Panzanella (Tuscan bread salad) is one of my favourite salads. It's the epitome of spring and summer for me. And not only is it super-easy to make (no cooking!), it's a great way to use up stale bread.
What is panzanella salad?
Panzanella, sometimes known as panzanella salad outside Italy (or panmolle in Tuscany), is a wonderfully flavourful mix of fresh plum tomatoes, red onion, basil, and stale bread, dressed with oil and vinegar.
It's been around since at least the 16th century, and now has several variations. Including the 20th century addition of using tomatoes. Prior to that, panzanella was onion-based. I've made it without tomatoes, and while it's good, I prefer it with them.
I, like many other Italians, add black olives and cucumber, and use lemon juice in the dressing instead of vinegar.
Grated cheese (e.g. Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino, or Grana Padano) is optional but it does add another dimension in terms of flavour and texture. Plus, it's added protein!
The name, panzanella, BTW, comes from, pane (bread) and zanella (a type of serving dish).
What's the best bread to use for panzanella?
Pane sciocco (AKA pane Toscano outside Italy) is a saltlesss bread, and the most authentic. However, outside Northern Italy, I rather think it defeats the purpose of cucina povera to buy bread especially to use in this dish. We normally use what we have to hand.
(Pane sciocco, by the way, is actually excellent for making my bruschetta.)
When I lived in the south of Italy, my panzanella was more often than not, made with pane cafone - a type of sourdough. Because it was almost the only type of bread I could buy in Pozzuoli. (I didn't have an oven to bake my own bread, either!)
Italians and bread
It's said that Italians never throw away anything, and certainly this tends to be true where food is concerned, especially bread.
For many Italians, bread is a spiritual food because it represents the body of Christ. And for some, transubstantiation means that bread actually is Corpus Christi, so to throw it away even when stale, is considered sacrilege. Hence finding ways of using up every last crumb.
Much of Italy is rural, and so many country-dwelling Italians tend to be frugal people, ergo, it's just common sense to use up as much as you can. More food - less waste.
To toast or not to toast
Some people advocate toasting the bread first, or spraying with oil and then baking it in the oven. I don't know any Italians who do this. Why make life complicated? Just use stale bread for panzanella!
I'm with Carluccio on this - great food should be MOFMOF; Minimum Of Effort - Maximum Of Flavour!
Why shouldn't you chop basil?
Tear the basil, don't cut or chop it.
Some people say that basil should be torn, not cut, in order to preserve the flavour. However, this is, in my experience, nonsense!
The real reason we tear basil for use in raw dishes, or when using to finish a cooked one, is all to do with appearance. Even the sharpest knife will bruise a delicate basil leaf, and turn it black very quickly. This just does not look appetising, which why it's better to tear it to prevent bruising.
When using basil in a cooked dish, it really doesn't matter whether it's cut or torn.
All that's required is a handful of very basic staple ingredients, and away you go. Here's the list of what you'll need.
- Bread - if you must have authentic Tuscan bread, go for pane sciocco but otherwise, use a decent, robust uncut bread that's a few days old. Please, for the love of all that's Italian, do not under any circumstances use sliced white bread. You know the type I am talking about. Just. Don't.
- Tomatoes - sweet ones such as San Marzano, Roma, or baby plum.
- Onions - I prefer red ones because they add another colour but if you prefer white ones (which I think are called brown onions in the US because of the colour of the skins), then go ahead.
- Basil - of course! Purple or green, it's up to you. Don't be tempted to use Thai basil though. I know from bitter experience of living in Thailand how badly that turns out!
- Salt, pepper, olive oil, and vinegar or lemon juice.
Extras to take your panzanella to the next level (whatever the frell 'the next level' actually means!).
- Cucumber - half moons or dice, it's your choice. I prefer a chunky dice, myself.
- Olives - you could use green ones but why would you when you can have far superior-tasting black ones?! And I know I am going to sound terribly unfashionable but the ones in oil are so much better than in brine. Keep the brine for green olives, I say!
- Cheese - a really good Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano, or Pecorino, or even some vegan parmesan, really does (as I mentioned earlier) add a lot to this salad. It just makes it a bit more special and delicious!
How to make panzanella
Making panzanella is incredibly easy, and can be on the table in 10 minutes!
- Moisten the bread with water but don't soak it.
- Cut up the tomatoes, cucumber, and onion, and place into a large bowl.
