Panzanella is a traditional Italian summer salad made with simple seasonal vegetables and leftover stale bread and is one of the most underrated recipes in the whole world. But trust us, this naturally vegan and zero waste dish passed onto us through centuries of peasant Italian traditions is one of the best salads you will ever try.
Panzanella is a humble Italian salad that has its origin in the central regions of Umbria, Tuscany, Lazio, and Marche. There are many versions of Panzanella, some people add carrots, celery, and many other vegetables. However, this version is just like the one I used to eat as a kid growing up in Todi, Umbria.
Despite being hundreds of years old Panzanella is the perfect recipe for the busy modern world. It's made with simple ingredients that you probably already have at home, it's affordable, quick to make, and it's environment friendly by allowing you to use old stale bread.
The stale bread soaked in water will absorb the flavour of the onion, tomatoes, and olive oil while salt and vinegar will enhance their taste in your mouth. Eating a well-prepared Panzanella is an experience that will make you question your life choices and it will make you appreciate the simple things in life. It will ground you and reconnect you to your simple and humble origins as a human being.
Ripe tomatoes: the main ingredient in Panzanella so you want to make sure to use some ripe ones that are full of flavor. If you have the option get some that are organic and grown from a local farmer.
Stale bread: traditional Panzanella uses bread that is generally unsalted but if you can't find that then use regular salted bread. Avoid pre-packaged bread or sandwich bread as it will become too mushy as you soak it in water. Stale artisanal bread would be the best.
Cucumber: you can either peel it or not. We like to remove half of the peel.
Red onion: better if with sweeter notes. Avoid sharp white onions for this recipe.
Basil leaves: must be fresh and not dry basil.
Lettuce: is optional and some people don't like to put it in their Panzanella. We personally like it with a few leaves of lettuce.
Extra virgin olive oil: try to use a good extra virgin olive oil from Italy, Spain, or Greece.
Vinegar: white wine vinegar is the best for this recipe.
Salt and peppers: opt for fine sea salt rather than table salt. It's a lot more flavorful and healthy. Freshly ground black pepper is optional but we really like it with the bread and the tomatoes.
📋 Recipe Card
Traditional Panzanella salad recipe
- 3 to 4 ripe tomatoes (500 grams)
- 11 oz stale bread (300 grams)
- 0.5 cucumber (250 grams)
- 1 red onion (110 grams)
- 8 lettuce leaves (50 grams)
- 15 basil leaves
- 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 4 tbsp vinegar
- 0.5 tsp sea salt
- 0.25 tsp pepper
- 1 cup tap water
- Break up the stale bread into pieces and add them to a bowl. Cover them with water and 2 tbsp of vinegar. Let soak until the bread becomes soft. It can take between 5 to 45 minutes for the bread to soften up, depending on how dry it is.
- Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise, then cut each half into thin slices. In Italy usually people peel the cucumber, however we don't mind it with some skin on.
- Cut the red onion in half, then cut each half into thin slices.
- Cut the tomatoes in dice.
- Optional: cut the lettuce in small stripes
- With your hands, squeeze the water out of the soaked bread, then coarsely crumble it into a large bowl.
- Add tomatoes, onion, cucumber, fresh basil leaves torn apart by hand.
- Add olive oil, the remaining vinegar, salt and pepper and mix well together before serving.
👨🏻🍳 Top tips
Use artisanal bread
Remember that this recipe was designed hundreds of years ago when the only bread available was artisanal bread. So if you do this recipe with standard supermarket bread that is made with hyper-refined white flour you won't get the same result. Try to get some good quality bread with a compact crumb from your local baker. Even better if it's sourdough.
Dry the bread in the oven
The bread for Panzanella should be 2 to 3 days old. To help the drying process cut the bread in thick slices, place in a paper bag, and keep in a dry place until it's nice and hard.
If you want to make Panzanella but your bread is not stale enough, then you can dry it in the oven for 15 to 45 minutes at low temperature (100˚C or 210˚F). It's important that the bread is quite stale to make this recipe a success, or else the crumb will absorb the water too fast resulting in a mushy salad.
