I always forget how amazing panzanella is, and then around this time every summer, I remember. This classic Italian salad seems somehow too simple — and too improbable — to be as good as it is. We’re talking about a mix of day-old bread and juicy ripe tomatoes with whatever veggies might be in need of using, all tossed with a light vinaigrette.
But panzanella is more than just another tomato salad with some croutons – give everything about a half hour to mingle and mix, and this bread salad goes from “pretty good” to a bone fide can’t-stop-eating-it summer dinner win.
The most important players in this dish are the bread and the tomatoes. The bread needs to be the hearty artisan kind with a crunchy crust – any others will become soggy and disappointing in the salad. I lean toward rounds of chewy sourdough here. If you have time and remember, cut the bread into chunks and let it sit out overnight on a baking sheet to harden and stale – after all, panzanella has traditionally been a way to use up the hardened ends of leftover bread. If you don’t have time, just toast the cubes in the oven for 15 minutes or so until crunchy but not toasted.
For the tomatoes, this is where you want to use your beautiful, vibrantly-hued heirloom tomatoes. Go for a mix of colors because that’s what will be the most beautiful on the plate. Juiciness is a plus – the tomato juices will blend with the vinaigrette, adding another layer of flavor to the whole dish.
You can leave your salad just like this – tomatoes and bread, plain and simple – or you can add any other fresh vegetables you have on hand. Red onions, cucumbers, and peppers are top choices, but there’s nothing stopping you from adding things like tomatillos, green beans, fresh corn, or anything else from your farmers market haul. I also have a weakness for tossing chunks of fresh mozzarella with my bowls of panzanella.
The final detail for this dish is giving it a little time to sit before serving – this is where the magic happens. Panzanella needs a good half hour, or up to 4 hours, for the bread time to absorb the tomato juices and for the flavors of all the vegetables to mingle. I find there’s a sweet spot with every batch where the bread has softened, but still has a little crunch near the crust. It’s definitely not soggy, but nicely chewy.
Don’t refrigerate the salad before serving or the tomatoes will lose their vibrant flavor. The salad is best eaten the same day it’s made.
The main ingredients for panzanella are day-old bread and tomatoes.
How To Make Panzanella (Italian Bread Salad)
Serves 10 to 12
What You Need
1 (12- to 16-ounce) loaf artisan bread (8 to 10 very full cups)
2 to 3 large heirloom tomatoes (3 pounds, about 8 cups chopped)
1/2 large cucumber
1 red or yellow bell pepper
1/2 red onion
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pepper, to taste
1/2 cup thinly sliced basil
Jam jar, or a small bowl and whisk
Slice the bread into 1-inch cubes: Slice or tear the bread into roughly 1-inch cubes. I usually leave the crusts on, but you can remove them if you prefer. You should have about 10 overflowing cups of bread.
Dry the bread: Spread the bread cubes over a baking sheet. Leave uncovered overnight to stale and harden. Alternatively, bake in a 300°F oven until hardened on the outside but still slightly soft in the middle, 15 to 20 minutes, stirring once or twice during baking.
Chop the vegetables: Chop the tomatoes, cucumber, and bell pepper into bite-sized pieces. Slice the onion into thin slices and soak in a bowl of cold water for 10 to 15 minutes while assembling the rest of the salad.
Make the vinaigrette: Combine the olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, and a few grinds of fresh pepper in a jam jar. Shake vigorously. Alternatively, combine ingredients in a small bowl and whisk to combine.
Combine the salad in a bowl: Combine the bread and chopped vegetables in a large mixing bowl. Pour the vinaigrette over top and use a spatula to thoroughly combine.
Let the salad sit for 1/2 hour to 4 hours: Let the salad sit at least a half an hour before serving, or up to 4 hours. Stir occasionally so the juices and vinaigrette is evenly distributed.
Add basil and serve: Just before serving, stir in the basil. This salad is best eaten the day it's made.
Leftover Panzanella: Leftovers will keep for a few days in the fridge, but the flavor of the tomatoes will be less bright and the bread can over-soak. Even so, it’s still one of the best salads of summer.
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(Image credits: Emma Christensen)