Panzanella: Bread and Tomato Salad

Tomatoes didn’t originally come from Italy, but they’ve certainly made up for lost time. Now it’s hard to think of Italian cuisine without them, from classic dishes, from Pasta all’Arrabiata and Salade Caprese, to Pizza Margherita and Panzanella, a bread and tomato salad that’s one of my favorite things to make, and eat.

This summer salad gets tossed with basil, which boosts its appeal (at least in my book…), as my summer trilogy has traditionally been tomatoes, basil, and fresh corn. But since fresh corn isn’t widely available here, I have to make do with something that is: Bread. And that’s fine by me.

Many, um, interpretations of Panzanella exist, often with toasted bread cubes, which are sometimes tossed in olive oil and garlic before toasting. I like that too. I mean, what’s not to like about tomatoes and toasted bread, with olive oil and garlic? But Panzanella is meant to be made with stale bread that’s crumbled or torn.

There’s no shortage of leftover bread in France (and for people who say, “What’s leftover bread?” I applaud you for being able to eat an entire loaf of bread in one go – although some bread is so good, I agree that it’s hard to stop) as it’s a ritual to get fresh bread daily. I, too, like any excuse to visit a boulangerie, so it’s great to have a way to use up the pain d’hier.

Proof that just because you’re from a country means you follow the rules, some Italian websites veer from tradition and list Dijon mustard as an ingredient in Panzanella. And esteemed cooking teacher and author, Marcella Hazan, used anchovies, garlic, and capers in her Panzanella. And pedants may want to avert your eyes here, but I’ve even read some Italian recipes that say you can “enrich” the salad with shrimp, olives, tuna, beans, or hard-cooked eggs.

One rule that’s hard to follow is that unsalted bread is supposed to be used in Panzanella. I don’t buy unsalted bread – and to be honest, I don’t know even know where to find it – so I use regular levain (sourdough bread.) Like the tomatoes, the quality is the bread is surprisingly important, as is the olive oil and vinegar. As my Italian-based friends say, “Olive oil isn’t just to keep things from sticking to the pan, it’s a flavor.” So give yourself permission to keep a good bottle on hand for drizzling and using on salads.

And spring for good vinegar, too. Marcella Hazan used to get bonkers about that. And I agree. Good vinegar is just a few bucks more than the bottle-shelf stuff, and it makes a world of difference in your salads. Since it’s used by the spoonful, good vinegar is one of the world’s great bargains.

Ideally, you want to make this salad when tomatoes are at their peak. If only “okay” tomatoes are available, you can put the cut pieces in a colander, sprinkle them with a little salt, and let them stand for 15 to 20 minutes, which’ll improve their flavor. When I made this, my Parisian guests politely pushed the raw onions to the sides of their plate, but otherwise, everyone really loved this Panzanella. I was expecting to have leftovers the next day, but that didn’t happen.

Panzanella: Bread and Tomato Salad
Print Recipe
4 servings
If your tomatoes are not exceptional, you can toss them in a little salt and drain them in a colander for 15 to 20 minutes before using.Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan also adds anchovies and capers to Panzanella. Although not traditional, they are worthwhile additions and I sometimes sneak them in, too. If you want to add them, use 1 tablespoon of capers, rinsed, drained and minced, and 3 to 4 anchovy filets, minced, to the dressing in step #3.
3-4 slices (4 ounces, 115g) hearty, country-style bread (stale)
1 medium red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, plus extra for soaking the bread and onions
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon sea salt
6 tablespoons best-quality olive oil
3 medium tomatoes (1 3/4 pounds, 800g), diced
1 cucumber peeled, halved, and seeds scraped away, diced
handful fresh basil leaves, about 15 to 20, torn into pieces
1. Soak the bread in cold water with a splash of vinegar in it, until soft. (Depending on the bread, it can take between 2 and 10 minutes.) Remove the bread slices and squeeze them very dry with your hands. Set aside.
2. Add the onions to the cold water with another splash of vinegar, and let stand for 1 hour. Place the cucumbers in a mesh strainer and sprinkle with a little salt. Let drain for 20 minutes. (Or longer.)
3. In a large bowl, mix together the vinegar, garlic, and salt, stirring until the salt is dissolved. Stir in the olive oil.
4. Add the tomatoes to the bowl with the dressing. Tear the bread into bite-size pieces into the bowl. Drain the onions and add them to the bowl along with the cucumbers. Mix well and let stand at least 15 minutes. Add the basil leaves and mix again. Taste, and add additional salt and vinegar, if desired.

Note: Panzanella can be served soon after it's made but it's also fine to keep it at room temperature for several hours, making it a perfect do-ahead dish.

Panzanella: Tomato, Bread and Basil Salad

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40 comments

  • Gayle
    July 8, 2019 5:08pm

    One of my fave summer dinners. I’m fortunate to have an excellent bread baker near me, and I use the leftovers from his Olive and Herb Loaf for my panzanella. Delish!

