Instant Pot Bò Kho (Vietnamese Beef Stew)

updated Aug 17, 2023
Instant Pot Bò Kho Recipe (Vietnamese Beef Stew)

This warming beef stew is ultra fragrant thanks to lemongrass, star anise, ginger, and cinnamon.

Serves4

Prep25 minutes to 30 minutes

Cook1 hour 5 minutes

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Credit: Photo: Paola + Murray; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne

This recipe is part of Kitchn 100 — the hundred recipes you need right now. Check out all of the amazing dishes, from Kitchn and beyond, here.

There’s nothing colder than January in a town where you feel unwelcome. I tell you this from experience. The freeze is just as much metaphorical as it is physical. The packed snow, rimmed with gray-brown smog from speeding cars, crunches under your feet like eggshells, while the wind, brittle as a glare, cracks your skin apart. You would sell your soul for the warmth of a familiar hearth, the boisterous clamor of too many bodies packed into a tiny kitchen.

In the haze of postpartum decision-making (ill-advised in so many ways), our family of three moved from sweltering Texas to the Midwest near my husband’s family, where fall had just begun to turn the leaves crisp and golden. Halloween edged on the horizon, with speckled gourds and scarecrows peeking out from houses that sat on newly razed farmland. I pictured our baby, only three months old at the time, running in the town square one day, a white gazebo strung with fairy lights behind her. Picture-perfect.

But before long, the dream ballooned and popped, a stew bubbling over at fever pitch. In that town, we’d struggled through stilted conversations with other parents, many of whom did not make eye contact. Standing on our lawns, we stammered through interactions with neighbors that left us feeling oddly rejected. There were few people of color around. Everyone seemed to know everyone else and had little room for new friends.

Later, I wrote about how isolated I felt in this town, and readers emailed me with their own experiences. Although I never named the town, a few identified it right away. One person said, “I was so lonely there. I remember how my brother and I were the only people of color in our whole school.” I wouldn’t imagine that for my daughter. We left a year later, watching the town square recede behind us like a bad dream. 

Credit: Photo: Paola + Murray; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne

Longing for Vietnamese Beef Stew

But before all that, before the leaving and the accompanying swell of relief, I mostly hungered. There were no Vietnamese restaurants in this town and my longing welled up through my watering mouth, which never ceased to crave the tastes of my family kitchen.

I thought of our Sunday lunch traditions at my grandmother’s house — a relic from when we all still lived within blocks of each other in Florida. Everyone would bring a dish, but the main course was usually something easy to ladle out for a big group, like phở or, my favorite, bò kho — Vietnamese beef stew. We’d eat in the lanai (a term I rarely hear anymore), on oilcloth lightly stained with other meals, the portable fans blaring sweet relief in all that heat. Our fingers clutched around cold soda cans, an antidote to the warmth of the stew.

A Perfect Cool-Weather Dish

Bò kho has always been my favorite cool-weather dish. The hot broth, brown-orange like a fall wreath, is studded with flavors: woody briskness from the lemongrass, the pert aromas of anise and cinnamon, sweetness from the thick carrot chunks. And the beef itself, coaxed into melting tenderness from stewing, takes on a new kind of flavor. Greater than the sum of its parts. We ate our bò kho with hunks of baguette, softened in that spiced, rich broth. 

Later, when I went to college, my grandmother took my meal requests over the phone, weeks before I actually came home for the holidays. 

“Anything,” she said. “Anything at all, con.” 

Green mango salad,” I daydreamed. After too many dorm cafeteria meals and frozen pints of ice cream for dinner, I got good at daydreaming. “Mắm. Bò kho — a huge pot.”

We’d plan breakfast, lunch, and dinner, a running conversation that held the intensity of wedding preparations. My aunt, a baker in a past life, was in charge of desserts and snacks. We lamented that there was so little time to eat during my short trip. And then, when I arrived at my grandparents’ house, my relatives streamed in and out the whole weekend, feasting and laughing and criticizing, as we all do best.

The kitchen hung with steamy scents and cackling asides, everyone still invested in decades-old gossip, even kids like me who hadn’t been alive when it happened. When my husband met my folks for the first time, they studied him over bowls of bò kho. He polished his stew, then asked for seconds, ensuring his instant citizenship into the family fold.

