Hailing from the rolling hills and verdant plains of Tuscany, panzanella is a simple salad that’s typically made from soaked stale bread, tomatoes, onions and vinegar. Initially conceived by Tuscan farmers as a way to use up old bread, the dish’s origins stretch back to at least the 14th century. The original recipe was even made without tomatoes, which didn’t become popular until a couple of hundred years after they first arrived on Italian shores, in 1548.
In Tuscany, panzanella is made with pane sciocco, a regional loaf that differs from most other Italian breads because it contains no salt. The lack of salt in pane sciocco means that it goes stale much faster than many other breads, which explains why Tuscany is home to a host of dishes that make the most out of leftover loaves – from ribollita (a “twice-cooked” bread soup), to panzanella. Both panzanella and ribollita are prime examples of cucina povera; the tradition of resourceful peasant cooking that dominated rural Italy for hundreds of years.
Despite its humble origins as a means of reducing food waste, panzanella has become one of Italy’s most famous summer salads. The dish comes together in no time at all, so it makes for a fuss-free meal on a sunny day or balmy evening. Pair with a glass of Italian wine and savour every sun-drenched bite.
Our panzanella salad recipe
While a traditional Tuscan panzanella only ever uses soaked, stale bread, in our recipe we lightly toast the bread in the oven instead, before dressing it with olive oil, vinegar and the juice of the tomatoes. The toasting helps to dry the bread out and means that you don’t have to limit yourself to only making panzanella when you have stale bread lying around.
Prep time: 10 minutes (plus 15 minutes standing time)
Cook time: 10 minutes
Calories per serving: 364kcal
- 8 ripe tomatoes (plum or beef are best)
- ½ cucumber
- 1 small red onion
- 6 thick slices of crusty bread (sourdough or a rustic loaf)
- 3 tbsp white wine vinegar
- 100ml extra virgin olive oil
- Handful fresh basil leaves
- Salt, to taste
Chef’s note: If you find raw red onion too punchy, soak the slices in a bowl of 50/50 white wine vinegar and water while the bread toasts. Once the bread is done, drain the onions and combine with the rest of the salad ingredients.
- Preheat your oven to 200°C/180°C fan/gas mark 6. Chop your bread into bite-size cubes, lay on a baking tray, drizzle with a tablespoon of oil, then bake for 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, chop the tomatoes into small chunks, peel and finely slice the red onion, and deseed and dice the cucumber. Remove your bread from the oven and leave to cool.
- Transfer the cucumber, onion and tomatoes (including any juices left on the chopping board) to a large salad bowl, along with the bread. Tear your basil leaves in.
- Whisk the vinegar and remaining olive oil together in a bowl, season with salt, then pour over your salad.
- Give everything a good mix up, then leave to stand for 15 minutes before serving.