    And btw, I know you know this David, but unsalted bread can be found in Tuscany where salt used to be so dear, in fact used as currency, that it wasn’t used in bread baking.

    It’s very blah if you’re not used to it. Reply

    • July 9, 2019 9:17am
      David Lebovitz

      Yes, it’s from Tuscany that unsalted bread. I’ve heard it said that unsalted bread gets stale more quickly than standard bread, but not sure if that’s true or just something that’s said. (Which apparently why this salad was invented; because they had so much stale bread.) Either way, in a salad like there where everything else is seasoned, it’s okay if the bread isn’t. But I don’t prefer unsalted bread to salted bread in general. Reply

      • peg
        July 18, 2019 1:19am

        oved the taste of this salad.the cukes.and the vinegrette..

        but could not love the soggy bread!

        think i will made without the bread…oh, i used great bread..but hated eating it mushy soggy no matter what the seasoning.
        Will try with a grill crispy bread..

        otherwise this is not my fav..nor anyone here in Maine! lol Reply

    • peg
      July 17, 2019 9:13pm

      You are so right.Unsalted bread is extremely popular in Tuscany. I lived in Parma, and unsalted bread was the norm While it is blah..with evoo and herbs as a dip, it can be great! Reply

  • Jake Sterling
    July 8, 2019 5:14pm

    Saltless bread is weird. When I was a kid in Liguria, we used to travel to Florence pretty frequently. The restaurants there always served it. Yes, it tastes, um, saltless. I didn’t much like it plain, but it was terrific for sopping up the sauces left on the plate. (I love Italian food, but I also think that, in general, Italians use too much salt.)

    Anyway, when I went back to Italy, they were still serving that bread, but this time, tasting it for the first time since I was a kid, I was hit by a totally unexpected wave of nostalgia and found that, now, I loved it.

    I have learned since then that the reason they started eating salt free bread in Tuscany is because in the Middle Ages invaders put a punitive tax on salt and, rather than pay it, the Tuscans made their bread without it.

    The easiest way to get salt free bread is to make some. Reply

  • Jeanne
    July 8, 2019 6:06pm

    Curious, do Parisians typically not care for raw onions? Reply

    • Susan
      July 8, 2019 9:10pm

      I wonder if they would accept quick pickled red onions? They are milder and sweet. Of course, they would have to be willing to try it first. Reply

      • Susan
        July 9, 2019 5:49pm

        No pickled nothing Reply

        • July 9, 2019 6:07pm
          David Lebovitz

          There are cornichons!
          : ) Reply

    • July 9, 2019 9:15am
      David Lebovitz

      I think they be too strong in flavor, perhaps? Or there is some health-related reason for not eating them, as some people feel things like tomato skins should be removed before eating. (I’ve seen people meticulously removing them from a tomato on a salad on their plate, before eating them.) You don’t come across raw onions being served (except minced shallots in salad dressings), so that may be the case. Reply

  • July 8, 2019 6:06pm

    Rather than soak the bread in water, I cut my tomatoes, sprinkle them with a little salt, and let them macerate for 30 minutes. When there is a good quantity of tomato water in the bowl, I toss in the bread and let it soak as I prepare the rest of the ingredients. Reply

    • Susan
      July 8, 2019 9:08pm

      Clever! Nutritious too. Reply

    • Christine
      July 8, 2019 11:56pm

      what a brilliant idea! I’ve been making this for decades and I always salt/drain my tomatoes (cukes, too) and never thought to add the bread to it. Thanks! Reply

      • Fred
        July 10, 2019 11:14am

        Hi David,
        Any non-alcoholic substitutions for red wine vinegar? Thanks Reply

        • July 10, 2019 1:38pm
          David Lebovitz

          Some people avoiding vinegar substitute verjus for it. Lemon juice could work, although you’d likely want to dial down how much you use and it is a different flavor than red wine vinegar. Reply

    • Tom
      July 10, 2019 11:40pm

      This is how I’ve always done it too (à la River Cafe’s recipe). Squeeze a few of the tomatoes into the “water” for an extra boost. Whisk the vinegar, some oil and mashed garlic into the tomato juice/water, then add the bread and let it soak up the yumminess. Add salted anchovies and capers. One of my favourite summer dishes, but saved for years only when the tomatoes are very, very good. Reply

    • peg
      July 17, 2019 9:16pm

      Fabulous tip! thank you ! Reply

  • Chris
    July 8, 2019 6:08pm

    I was charged with making bread doing a cooking class at the CIA in Napa, since a giant mixer only took a tablespoon of salt, we all missed it – and the bread was like wallpaper paste! We had to make it all over again… But I never forgot the lesson! Reply

  • Jodi
    July 8, 2019 6:12pm

    This is making my mouth water. I first made panzanella in the late 80s from the cookbook Cucina Fresca. It’s still a dish we look forward to every summer. Just a few more weeks till real tomatoes are here in MN! I’m going to Florence in October, so will keep an eye out for unsalted bread. Reply

