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 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (use the good stuff!)
- ½ tbsp fresh lemon juice
- dash sea salt
- 4 tbsp 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 tbsp = US/UK = 15 ml
- 1 fl oz = US = 30 ml