Ah, foam. Once the height of culinary innovation, now the unloved stepchild of the molecular gastronomy movement. Assailed as too frou-frou by the bulk of the dining public and as passe by the epicurean elite, I’d like to take this post to sing its praises and explain (away) its faults.
Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking defines foam as “a portion of liquid filled with air bubbles, a moist, light mass that holds its shape”. That definition appears in Dr. McGee’s discussion of dairy-based foams, which are common, unexceptional, and delightful. They include meringue (egg whites suffused with air bubbles) and whipped cream. More recently popular is the use of foamed milk for cappuccino. These are all, of course, not usages of foam that anyone finds objectionable. Instead, restaurant patrons are responding to the use of substances like agar or leichtin to allow ingredients like mushroom, garlic, or raspberry to be shot onto an otherwise inoffensive plate in the form of a delicate, airy foam. This was perhaps the first widely copied technique to come out of Fernan Adria’s El Bulli, a restaurant that helped kickstart the molecular gastronomy trend, but it might also be the most controversial
For those readers unfamiliar with the term, molecular gastronomy basically refers to a movement in fine dining that radically alters ingredients (typically changing their texture) by using new and unusual preparation techniques. For example, Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea (perhaps considered the best American restaurant at the moment) spherifies olives by taking the reduced juice of an ingredient (here an olive), injecting it into a a gelatin casing, and then watching the fun as diners eat and puncture the sphere, bursting open an impossibly vivid concentrated olive flavor. Clio, the Boston restaurant most associated with the molecular gastronomy movement, sometimes serves a dish of strawberries with dehydrated chocolate “soil.” When you first have a bit of the chocolate, its impossibly chocolate-y taste combines with a crumbled-cookie-like texture, but then, when it comes into contact with liquid, it becomes creamy and rich, changing as you eat it.
In some ways, I think, transforming culinary ingredients into foam is one of the best and most useful of the innovations associated with this school of cooking. Most obviously, it is a very straightforward way of injecting a flavor into a dish — you can add the flavor of sesame into a dish (as at O Ya, a fantastic(ally expensive) sushi restaurant in Boston) without needing to make it into an oil or a sauce (since the ingredient might not combine well with another in a condiment that’s already being used, or since another way of getting the flavor into the dish might be undesirable since it is too heavy or not evenly dispersed across the dish). Perhaps more subtly, the lightness of a foam (it evaporates as you eat it) combines with the vividness of the flavor to create something magical. You don’t want to never feel the solidity of the thing you are tasting, but sometimes, as a change of pace, the evanescent essence of a flavor is a delightfully shocking experience. Finally, the reason I go to nice restaurants (or attempt unreasonable feats of cooking on my own) is to experience something surprising, delightful, and different from what I usually eat. Basically anyone who knows how to turn a dial on the stove can follow a Mark Bittman recipe to the letter and make sometbesing delicious, but going out to a great dinner allows us to try something new we wouldn’t otherwise have; foam accomplishes that.
So why is it so hated? One reason can uncharitably be described as willful phillistinism. Eating is a comforting experience, and people don’t want to be pushed out of their comfort zones. When they go to a nice restaurant, they’ll try something they might not generally eat at home (diners are much more likely to order fish at a restaurant than they are to cook it themselves), but they also don’t want to try something really weird and hoity-toity. Foam, to these diners, is an easy manifestation of when chefs go too far in the direction of the exotic, so it is easy to define their tastes against it (“the butter-poached lobster at Clio is great, but I don’t like how they use all those foams”). Foam makes a convenient target because it has become a fairly widely adopted culinary trend in the realm of fine dining.
But, of course, foam also gets it from the other side — highly knowledgeable food critics and gastronomes who declare themselves sick of the idea, which is old and overdone. Part of this can be explained by a similar psychological mechanism as above — here the foodie elite are turning on a technique that was exciting when it was new (at least ten to fifteen years ago, maybe even longer) but which has now aged and in a weird way become popularized to an extent inconsistent with being the cool authentic new thing. Think Bob Dylan when he played Like a Rolling Stone on the electric guitar — the early adopting folk fans were furious, but it’s not like the establishment was very happy to except him.
Moreover in defense of foodies who’ve made their stand against foam, there are indeed often instances of chefs who use foam to make their cooking seem avant-garde and new when (as mentioned) the technique is anything but. The best example of this is the villain of Season Two of Top Chef, Marcel Vigneron, a pretentious prig who insisted on putting foam atop every one of his stupid dishes. Even four years ago, this was old hat and failed to impress the judges, but many viewers probably thought the technique indicated innovation and sophistication. Nevertheless, I’ve definitely noticed restaurants with no actual claim to creativity putting foam on the menu as an attempt to project sophistication to those who didn’t know any better, so I suppose I can forgive fellow foodies for feeling galled. Still, don’t fear the foam. It’s a good, useful, culinary technique that should be more widely adopted, not less.