  • Susan
    July 8, 2019 9:01pm

    My tomato farmer should be opening his stall this week, only .25 mile away! His tomatoes are sublime, unless they have tomato rot because of the excessive rain here in Indiana. Can’t wait to eat tons of gazpacho and panzanella. I never thought of putting fresh corn in; thanks for the tip David! I like to use sherry vinegar in my panzanella. Reply

  • stuart itter
    July 8, 2019 9:47pm

    Great David. So many recipes. Avoided it because I did not want to figure it all out between Hazan, Gray, Chiarello et al. This looks perfect. Even have the exactly right bread. Onward. Reply

  • Georgeann Brown
    July 8, 2019 9:52pm

    as commented above, unsalted bread is available in Tuscany and know the history of salt….. It is still lousy bread. Reply

  • Lynn D.
    July 8, 2019 11:40pm

    I like to soak my sliced (with a mandoline) onions in ice water for ten minutes and then add them to salads. Reply

  • janee
    July 8, 2019 11:51pm

    Personally I love fatoosh because I like the way that crispy pita gets chewy after soaking in the vinaigrette. Gotta wonder which came first! Also first rate tomatoes are essential and everyone over-waters their tomatoes here – I miss the dry-farmed Early Girls of Santa Cruz! Reply

    • July 9, 2019 9:19am
      David Lebovitz

      It’s quite possible this is somehow related to fattoush. Coffee came to Italy through the port in Trieste, and Sicilian foods are influenced by their proximity to Arabic countries. Reply

  • Jill Donnelly
    July 9, 2019 2:52am

    I make this all the time but I can never bring myself to soak and wring out the bread, it feels so wrong! I must try it. I WILL TRY IT! Reply

  • D. Morgan
    July 9, 2019 9:22am

    I love this dish. Any recommendations for a good red wine vinegar (I live in France)? Reply

    • July 9, 2019 9:27am
      David Lebovitz

      The one pictured in the post is what I used and is good (I get it at G. Detou), but at the supermarket, Maille red wine vinegar is fine. Your local épicerie should have a decent selection if you live in France. Reply

      • Judy
        July 10, 2019 7:54pm

        What about East Coast USA? Reply

  • Lyn
    July 9, 2019 5:15pm

    Why do you soak the bread? Reply

  • James
    July 10, 2019 1:48am

    David, I didn’t think cucumber was in the panzanella salad Reply

    • July 10, 2019 8:30am
      David Lebovitz

      I checked with the authorities, including Marcella Hazan, who puts cucumber in hers, as does Judy Francini, La Cucina Italiana, and others, but you can leave it out if you want. Reply

      • James
        July 11, 2019 2:53am

        So first you soak the bread in water, then drain it, then pat with olive oil, then bake it. Does that give you croutons or does it give you a bread crumb (appearance or texture) from the bread. Reply

  • Kathryn
    July 11, 2019 1:03am

    Thank you for posting this! I haven’t made this salad in years and I miss it. I just happened to have some rock hard sourdough bread, cucumbers, red onions, and tomatoes from last weeks farmer’s market. The dressing was delicious. The PERFECT dinner for the sweltering temps here in Atlanta this week! Reply

  • James
    July 11, 2019 2:59am

    David, so the bread is not baked, after squeezing the water out, it is torn directly into the salad? Reply

  • July 11, 2019 7:06am
    David Lebovitz

    Kathryn: Glad you liked the salad! Yes, it’s nice to have something you don’t need to bake or cook for dinner in the summer.

    Lyn: The original recipe was created using leftover bread, so it’s traditionally soaked to soften it, then squeezed dry, so it can soak up the dressing.

    James: The bread isn’t baked; it’s just torn into the salad after it’s been soaked and squeezed dry. Reply

  • ron shapley
    July 11, 2019 2:43pm

    So, am I missing something here ?? You’re dealing with soggy bread ?? Reply

  • Joan Harvey
    July 11, 2019 6:19pm

    If you were lucky enough to live in the Northwest, you’d have Walla Walla Sweet onions, which are in season for about five seconds while the tomatoes are at their best. They are perfect, raw, in this salad. James Beard’s famous onion sandwich can only be made with Walla Walla Sweets. It might be interesting to make unsalted bread for the sandwich and add a good dose of rough salt (Beard just used a slight sprinkling of salt; I always add more.) Reply

  • July 11, 2019 7:05pm

    Bread without salt is like eating tomatoes without salt. Both need salt to make it excellent.
    With tomatoes in season here in California, this might be an excellent salad for lunch one day. Thanks for posting! Reply

  • Jayne Cookson
    July 17, 2019 9:21pm

    Loved this recipe. Oregon is now lucky to have “Big River Breads” in Corvallis,
    which produces breads like Steve Sullivans, “Acme Bread Bakery” in Berkeley. So I used Pain de Campagne.
    Sooo… very good! Reply

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