The idea of panzanella sounds like a satirical tweet containing the #slatepitch hashtag: “Take perfectly ripe, juicy tomatoes and combine them with a lot of bland, stale bread! It’s better than regular tomatoes.” And yet there are at least a couple of difficult-to-counter arguments in favor of making panzanella, one of Tuscany’s weirdest culinary innovations.
The first is that normal tomato salad leaves you with lots of sweet, refreshing tomato juice at the bottom of your bowl or plate. While I am on the record saying it’s acceptable to sip said tomato juice, employing bread’s absorptive powers is a much better way of making sure you don’t lose a single drop of that delicious liquid.
Another excellent reason for making panzanella is that it transforms tomato salad—usually a modestly portioned appetizer at an expensive restaurant or a late-addition side dish at home—into a bona fide main course. I loathe the term “peasant food,” but bread salad meets the criteria associated with that poverty-romanticizing phrase: It combines cheap, common, abundant ingredients into a filling, substantial meal. You do not need to add a single thing to panzanella to turn it into dinner—the only things that could possibly improve it are a dollop of good ricotta or a smear of burrata and (in keeping with the Tuscan theme) a glass of Vernaccia.
And then there’s something no one ever talks about: Soggy bread is delicious! (So long as you drench it with delicious liquid, obviously.) This is the principle behind bread pudding, stuffing, French onion soup, French toast, roast beef sandwiches au jus, and grilled cheese sandwiches dipped in tomato soup. What’s nice about panzanella in particular is that, because it’s served at room temperature and contains a judicious quantity of added liquid, the bread becomes partially sodden but retains other textures as well. When you do it right, a hunk of bread in panzanella will be sweet, moist, and spongy on the outside, but sturdy and chewy on the inside.
To achieve this textural balance, for God’s sake, don’t soak your bread in water before you add it to the salad, the way some recipes say to do—this will destroy any chewiness and make your salad as mushy as Mumford & Sons’ “I Will Wait.” Instead, coat your bread with a little olive oil and toast it to dry it out and cultivate a little Maillard reaction before you toss it with the tomatoes and dressing. Then let the salad sit at room temperature for at least half an hour to let the bread soften and the flavors meld.
The only problem with panzanella is that it doesn’t take well to refrigeration, since cold ruins tomatoes texture. But you can keep leftover panzanella in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a day without any ill effects.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Time: 45 minutes to 1 hour, largely unattended
8 ounces baguette, cut into 1-inch chunks
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and black pepper
1 shallot, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
2½ pounds tomatoes, cut into 1-inch chunks*
1 cup roughly chopped fresh basil leaves
1. Heat the oven to 350°F. Put the baguette chunks on a large baking sheet, toss with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Bake, turning occasionally, until lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, put the shallot in a small bowl and add enough water to cover. Let the shallot sit for 5 minutes, then drain and pat dry with a paper towel.
3. Put the remaining ¼ cup oil, the vinegar, the garlic, and the mustard in a small bowl, glass measuring cup, or mug; season with salt and pepper. Process with an immersion blender until the garlic is minced and the mixture is thick and smooth, 15 to 20 seconds. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
4. Combine the bread, shallot, vinaigrette, tomatoes, and basil in a large salad bowl; toss to combine. Let sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning, then serve.
*You’ll notice that 1-inch chunks are larger than the pieces I chop in the video above, but the same general tomato-chopping principles hold.