- Break up the bread into small chunks, and add to the bowl, along with the olives and basil.
- Dress with olive oil and lemon juice (or vinegar), season with a little coarse sea salt, and then mix together. It's easiest to do this with your hands.
- Finally, grate over some cheese, and finish with a few grinds of black pepper.
- Some people like to crumble the bread so it resembles couscous but being honest, I prefer my panzanella to be more chunky. I find it more satisfying like that.
- Do feel free to adjust the oil and lemon juice ratio to suit your own taste.
- If you don't want to serve the panzanella immediately, it can be made up to 30 minutes in advance. Chill in the 'fridge before serving.
- If you want to keep it longer, remove the bread and the basil, and store the salad in an airtight container in the fridge. Add more moistened bread and freshly-torn basil just before serving.
- It should go without saying that panzanella is not suitable for freezing!
Enjoy the taste of Italy - buon appetito!
Classic Panzanella Salad
- 2 thick slices stale bread
- 150 g cucumber
- 16 baby plum tomatoes (or 2 San Marzano or Roma tomatoes)
- 1 small red onion
- 50 g black olives
- 10 fresh basil leaves ,torn
- 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (use the good stuff!)
- ½ tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- dash sea salt
- 4 tablespoon Parmigiano-Reggiano (or Pecorino, Grana Padano, or vegan parmesan)
- freshly ground black pepper
- Lightly moisten the bread under running water - it should be moist but not soggy. Give it a gentle squeeze to ensure it's wet all the way through, and to remove any excess water. Set aside for a few minutes while you prepare the rest of the salad.
- Roughly chop the tomatoes and cucumber, and finely slice the onion. Add to a large bowl.
- Break the bread into bite-sized pieces, and add to the salad bowl.
- Add the olives and the basil.
- Whisk together the oil and lemon juice until it has emulsified, then add to the salad.
- Add the salt, and gently mix everything together with your hands.
- Sprinkle over the vegan parmesan.
- Finish with a few grinds of black pepper.
- Serve immediately.
- 1 cup = US cup = 240 ml
- 1 tablespoon = US/UK = 15 ml
- 1 fl oz = US = 30 ml
Angela / Only Crumbs Remain
I absolutely love the sound of this Nico, so simple to make and packed with wonderful flavour. I'm sure hubby would love it too (he loves his bread, though I'd have to scurry some away from him for it to go a little stale 🙂 )
Amato mio is a bread fiend too, and he doesn't mind if it's a bit on the stale side, so I have to give him strict instructions to leave some for salads, croutons, etc!
Have you made fattoush? Another bread salad that I adore. I need to make some more pita, pronto! xx
Spring is certainly in the air and your salad looks and sounds stunning.
Thank you, Lisa - I just want to fill my face with it in this weather, ha ha! xx
What a wonderful lunch... I love this kind of salad with all those bold flavours and juicy tomatoes. Thanks so much for joining in with this month's round of Simple And In Season - always a pleasure to have you along. xxx
It's so warm here at the moment - 25c today - and this is absolutely perfect... filling but light enough to not stuff you out, and great for eating out on the balcony in the sun! xx
Oh wow Nico this looks and sounds amazing! I need this in my life! Thank you for sharing! x
Why, yes, yes you do, Kirsty! LOL! xx
This recipe just makes me think of summer! It looks so tasty too - It would be lovely made with fresh Italian ingredients. Thanks so much for sharing.
It makes me long for summer, Corina - I'm so done with cold weather and gloomy days. I need sunshine. Now! xx
This looks delicious. I have never tried panzanella and love the idea of not wasting anything so this looks like the perfect dish to use up leftover bread. I love the insights about bread being a spiritual food in Italy - very interesting - thanks!
Hello Hope, thank you so much for visiting and taking the time to leave a comment - I really appreciate it. I'm so glad you like what I write too, I do sometimes wonder whether anyone actually reads the posts, or whether they just go straight to the recipe!
I must admit that I do try to waste as little as possible, and I love dishes that use up things we might ordinarily discard. Even my peelings get made into stock, and if I have bread that's a bit too far gone for panzanella, I make breadcrumbs with it! xx
I LOVE panzanella. I made it once for a friend's wedding. I had to make enough to feed 100 guests so I didn't make it for a few years after that!!!! But I rediscovered it again last summer and my kids actually ate the bread (although left everything else of course) so I'll definitely be making it again this year.
