There’s an art and science to creating the perfect cocktail foam
“I have sea foam in my veins.”
In his final film, “Le Testament d’Orphée,” Jean Cocteau makes this statement as he portrayed an aging poet, dying, but wanting to be reborn so as to achieve celestial immortality.
It’s pretty heavy.
At the right bar, however, saying this could have gotten him a show-stopping cocktail worth dying for.
Yes, for almost as long as American mixologists have sailed the bounding bar exploring new cocktails and concoctions, many a foam has floated in their wake. It rises majestically above their glasses’ liquid depths and floats softly on the surface, barely hinting of the deep connection it has formed with the nature of the drink.
“Cocktail foams have been around since the golden age of cocktails in the 19th century, with egg white being the original,” said Pasha Morshedi, one of the owners of the endlessly innovative Rosewater, 1606 Clear Lake City Blvd. in the Clear Lake area. “But after the new cocktail renaissance began in the late ‘90s, people sort of ‘rediscovered’ classic cocktail techniques, including egg whites, and they started looking for other foaming techniques.”
Foaming is part of a much broader back-of-the-bar movement known as “molecular mixology,” although that’s not a title one sees often on a business card. It means creating cocktails using equipment and procedures from an even more vast science called “molecular gastronomy.” Anyone who has feasted on blow-torched meats, foamed vegetables or food sprayed with atomized herbs and minerals has experienced some facet of molecular gastronomy.
The object is the same — enhance a cocktail in flavor, texture and appearance.
“As it happens, I do have some experience with molecular mixology and foams,” Morshedi said. “Back in 2018, I participated in a gin competition in Spain and made a stirred cocktail topped with a grapefruit and Parmesan cheese foam. The theme of the competition was Parmesan.”
He lost, but more on that later.
When it comes to cocktail foams, the egg arrived in the beginning without the chicken. Whole eggs had been used in cocktails for centuries, but the separated egg white became a thing in the late 1800s. Its foaming qualities when mixed with an emulsifier like citrus juice, made it the perfect topping. Drinks like the Pico Sour, the Whiskey Sour and Ramos Gin Fizz all top themselves with egg white-based foams.
Fix any citrus-based drink and give the ingredients a dry shake (without ice) with an egg white, and one gets foam. Follow that with a shake with ice, strain into a cocktail glass and then let the foam flow on the top. The foam adds a velvety, creamy texture to the taste that can be very pleasant. The simple egg foam itself doesn’t add a lot of flavor, however.
There is, of course, a chemistry in what happens to make an egg or any other substance foam, but the trick is to be able to create a foam so that it adds something more to the cocktail than looks and texture. That can require making a foam first without the other cocktail ingredients and introducing a desired flavor, even Parmesan.
Equipment needed to make foams runs from the simple cocktail shaker to hand-held immersion blenders and whipping siphons — basically anything that whips.
There are innumerable ingredients besides eggs available to make foams. Familiar foaming ingredients include cream, gelatin, powdered eggs and even salt and vinegar. Not often on the grocery shopping list, but available just the same, are the soy-based versawhip and lecithin, both popular at bars for making foams.
“Instead of making plain whipped cream, you can add some aromatic ingredients and top a drink with an herb-infused cream,” Morshedi said. “You can add gelatin to clarified juice and sugar to create a dense foam to top your cocktail.”
Soy lecithin is the same emulsifier contained in egg yolks, Morshedi said. By adding it to a juice and whipping it with an immersion blender or milk-frothing whisk, a very light, stable foam with large bubbles results.
Mixologists are particular about the texture of their foams, so constructing one comes with some guidelines. In general, a light and airy foam with lots of little bubbles using lecithin or versawhip calls for a 50:50 or 75:25 ratio to the other ingredients. For a thick foam with stiff peaks, use egg whites and prepared gelatin while keeping the gelatin at about 75:25 ratio. A frothy sour foam calls for 16 ounces of lemon juice for each egg white.
Foam flavors have almost no limit and can include fruits, herbs, vegetables, cheeses, candies, fish, barbecue and even cigar smoke, added by using a smoker with simple syrup to capture the flavor. Poaching is a key process when creating foaming flavors. It’s imperative to remove any solids or else risk inhibiting the foaming.
In an article by Wendy Rose Gould for the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation, Los Angeles-based beverage director Edwin Cruz described a versawhip foam he created using sea salt and vinegar, which had been infused with shallots and cherry tomatoes. He whipped the “pickling liquid” into a foam that was placed on top of a gin martini. In another drink, Cruz poached prickly pear with sugar and water to release all of the flavors and then added orange zest and cardamom.
Which brings us back to Morshedi’s Parmesan foam.
“I was competing in the global finals for a Spanish gin called Gin Mare in Ibiza,” he said. “The theme ingredient for the finals of this competition was Parmesan cheese, so I took equal parts of a Parmesan broth that I made with grapefruit juice. I created this Parmesan and grapefruit foam using lecithin.
“I just added a dollop on top of my cocktail to create a little bit of a visual appeal and then also a nice complex aroma to complement the gin, passion fruit and white port martini that I made. I thought it was interesting, but it was probably a little bit too fussy.”
The judges gave the nod to another, very simple Parmesan martini enhanced by tomato water and a chili pepper.
“And this is sort of the lesson of foams and any cocktail garnish,” Morshedi said. “The Parmesan grapefruit foam was pretty cool, but ultimately, anything that we add to a drink should elevate the experience. We don’t want to risk over-complicating it.”
Over-complicating is definitely a risk, but at the same time, it’s a risk worth taking. The world of molecular mixology is certainly limited only by one’s imagination and how far one wants to explore, be it from the mountains to the prairies, for the cocktails white with foam.
This basic recipe is from sideshowpete.com, a site devoted to cocktails and bar culture. This foam goes well on a Pico Sour or Whiskey Sour. To try various flavor foams for other cocktails, experiment with other acidic juices such as pineapple, orange or grapefruit — all pulp strained out — flavored waters and infused simple syrups.
Egg-White Cocktail Foam
4 egg whites
6 ounces of water
2 ounces of lemon juice
2 ounces simple syrup
Mix the water, lemon juice and simple syrup in a large mixing bowl. Add the egg whites and then whip, using an immersion blender. This makes enough for 4-6 cocktails. Keep chilled.