Kristin had a great question regarding pastry flour, which reminded me that I frequently recommend it for different cooking projects, but have never explained what it was!
“My question is, what is the difference between pastry flour and regular wheat flour? Can you get a pastry flour consistency if you grind your own flour?”
The difference actually lies not in how you grind it, but in what wheat berry you use.
Regular whole wheat flour is ground from hard wheat berries. This has a higher protein (and gluten) content. This makes a more elastic dough that will rise well with sourdough and yeasted breads. If you want to grind flour for making bread, then look specifically for berries that say “hard” wheat berries.
On the other hand, pastry flour is made with from “soft” wheat berries. They have a lower protein (and gluten) content and lends itself to more tender quick breads, desserts, pancakes, and soda bread. The higher gluten found in hard wheat flour would make these products more tough.
I like to have to have both on hand.
Different varieties of wheat can have higher and lower protein and gluten content, so how much hard and soft berries contains will vary.
For the curious, here are a few other common flours.
All purpose flour is a mix of hard and soft wheat flours. It’s a kind of “in between” choice that can work semi well for bread or pastry baking.
Cake flour is a very low gluten flour (obviously white, bleached and finely milled as well). This produces a light and airy cake.
On the other side of the spectrum, you have durum or semolina flour which is very high in protein and made from the endosperm of durum wheat. The high protein content is why it holds together so well when you are making pasta (a traditional use for it).