Ripe organic tomatoes
Like with the bread, when the Italian peasants were making their own Panzanella decades ago, the only tomatoes they had were the ones from their own vegetable garden, kissed by the warm Italian sun. These days the tomatoes from supermarkets don't taste like anything really. So for best results try to find some tomatoes from your local farmers, ask if they are organic, and you'll taste the difference.
White vinegar for the win
While you might be tempted to add some fancier balsamic vinegar or apple cider vinegar, this recipe is best with standard white wine vinegar, or in extreme cases with red wine vinegar. Back in the days, those fancier kinds of vinegar weren't widely available, so if you want to taste the real Panzanella go for simple white wine vinegar.
Let the flavors come together
Panzanella is a refreshing summer salad consumed in the midst of the hottest Italian summers where the temperatures near the 40˚C (100˚F). Let the Panzanella rest in the vegetable zone of your refrigerator for about 45 minutes to let the flavors come together, then take out of the fridge and keep at room temperature for another 45 minutes before serving it. Don't leave it in the fridge too long though, or your tomatoes will lose texture and flavor.
📖 Questions & answers
Yes, the original recipe for Panzanella is 100% vegan as it does not call for any animal-based ingredients.
It comes from the central Italian regions of Umbria, Tuscany, Lazio, and Marche.
Panzanella is generally eaten as a side salad or nowadays is also eaten in restaurants and pizzerias as an appetizer. At the Plant-Based School we like to eat Panzanella next to some grilled vegetables and hummus, or next to a naked veggie burger.
It is probable that the term comes from the combination of "pan" (bread) and "zanella" (small bowl).
Panzanella does not store well in the fridge due to the wet bread, tomatoes, and vinegar. Our advice is to keep it for max up to half a day, best if at room temperature.
For best results, Panzanella should be made 1.5 hours before serving time, then stored in the fridge in the vegetable zone for about 45 minutes to let the flavours come together and then let out at room temperature for another 45 minutes before serving. However, if you want to make it in the morning for dinner service, then don't season it but rather add oil and vinegar just before serving.
You can try but the result won't be like eating real Panzanella. If you decide to soak your croutons you might want to do it quite quickly as they'll lose structure and turn into mash.
Panzanella Romana: in some areas in central Italy near Rome you'll see a version of Panzanella that looks more like Bruschetta with tomatoes. Wet slices of stale bread with water and top with chopped tomatoes, basil, vinegar, and olive oil.
Panzanella Toscana: choose an unsalted artisanal white bread just like the Tuscan bread. Don't add the lettuce. Sometimes in Tuscany, you'll see the vegetables in the Panzanella cut in thin long slices. In some areas, they add celery.
Panzanella Pugliese: in Puglia they often use Friselle instead of bread. Friselle are large, round pieces of dry, baked durum wheat flour, often with a hole in the center.
Winter Panzanella: use cherry tomatoes instead of vine tomatoes, add 1 cup (200 grams) of white cannellini beans instead of the cucumber.
Chickpea Panzanella: this is our favorite variation as it makes this salad a good stand-alone meal and also it creates a more complete protein profile complementing the methionine from the bread with the lysine from the chickpeas. We also add a sliced stalk of celery, a handful of rocket, and 2 grated carrots to this version.
Panzanella salad doesn't store well. The vinegar will ruin the lettuce, and the cold temperature of the refrigerator will ruin the texture and flavor of the tomatoes. Also, the bread will lose too much texture if stored for too long.
Our recommendation is to store it for up to 12 hours max in the refrigerator. Once out of the fridge let warm up at room temperature for at least 30 minutes.
🥗 Side dishes
We love it served next to grilled vegetables like grilled zucchini, aubergine and cauliflower and with a serving of classic chickpea hummus. It also goes super well with a naked vegetable burger on the side.
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If you have any tips or questions let us know in the comments below!