Break The Rules Of Panzanella And Toast That Stale Bread

If you love croutons and wish they took up more of your salad, panzanella is the salad for you. A classic of Tuscan cuisine, a basic panzanella composed primarily of chunks of stale bread, vine-ripened tomatoes, cucumber, and basil, dressed in a simple vinegar dressing. Born as a way to cut down on farm waste by using up old bread and vegetables, panzanella is today considered a classic staple of Tuscany. As with most foods in Italy, there are strict dos and don'ts about making panzanella, particularly concerning the bread. However, we suggest you break the rules and toast that stale bread for outstanding texture and flavor.

Traditional panzanella is made using stale, un-toasted, day-old bread. Once tossed with the veggies, vinegar, and herbs, the stale bread softens and soaks up all of that flavorful goodness. The only problem is that sometimes this soft texture can give way to sogginess. And that is the main risk with panzanella. No one wants to be eating forkfuls of soggy bread. It's just totally unappetizing. Toasting the bread beforehand prevents this from happening. 

If you've ever eaten panzanella in Tuscany, you'll notice this sogginess is highly uncommon. However, make panzanella at home without drying and toasting your bread, and you're headed for a soggy mess. This has to do with how bread is made in Tuscany versus the rest of the world. It's an important fact to know, as it has a great influence on the final result of the salad. 

A matter of salt

The key issue with panzanella made with anything other than Tuscan bread has to do with salt. Traditional Tuscan bread is totally devoid of salt. This provides a blank canvas on which to paint flavor, but it also presents a unique opportunity that is difficult to replicate anywhere else. Without the salty preservative, Tuscan bread becomes totally dry within a day. Therefore, it does not require any toasting in order to achieve premium softness without going soggy. Bread made with salt, on the other hand, does the opposite, which is why you need to toast or fry the bread in advance of making the salad. 

A day ahead, cut whatever bread you're using — country loaf, sourdough, or ciabatta all work — into the croutons. Leave them out on the counter overnight, allowing them to dry out. An hour before assembling the salad, toss the croutons in some olive oil and toast them in the oven until they become golden and crispy. With luck, they will be dry enough to take on the flavors of the dressing and other ingredients without becoming soggy.

Panzanella is a balancing act. Naturally, if you make your own bread, you could skip the salt and go the traditional Tuscan route. But the toasted flavor from the olive oil, the great chew, and the mingling of the dressing without becoming soggy is the key to a beautiful, tangy panzanella salad.