Tomato panzanella salad with hearty Italian bread, tomatoes, shallots and basil, tossed in a light and tangy dressing! If you like, add fresh mozzarella cheese. Toasting the bread in the oven for a few minutes produces the best texture. More tips and complete video below!
Panzanella salad, the perfect way to use up day-old bread!
People of the Mediterranean have a knack for using day-old stale bread.
In Spain alone, you'll see endless possibilities from sweets like sopapilla to soups like gazpacho or this bold Spanish Chickpea Stew called Espinacas con Garbanzos. And, in the Middle East, there is a whole genre of foods called fatteh, which are dishes that utilize day-old pita bread. Think Lebanese chicken fatteh or fattoush salad.
I have to admit that one of my favorite ways to use up day-old bread is Italian panzanella salad! Hefty Italian country bread and tomatoes, tossed in a simple dressing of extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar.
And for something so simple as bread and tomatoes, this Italian bread salad is one surprisingly complex and delightful summer dish.
I'm excited to share my version of tomato panzanella with a few tips that have made all the difference for me.
Traditional panzanella salad vs. my version
The Guardian points out that as with other peasant dishes born of necessity, there are endless variations on panzanella from Florence down to Rome, but the non-negotiable is hefty day-old country bread.
My Italian friends tell me that panzanella salad, prepared the traditional way, starts with stale bread that's soaked in water for about 15 minutes or so, then wrung out and cut up or crumbled by hand to be tossed with vegetables (whatever is in season), extra virgin olive oil, and red wine vinegar.
This tomato panzanella recipe differs in a couple of ways...
First, day-old bread is toasted rather than soaked in water (this makes a big difference in texture for me). And, while you could use cucumbers and other veggies to make this salad (some even add marinated artichokes and such), I keep it simple by sticking to juicy tomatoes and shallots which are milder than red onions. Basil is the perfect match for tomatoes and you'll find it most panzanella recipes.
For the dressing, I built on the original olive oil and red wine vinegar and added garlic, a hint of Dijon mustard and some fresh thyme.
The biggest change you'll find in this version of Italian bread salad is the addition of mozzarella cheese, which is not something you'll find in a classic panzanella recipe. This is totally personal preference--I enjoy the added creamy bite in this tangy salad.
- Use a hefty rustic loaf of bread with a crunchy crust. Tuscan country bread is typically recommended, but I actually prefer Ciabatta because of it's dryer texture (this is my personal preference, I don't really want the bread to "melt" in the salad too much).
- Toast the bread in the oven first. This is important to avoiding terribly soggy panzanella. Even though day-old bread hardens on its own, I like to cut it up into cubes, toss it in extra virgin olive oil, then toast it in the oven for a few minutes--just enough for the edges to get crusty, while the inside gets firm but remains chewy.
- What kind of tomatoes to use? Panzanella is the perfect opportunity to use ripe tomatoes that are rich with flavor. Any kind you have on hand will work, as long as they are nice and ripe. In this recipe, I used vine ripe tomatoes but when colorful heirloom tomatoes are in season, that's what I like to use. If you choose to use small tomatoes like cherry tomatoes or grape tomatoes, for example, be sure to cut the them in half. If you keep the small tomatoes whole, you miss out on their juice which is an important part of the tasty dressing.
- Use the juice of your tomatoes as the base for the dressing. Once you cut the tomatoes, put them in a colander over your mixing bowl. Allow the tomatoes to release their juices in the bowl for a few minutes (you'll be toasting the bread anyway), then use the tomato juice to get your dressing going. If you want to keep things super simple with the dressing, you can just add extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar (I add a few more things like garlic, a little thyme, and a squeeze of Dijon mustard).
- Let panzanella salad sit for a bit before serving. This is where the magic happens, but how long you allow your panznella salad to sit before serving depends on how you like it. I don't like my panzanella to get too soggy. For me, 20 to 30 minutes is a good amount of time for flavors to meld and for the bread to soak up a good bit of the dressing before completely melting into the salad. But you can allow your panzanella to sit for up to 4 hours before serving (I would refrigerate it if that's the case, since this tomato panzanella uses mozzarella cheese).
Serve panzanella with
This sunny Tuscan bread salad is the perfect thing to serve during the warmer months when tomatoes are in season.
Other tomato salads to try
Simple Tomato Panzanella Recipe
- Mixing bowl
- Sheet pan for toasting bread
- 5 oz or ½ loaf of a rustic Italian bread (I used Ciabatta) cut into 1-inch cubes
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- 2 ¼ lb ripe tomatoes I used vine ripe tomatoes, cut into small wedges or cubes
- ¼ cup red wine vinegar
- 2 garlic cloves minced
- ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon fesh thyme optional
- Black pepper
- 2 Small shallots peeled and thinly sliced
- ½ cup packed fresh basil torn
- 4 oz fresh baby mozzarella optional (more to your liking)
- Heat the oven to 400 degrees F.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine bread cubes with large drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a generous pinch of kosher salt. Toss to make sure the bread is well coated (save the bowl for later use). Spread the bread cubes on a sheet pan and bake in heated oven for about 10 minutes or until golden (the edges should get crisp, while the bread gains some color and crisp but remains still a bit chewy).
- Place a large colander over the same mixing bowl. Place the tomatoes in the colander and sprinkle with kosher salt. Toss briefly with your hand. Set aside for a few minutes to allow the tomatoes to release their juices in the mixing bowl.
- When ready, move the colander with the tomatoes to the sink for now, and use the mixing bowl with the tomato juice to make the dressing. Add red wine, ½ cup extra virgin olive oil, garlic cloves, Dijon mustard, thyme, and a large pinch of black pepper. Whisk to combine.
- Add the tomatoes, bread cubes, shallots, basil and mozzarella (if using) to the mixing bowl and toss to coat with the dressing. Allow the salad to sit for 20 to 30 minutes before serving.
- Give the salad a gentle toss and transfer to a serving platter. Garnish with a few more fresh basil leaves, if you like.
- Cook's Tip: It helps to cut the bread into cubes ahead of time and leave it out to dry for a few hours. Still, do not skip toasting the bread in the oven for a few minutes, this makes a big difference in texture and helps keep the salad from getting too soggy.
- Dressing variation: You can pair down the dressing if you prefer something simpler. A bit of extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar is essential, the rest is up to you.
- What kind of tomatoes to use? Any kind of tomatoes will work in tomato panzanella. I used vine ripe tomatoes here, but I love using an assortment of colorful heirloom tomatoes when they're in season. If you use small cherry or grape tomatoes, be sure to still cut them in halves to be able to use their juice in the dressing.
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