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As we move into the heart of summer and plump, juicy tomatoes begin to ripen on the vine, I start to crave panzanella. The simple, rustic salad from central Italy is made with stale bread and ripe tomatoes, epitomizing the classic Italian tradition of using leftover ingredients to create an amazing dish.
The panzanella bread is soaked in cold water, squeezed dry, and then mixed with other ingredients and dressed with a red wine vinaigrette. You must use high quality bread for this dish—factory processed breads from the grocery store become quite gummy after soaking. A Tuscan-style saltless bread is ideal for this recipe and holds up really well, though most artisan, rough textured, country breads will work just fine.
Traditional panzanella will always include bread, very ripe, flavorful tomatoes, onions, and fresh herbs. Depending on the region and your own personal taste, you can also include cucumbers, sweet peppers, fresh fennel, greens such as chicory or arugula, and olives. That said, the beauty of panzanella is in its simplicity, and the key to making it great is to use the very best ingredients you can find. I recently made a version with marinated artichokes, flavorful black olives, and capers.
During the very warm days of summer, I often like to serve panzanella as a main course for dinner, instead. To give it more body, I add anchovies, tuna, chunks of fresh mozzarella, or boiled eggs. The salad that holds up very well and the flavors improve as it rests, so I often make it at least a few hours prior to serving.
This is really a salad that doesn't require you to measure out your ingredients but I have included a recipe list for you to get started. Generally, I simply mix equal amounts of tomatoes and bread, then add additional ingredients as listed above depending on my mood, what is fresh in my garden, or what I have in my refrigerator at the time.
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