Ha! I can see why making that much might put you off it for a while! I love it, though - really, really love it! Maybe this year will be the year your younglings will eat the veggies too! xx
wow love the look of this salad, I never knew that bread was spiritual for Italians. I also try never to waste anything so will keep this recipe in mind when I have some leftover bread hanging around!
I hope you love it as much as we do, Pretty - simple food at its best, IMO! xx
Oh, what a beautiful sights... to wake up and fill your soul with beauty! I must have been Italian in some past lives, hehe, because both the cuisine and landscape feels... right, somehow. So Italian dishes also come naturally accepted when tried, although I admit that I haven't tried Panzanella before. And just in right time you give this recipe: I've been playing with different breads these days, mainly rustic, dense wholewheat and rye loaves, and of course, that's more bread than we usually eat. So there is a great opportunity to put it to great use! So simple, yet so delicious.
Love this recipe, love the way you add little stories from your journeys and give some historical background too 🙂 thank you!
Ha ha ha - the longer I live in this part of the world, the more I'm convinced I must have Slav genes!
I found Southern Italy to be very different from the North: although people were generally friendly and kind, they were a lot less considerate of each other than Northerners tend to to be (in my experience), especially in Venezia. But I guess in Venezia, everyone lives in such close proximity to each other, so you kind of have to be aware of how much noise you're making. That's something I love so much about living in Slovenia - the tradition of keeping quiet after 10pm. It's lovely!
In Pozzuoli, on the other hand, life is one long party! I don't think I ever got a decent night's sleep; if it wasn't fireworks going off, it was people playing loud music, rehearsing their bands, or coming home at 3am, and slamming the doors. Living in a converted palazzo, with marble everywhere makes everything really loud! On the plus side though, there was a man across the courtyard, who used to sing opera every morning, and a violinist nearby - they were beautiful to listen to!
Also, it's so much cleaner in Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia! Napoli and Pozzuoli were pretty filthy, although not as bad as the next town along the coast to us, where the streets were covered in discarded cigarette butts, food, litter, and dog poo. Truly horrible.
Mind you, it's so much easier to get basilika there! The shops stay open late (mostly because they close for 2-4 hours in the afternoon), and there's a great pizza place 2 mins from my old apartment! There are lots of really cool Roman ruins, a lovely park to wander around, and an active volcano to explore. And so much local wine - a lot of it from Campi Flegrei (the area around the volcano)... mostly costing around 1,5 euro for a bottle!
I don't see myself ever going back, though - next time I return to Italy for any length of time, I'll head back up to the North! xx
Haha, Nico, I could have thought that there is always something not so pretty that can't be seen on the photos... or just gets somehow lost when idealising some place and forgetting things like garbage, noise... again I say, I truly enjoy your insights into every meal and every place it comes from, because you came from that place too and brought something really nice to be shared with us 🙂
And I'm just patiently waiting your Slavic gene to come out one day in all of it's glory and surprises us with more sourdoughs, sweet babkas, noodles, dumplings... hehehe and since you're in Slovenia, please find the skillest (that's not the word, I know, but you know what I mean, hehe) and most expert grandma and discover the best recipe for Žlikrofi, won't you, please, please? I think that some vegan version could easily be gathered 😉
Yep, there's always something that the photos don't show, eh? But it's all part of life's rich tapestry, as they say... and I'd much rather see life in the raw than a polished, tourist attraction!
Hmmmm.... I can see I'm going to have to make some idrijski žlikrofi now, aren't I? Ha ha ha! My friend, who lives downstairs is Bosnian but has lived in Slovenia for a very long time - I'll see if she makes them. She makes the best sarma I've ever had, BTW - I really need to see if I can get the recipe out of her!
As for babka - I was thinking of making potica for Easter but maybe I'll do this instead. Or both! xx
Of course, both 😉 žlikrofi for lunch, potica for desert! 🙂
That sounds like a plan, Mari! xx
My goodness, where have you not lived? I've never had panzanella. I've seen several recipes for it, but it's never sounded that exciting. However, you've made it sound so good now, I will have to give it a try. Just need some summer ripened tomatoes first!
Oh, there are quite a few places I've not lived, Choclette - Mongolia, for one! 😉
Panzanella is wonderful! I love the simplicity of it, that you can basically chuck in what you like (I love adding torn burrata and chopped up fresh figs, for example). It's great with different coloured cherry tomatoes and artichokes too. xx