Improvising Mom’s Beef Stew Recipe

Back in that cold town in the Midwest, I wanted my family’s beef stew more than anything else. I thought it would be healing. My mom, who had also felt the chill when she visited us, sent me her recipe. “So easy!” she declared.

Her version of easy wasn’t always the same as mine, but this really was low-effort, made even more so when I improvised her recipe for the Instant Pot. I ran to the next town over for lemongrass and sprang for the really good cut of meat, although we always made it with plain ol’ chuck growing up. It wasn’t exactly the same as the family recipe, but almost. My husband and I sighed into our soup bowls.

The Magic of Bò Kho

Later, we moved to another suburb, one that filled us with hope. Our neighbors dropped by with blueberry muffins and tips on the best playgrounds nearby. Their kids ran into our yard, calling for my daughter to play, even though she was years younger than all of them. One early fall day, as the temperatures started to drop and the sunsets took on a burnished hue, we invited some new friends over. It felt like a celebration, one worthy of bò kho. I served the beef stew over vermicelli noodles this time, little lime wedges spiralled in the center of a bunch of cilantro on a dish. 

“Oh my lord,” my friend sighed, rolling her eyes back. “This stew is magic.” 

I couldn’t agree more. Bò kho is simmered from the kind of magic that can bring a lost woman home. It’s warmth and familiarity, and an unexpected homecoming, the kind that has you opening your arms, inhaling deep in elemental gratitude. 

Instant Pot Bò Kho Recipe (Vietnamese Beef Stew)

This warming beef stew is ultra fragrant thanks to lemongrass, star anise, ginger, and cinnamon.

Prep time 25 minutes to 30 minutes

Cook time 1 hour 5 minutes

Serves 4

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds

    boneless beef chuck

  • 4

    medium carrots (10 to 12 ounces)

  • 1

    medium yellow onion

  • 1

    (about 8-inch) stalk lemongrass

  • 2 cloves

    garlic

  • 1

    (1-inch) piece ginger

  • 1 tablespoon

    vegetable oil

  • 2 tablespoons

    tomato paste

  • 1 tablespoon

    packed light brown sugar

  • 2

    whole star anise

  • 2

    dried bay leaves

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    ground cinnamon

  • 3 cups

    low-sodium beef broth

  • 2 tablespoons

    fish sauce, such as Red Boat or Three Crabs, plus more as needed

  • Serving options: chopped cilantro, crusty baguette, lime wedges, cooked vermicelli, cooked rice

Instructions

  1. Trim 2 pounds beef chuck of any large pieces of fat and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces. Peel and cut 4 medium carrots crosswise into 2 1/2-inch pieces. Dice 1 medium yellow onion. Cut 1 (8-inch) lemongrass stalk in half crosswise and crush it with the back of your knife to release the aromatics. Mince 2 garlic cloves. Peel and mince 1-inch ginger (about 1 teaspoon).

  2. Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in a 6-quart or larger electric pressure cooker on the Sauté function until shimmering. Add half of the beef and sear until browned on 2 sides, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a bowl and repeat with the remaining beef.

  3. Add the onion, lemongrass, ginger, and garlic to the pressure cooker and cook until the onion is starting to look translucent, about 2 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons tomato paste, 1 tablespoon packed light brown sugar, 2 whole star anise, 2 dried bay leaves, and 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon. Sauté until fragrant and the tomato paste darkens in color, about 4 minutes.

  4. Pour in 3 cups low-sodium beef broth and scrape up the browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Return the beef and any accumulated juices to the pot, then add the carrots (no need to stir). Turn off the pressure cooker.

  5. Lock on the lid and make sure the pressure valve is set to seal. Set to cook under HIGH pressure for 30 minutes. It will take 7 to 15 minutes to come up to pressure.

  6. When the cook time is up, let the pressure naturally release for 10 minutes. Quick release any remaining pressure.

  7. Open the pressure cooker, add 2 tablespoons fish sauce, and stir to combine. Remove and discard the star anise, bay leaves, and lemongrass with a spoon. Taste and season with more fish sauce as needed.

  8. Though Bò Kho is generally referred to as a stew, it will be a bit more soupy than a true stew. Serve topped with chopped cilantro and lime wedges on the side if desired. You can add a side of fresh, crusty baguette (my preference), or serve it over vermicelli or white rice. This dish only gets better the next day, as the flavors sit and marry.

Recipe Notes

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.