Panzanella is a classic tomato and bread salad from Tuscany. Bursting with ripe tomatoes, juicy cucumber and fragrant basil, it’s hard to think of a salad that screams “summer” more loudly. Chunks of lightly toasted bread bring delicious texture and some heft to the salad, making it filling enough for lunch or a light meal.
Be warned, this salad demands the very best tomatoes! If you don’t have juicy tomatoes, don’t make this. Make another salad instead!
Panzanella – traditional Italian tomato and bread salad
Panzanella is a classic example of Italian cucina povera (literally “food of the poor”). This historically refers to the simple fare of commoners, meals made from humble and seasonal ingredients but no less delicious than the lavish foods gracing the tables of the rich.
In Tuscany, thrifty repurposing of leftover stale bread with the summertime bounty of tomatoes gave birth to this traditional salad.
At its simplest it’s nothing more than torn chunks of stale bread tossed with juicy, ripe tomatoes, and maybe a little olive oil. The real magic happens when the dressing and tomato juices soak into the bread, softening them and melding flavours with the tomatoes.
After making this salad over the years, we’ve made some tweaks to the strictly traditional recipes. We’ve found toasting the bread yields far better results, and additions like a little cucumber and some garlic in the dressing add interest.
Toasting the bread isn’t strictly traditional. But it stops it from turning into white unidentifiable mush within minutes of tossing with dressing. Don’t skip it!
Ingredients in Panzanella
Here’s what goes in the salad:
JUICY ripe tomatoes – You need to use the absolute best quality tomatoes you can find. They must be juicy and ripe, so they drop plenty of tomato juices this is used to make the dressing.
So if you don’t have juicy tomatoes, make another salad instead!
Cucumbers – I’ve peeled the cucumbers here, but this is purely decorative, to introduce some colour variation. Telegraph/English cucumber skins can also be a little tough (ie the long cucumbers). But peeling is totally optional.
Basil leaves – Always present in a good Panzanella!
Stale bread – Best breads (in order of preference):
– pane di casa / artisan loaf
– open-crumbed sourdough (ie. hole-y, not dense)
– Turkish bread
Breads that sit in the middle of the spectrum of denseness work best. We want a bread with an open crumb, but still some heft.
Don’t use baguettes or dinner rolls. They’re too light and will disintegrate on contact with dressing. Bread that is too dense on the other hand also won’t work right.
In terms of quantities, breads vary in denseness and thus weight, so go by volume ratios. You want an approximate 1:2 ratio of bread to vegetables.
DON’T use stale bread without toasting. I did this once, and after only half an hour, the bread was such a soggy, goopy mess that someone asked me what “that white stuff” was in the salad. When I told him it was bread he replied, “Oh, right. I thought it was tofu …” Ouch. I’ve been toasting the bread ever since!
Here’s what goes in the Panzanella Dressing:
Extra virgin olive oil – Use the best quality you can afford, for the best flavour!
White wine vinegar – It’s a little more rounded and better flavoured than ordinary white vinegar. Red wine vinegar can also be used. Other options: cider vinegar, sherry vinegar, champagne vinegar or white balsamic.
Dijon mustard – This thickens the dressing so it coats the ingredients nicely, as well as introducing a little extra flavour.
Garlic – Not usually present in traditional Panzanella, but it improves the salad two-fold in my book!
How and what to serve with Panzanella
With the bread in this salad, this is totally meal-worthy (yes, that’s a qualification in my world – see here for all my meal-worthy salads!). It will serve 3 normal adults as a meal (or 2 1/2 people with healthy appetites such as myself!)
Otherwise, serve it as a side dish. Alongside anything Italian would be an obvious choice, though really, it’s going to be right at home alongside anything Western/European. It also makes what I call a nice two-in-one side dish. That is, a starch (bread) and vegetables combined in the one dish which is always handy, as it saves you making two separate side dishes to tick the two boxes.
Let me know if you make this, and what you serve it with! I’m always interested to hear what you’re making! – Nagi x
PS. No video for the 3 simple side salads I’m sharing today! (This Panzanella, a Blood Orange Salad and the Garden Salad). But if you do want a video, just give me a shout out below and I’ll do one for you once summer rolls round and I can get my hands on some ripe tomatoes!
Panzanella (Italian tomato and bread salad)
- 4 – 5 cups (loosely packed) stale bread , torn into 2.5cm/1” chunks (~180g/6 oz, depending on bread used)
- 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 4 medium tomatoes (Note 1)
- 1 tsp cooking/kosher salt (or 3/4 tsp table salt)
- 2 Lebanese cucumbers (or 1 long telegraph/English cucumber), peeled (optional) (Note 3)
- 1 cup basil leaves , loosely packed
- 2 tbsp red or white wine vinegar (Note 4 for other options)
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil , the best you can afford
- 1 1/2 tsp garlic , finely minced (~1 large or 2 small)
- 1/4 tsp salt
- Preheat oven to 180°C /350°F (160°C fan).
- Toss bread chunks with 1 tbsp olive oil in a bowl.
- Toast: Spread bread on a a tray and toast for about 15 minutes, until the outside is becoming golden and crunchy but the inside is still a little soft, like toast. Remove and leave to cool.
- Cut tomato into 8 wedges each. Cut some of these wedges into half (I like irregular shapes for this rustic salad).
- Sweat tomato with salt: Put tomatoes into a colander over a large bowl. Season with the salt, toss and set aside for 10 minutes to draw out the juices. RESERVE the tomato juice in the bowl for the dressing.
- Cut cucumber into any shaped chunks aroun 2.5cm / 1" pieces. Again, I like to do irregular but even-sized shapes.
- Toss veg: Place tomato sweating in colander into large bowl. Add cucumber and basil, toss gently.
- Tomato Dressing: Add Dressing ingredients into bowl holding the tomato juice, whisk well.
- Dress salad: Add bread to salad, pour over dressing. Give it a light toss.
- Rest then serve: Leave for 5 minutes to let the juices soak into the bread, tossing once or twice. Toss once more just before serving!
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