How to Make Perfect Panzanella
Salads are the best. They're infinitely customizable, they're super fresh, and they're a great way to use up the odds and ends of cheese, veggies, and fruits that you have kicking around in your fridge. Now, what if I told you that there was a type of salad and its main ingredient was bread? Well, I would be telling you the truth because that's called panzanella (a classic Italian dish), and it is quite literally a bread salad. There is a time and place for a bed of greens, but frankly, this is not one of them. Grab a loaf and let's make some panzanella.
Related: What Is Panzanella?
Toast Your Bread
The most important part of your panzanella is the toasty, starchy croutons. A good panzanella should have crispy, toasted bread croutons that are tossed and soaked in oil, vinegar, and the juices from tomatoes. This means that the drier your bread is, the more liquid it can absorb. For this reason, panzanella is a great way to use up day-old, flirting-with-stale bread.
Now, some folks will slice a loaf of bread into uniform cubes, but I happen to feel very strongly that rustic shreds of hand-torn bread make for much more texturally delightful croutons than basic cubes. Neither are incorrect, I just happen to gravitate towards the hand-torn croutons. (Plus, who doesn't want to rip into a whole loaf of sourdough, right?) Once the bread is torn (or cubed), throw the pieces on a sheet pan and toss 'em with a tablespoon of oil and a big pinch of salt and pepper. Toast them in a 350-degree Fahrenheit oven until they're slightly golden and subtly crispy (about 15 minutes). Remove them from the oven and let them cool.
Make a Dressing
Like any good salad, you need a flavorful dressing to bring everything together. While your croutons are toasting, go ahead and make a simple vinaigrette for your panzanella. I like to shake mine up in a Mason jar because I find it's the quickest and easiest way to emulsify oil and vinegar. I made a balsamic vinaigrette with shallots and Dijon mustard for my most recent panzanella salad, but you should make whatever kind of dressing feels right to you. Use sherry vinegar, red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, or fresh lemon juice — and maybe throw in some fresh herbs if you're feeling it.
Cut Up Your Tomatoes
Now, this salad does have some fruits and veggies in it, contrary to the name "bread salad." Tomatoes are the only non-negotiable here. We want the juiciest, heirloom 'maters that you can get your hands on. We're talking late August tomatoes that are so juicy you should feel like you need to take a full-body shower after biting into one. This tomato juice is going to help act as a dressing for the dry, crispy croutons, so don't even bother to make a panzanella in the dead of winter. Cut your tomatoes into small cubes and throw them in a large mixing bowl.
Assemble Remaining Panzanella Ingredients
As far as the rest of your panzanella, that's entirely up to you. Cucumbers, red onion slices, bell peppers, and fresh herbs (hello, basil) are very common additions. If you want to throw a soft cheese in there — like fresh mozzarella, goat cheese, or feta — those will all play nicely with the crusty bread. If you want to add some sort of meat — like salami, prosciutto, guanciale, or bacon — by all means, don't let me stop you. Your panzanella can be as simple as bread, tomatoes, and a dressing, or you can really get excited about other fruits, veggies, and cheeses.
As far as measurements or ratios, I wouldn't get too caught up with that. Generally speaking, your average panzanella is equal parts bread and veggies, but if you want a more bread heavy or veggie heavy panzanella, then feel free to adjust it as you please. As far as how much dressing to add, you want enough so that the bread is moistened and no longer tough, but if you're a person that likes a heavily dressed salad, then add more. We're making a salad here, not baking a cake. Let your eyeballs do the measuring and you'll be just fine.
Toss It All Together
Once your croutons are toasted, you've made a simple vinaigrette, and you've chopped up your tomatoes and other fix-ins, it's time to bring it all together. Toss everything together, making sure that the toasted bread is coated in liquid. You may need to add an extra drizzle of EVOO or vinegar, and you should taste the salad to make sure that it's good on salt and pepper. It's never a bad idea to let your panzanella sit for 15 to 30 minutes before enjoying it so that the bread can sop up as much liquid as possible. However, if you can't wait to dig in, it's just as delicious when served immediately. Because, like I said, salads are always the best.
Ready to get started? Try one of these top-rated panzanella recipes: