It’s the F-word again. We’ve all said it before. We’ve read about it. Some of us have done it, while many others have only seen it. Dare I say it? Okay, here it goes – F-O-A-M – foam. It’s not that bad, though some people just really hate it. But what they hate is a specific type of foam that holds a particular meaning in the industry– espuma, clouds, sponges, airs -- referring to a technique that migrated across the Atlantic from Spain about a decade ago.
In its early years, people viewed it as mystifying, paradoxical, and avant-garde, especially in the context of fine-cuisine. Perhaps it even foreshadowed the direction of cuisine in the 21st century, causing uneasiness about the experience of fine dining. Unfortunately, the sensationalism surrounding foam fueled its demise.
Foams soon appeared gimmicky, a fad, falling vulnerable to poor execution by chefs who valued its form over its function. Some hate the mere sight of it. When I asked author Michael Ruhlman about foam he said,
“I don't like foam unless it’s foamed milk in my coffee. Foam is what you skim off stock. Foam is what you avoid when you're swimming in the lake. Foam gives the appearance of substance when very little is there. I don't know why anyone would purposely put foam on food.”
But despite the asperity of past criticisms, the reality is that many four-star kitchens today are still creating foams, only they’re doing it smart and appropriately. And guests don’t seem to mind. The hoopla about foam has subsided and we’ve moved on, it seems. Foam has become just another technique and has a thoughtful and quiet place on restaurant menus.
Food writer Harold McGee defines foam as a dispersion of a gas into a liquid that can be manipulated into different structures depending on the level of agitation: intensity of agitation correlating to the thickness of the foam -- a loose dollop or a tight mound. But foam’s structural distinction required the use of a new piece of technology in the kitchen – a siphon gun -- that made the creation rather easy. Foam could be made from almost anything - Gruyere, red beets, coconut, almonds, bacalao, coriander. Chefs experimented with this technique to create lighter versions of mousses and sauces, realizing that foam’s texture could be varied by the amount of gelatin, egg whites, lecithin, or agar agar that was used in the base. Foam lent itself to infinite possibilities, eventually exploding within the culinary sphere. The mention of foam littered the prose of food stories and menus of high-end restaurants. Foam became fashionable and the culinary media grew hyper-fascinated with them. But its over-popularization created a backlash among culinary professionals who quickly grew tired of the technique.
One reason for its bad rap might have been foam’s association with a cuisine whose name is still at the root of much tension and debate today. Shall I call it the M-word? “Molecular gastronomy” was, and still is, the media’s buzzword for a cuisine that incorporates a scientific approach to cooking. Since then, chefs and writers (specifically, in an article jointly written by Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller, and Harold McGee in the Guardian) have insisted on clarifying its meaning, origins, the name itself, offering different names like experimental cooking, experimental cuisine, new cookery, or not even calling it anything at all. It’s just making good food while embracing innovation, some have argued. Meanwhile, the popular rhetoric around foam attached it to “molecular gastronomy,” turning foam into a high-end culinary icon. And the responses were mixed, if not exactly irritable. Foam became an iconic part of this “experimental cuisine,” and while some continue to despise foam and what it represented, foams today have inevitably matured.
Pastry chef Bill Corbett of Restaurant Michael Mina in San Francisco currently incorporates foam in three of his desserts: a tarragon foam on a strawberry Ribiolina cheesecake, a hibiscus foam on a white chocolate rose panna cotta, and a cherry pit foam atop of a chocolate pudding. Corbett, who also worked with Sam Mason at wd-50, lived through the birth, apex, and downfall of espumas and clouds, nonetheless appreciates foam’s function. For him, foam has become just another technique – a “flavor vehicle” he says, “…to deliver flavor without adding another ingredient. And one that chefs just pull out of their arsenal if necessary.” He also intentionally leaves the word “foam” off his menu today, explaining that it doesn’t have the wow-factor that it once did.
Nathan Huntington, a sous-chef at Tru in Chicago agrees. “The novelty of foam is gone, so now we use it to add flavor and texture.” Tru’s tasting courses still finds a place for foam: a coconut foam on top of braised octopus and a potato foam with salt cod that has been cured and then emulsified with olive oil.
And where the perspective toward foam as a technique, or foaming, has shifted, so has the shape. Chef Ryan Lowder of Mercat in New York describes when foams were once used to achieve height, dominating the overall presentation. But now they’re used with more subtlety, in the form of loose bubbles that merely blanket the food. Foam’s aesthetic maturity is an indication of a more sophisticated approach in fine-dining kitchens.
But if foam is so despised by some, why are chefs still using it? Because practically, it just makes sense. And for some, it fits nicely into today’s contemporary cuisine. Love it or not foam has evolved – in concept and in technique, in form and even on menus. And one thing we can say is that foam is here to stay. At least for now.