What’s so great about the one-bowl method?

First, reader Glenn, let me just say that I’m still baffled as to why it’s called the “one bowl” method since I’ve never succeeded in using less than two bowls for a one-bowl cake. So right there I’m a little down on it. But there’s no denying that one-bowl layer cakes are very moist and tender devices, I dare say more so than cakes made via any other method. But why is that?

It all has to do with the manner in which the fat is introduced to the batter. A cake mixed via the creaming method — which is the standard for most layer cakes — starts out as a well-beaten mixture of fat and sugar. Doses of dry and wet ingredients are added alternately until all is combined and ready to bake. With the one-bowl method all the dry ingredients including the sugar and mixed together first, then the fat is added before any liquid touches the mixture.

The effect of combing the flour with the fat before the liquid is to effectively grease the flour granules, which prevents the gluten molecules they contain from bonding with one another, even after the water goes in. It’s a pretty neat trick and a very effective way to undermine a gluten structure. In fact it’s so effective that you have to go out of your way to beat the heck out of the batter in the final steps to ensure that at least a few of those protein molecules find one another. Otherwise the cake layer wouldn’t be able to stand up. So you see why one-bowl layers are so tender, no?

The one-bowl method is not without its detractors. Many people find the relative density and fall-apart tenderness of one-bowl cakes off-putting, especially people who’ve grown up eating bakery cakes, which are generally made via the creaming method and as a result have a lighter crumb. Bakers who like to make very tall or elaborately carved novelty cakes also tend not to like one-bowl cake layers for reasons that should be obvious. One-bowl layers make poor building materials. But for a buttery, melt-in-the-mouth eating experience there’s no question that a one-bowl method cake can’t be beat.

13 thoughts on “What’s so great about the one-bowl method?”

  1. I always laugh at the “one-bowl” name as I proceed to pull out at least three bowls for every recipe in The Cake Bible.

    1. Exactly. We need to start a campaign to call it the three-bowl method. Anything else is false advertising.

      – Joe

  2. Who was the first to use this method? I encountered it in Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible. The book was responsible for a dramatic improvement in my homemade cakes.

    1. Hi Karen!

      Honestly I don’t know. RLB once told me that she was acquainted with it before she became the cake queen that she is today. I have no idea where it first came from, but it was undoubtedly an American invention. Who else makes layer cakes after all? I’ll see what I can dig up on the subject.

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  3. Talking about those three layers, I only have two 9 inch pans. Is it okay to make three layers in two runs? I do realize it would be easier to go get another pan, but until then . . . plus, my Chambers has a relatively small oven, and I’m not sure three pans would fit in there well anyway. (The deep well on the top is better for pies, not layers.)

    1. Hi Naomi!

      You can, though you will notice that the third layer won’t rise quite as high as the other two since some of the very tiny bubbles in it will rise out during the wait. It’s nothing terrible, though it really is better if you can bake them all at once.

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  4. Hi Joe,
    Can you take a recipe that uses the creaming method and turn it into a one-bowl method without changing the ingredients? I have some cake recipes I would like to try this with if it is a simple method swap.

    Thanks!
    Eva

    1. Hi Eva! Interesting question. I believe you can indeed do that, though I’ve never tried. I did a little looking a the proportions for a creaming method and one-bowl cake are more or less the same. Should work!

      Let me know what your results are!

      – Joe

  5. Cook’s Illustrated calls it “reverse creaming”; maybe that’s a more accurate name?

    1. Hey Maria!

      I’ve heard that one as well, but it doesn’t make much sense to me that way either. “Reverse creaming”? Maybe it’s me…I can’t see where that really describes it. I learned it as “one bowl” but other names include the “blending method” (which definitely works for me) also the “quick method” which doesn’t so much. I actually thing the creaming method is quicker…but have never timed it so what do I know?

      Cheers and thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

  6. Though not as full of fat and sugar as the dry mixture of a one bowl cake, biscuits and shortbreads have been around for a long time. Maybe that method was the idea behind the one bowl cake.

    1. Great thought, Susan! That very well may be the genesis of the technique. Fascinating! Thank you,

      – Joe

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