Weeknight Cooking

How to Make Panzanella Without a Recipe

July 14, 2014

Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.

Today: Our PR and Audience Development Director (and My Broke Kitchen columnist) Gabriella Paiella teaches you how to make the perfect summer salad: panzanella.

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From when I was 16 until the end of college, I worked every iteration of a thankless summer job. Most of them I block from my memory, but the one I remember most fondly is when I was the counter girl at a local bakery near my hometown. The staff was fun to work with, the bread was perfectly baked and came in a dizzying array of varieties, and the pastries were impossibly buttery. I was thrilled with the idea of having friendly, regular customers, including a boy who worked across the street and bought me books and flowers. I was 18, clumsy and shy, and after an impossibly long awkward period, I felt like I was finally growing into myself. 

But what I remember most about that bakery is their homemade panzanella -- customers went nuts for it, buying it by the quart so that we almost always ran out by the end of the day. My father is Italian, born and bred, but had, for reasons unknown, never made it while I was growing up. Eating a salad made of bread? It was a revelation! 

More: 5 other ways to give new life to stale bread.

Panzanella is the platonic ideal of a summer meal, as far as I'm concerned. It's exactly what I need as a frugal cook -- the main ingredient, after all, is bread that's gone stale but shouldn't be thrown away. But past that utilitarian base, it allows you to take advantage of an entire crisper of summer vegetables, so long as you have some olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and time to marinate. It's equal parts filling, cool, and improvisational -- which is why you should learn how to whip it up, sans recipe.

How to Make Panzanella Without a Recipe

1. You're going to need a loaf of stale bread (here's how to stale fresh bread in a pinch), extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, tomatoes, red onions, and basil. I like to use cherry or grape tomatoes and halve them length-wise, slice my onion as thinly as possible, and tear the basil up with my hands.

Don't have a combination of the last three vegetables, or want to use up wilting produce? Raid your crisper for peppers, cucumbers, snap peas -- really, any summer vegetable will do.  


2. Cut the bread into 1-inch cubes.


3. Dress it liberally with olive oil and vinegar.


4. Mix in your tomatoes, onions, and basil.


4. Let it sit for a couple of hours, or overnight, in the fridge, then add salt and pepper to taste. Panzanella is the perfect lunch or light dinner this time of year. 

If you're looking for some inspiration, check out:
Gazpacho Panzanella
BLT Panzanella
Pea and Bacon Panzanella with Warm Vinaigrette
Winter Panzanella with Orange, Roasted Beets, and Pomegranate Seeds

Tell us: What's your favorite way to make panzanella? 

Photos by James Ransom

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  • Alexandra Stabile
    Alexandra Stabile
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    Luigi Lovato
  • Amanda Hepler (oven & apron)
    Amanda Hepler (oven & apron)
  • pamela axelsson
    pamela axelsson
  • Pam Shropshire
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Yes, my name rhymes.


Alexandra S. June 17, 2016
nice half a person reference, I will listen to it while I eat this salad!
Luigi L. September 15, 2014
Trust me, the bread got to be wetted with water, milk and vinegar, at least this is how we eat it in Montelupo Fiorentino! (=
No crunchy bread on Panzanella!
And, I think, but not sure that your father never made it because it's a regional dish, if you don't come from, I will say even the village where they make it there's the chance that you never try it.
In italy the recipes can vary or be totally different even the next village along the same road a couple of miles away.
Amanda H. September 1, 2014
This is my favorite panzanella recipe, with a super tasty red wine vinaigrette in place of simple oil and vinegar! http://ovenandapron.com/2013/07/27/panzanella-salad-with-crispy-parmesan/
pamela A. July 16, 2014
Interesting order in building this salad -- Does the order depend on regional differences, perhaps? I lived in Italy for several years and learned to make this salad in Tuscany where they start with the onions, add the tomatoes, basil, salt and pepper, before tossing with the oil and red wine vinegar, then add the day-old bread. Friends explained that juices from the onions and tomatoes can better combine with the oil and vinegar before the bread is added and that adding the bread at the end makes for a moist but not soggy salad because the bread won't have had a chance to absorb all the marinade.
cucina D. July 17, 2014
you are correct, pamela axelsson as my famiglia in Italy preps all the vegetables and onion first and dresses them liberally as well as letting them sit at room temperature for a few minutes to combine in flavors... The bread is added last and we serve it with bottles of olive oil, vinegar and grated cheese for guests to add additional flavors if desired...
Pam S. July 16, 2014
I love panzanella. I sometimes brush the bread cubes with olive oil and toast in a pan; then leave the salad marinating overnight. Results in soft, but not soggy, bread, plus the nutty toasted flavor. Yum!
cucina D. July 14, 2014
This is one of my all time favorite salads... Love using heirloom tomatoes for best taste and color, I also made versions that use fresh summer cucumbers, fennel and heart of palm as well as marinated artichokes, marinated mushrooms and olives