cold water.  
  3. Cover the meat with water again (but don't fill your pressure cooker past 2/3rds full!) and add the onions, ginger, star anise, cinnamon, fennel seeds, cloves, coriander seeds, fish sauce, sugar, and 1 tablespoon salt.
  4. Put on the pressure cooker lid, bring it up to high pressure, and then lower the heat to maintain the pressure. Cook at high pressure for 50 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and allow the pressure to release naturally (20 minutes or more).
  5. Strain broth through a fine mesh strainer. Pick meat from beef shins then discard bones and aromatics. The target is 4 quarts broth, so dilute with water or reduce as necessary to reach 4 quarts.
  6. Slice or chop up the mean, skim fat from broth, and season with salt, sugar, and fish sauce.
  7. To serve, place rehydrated noodles (follow package directions) in a bowl and ladle soup over bowls. Allow guests to add their own selection of cooked meat and condiments.

After 45 Minutes in the Pressure Cooker
The broth came out with both great flavor and clarity, so I was quite pleased. Kudos to both Kenji and DadCooksDinner for writing such great recipes.

Instead of skimming fat I cooled the broth in the fridge and then spooned off the congealed fat on top the next day. I made bowls of pho throughout the week by heating up the broth and some of the meat together in a small saucepan. If you are thinking more long term you could also freeze the broth in individual servings (2-3 cups based on how big your bowls are).

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