Assembling the perfect panzanella—that classic salad of rustic bread doused in olive oil and the juices of sweet summer tomatoes—is no effort in Italy, where produce is practically a Platonic form. Here in the U.S., not so lucky.
So at Milk Street, we knew that getting reliable results would mean rebuilding this iconic dish to find fresh ways to deliver the same vibrant flavors and satisfying textures. To do that, we started by looking back at the salad’s origins and how chef, farmer and “Ruffage” author Abra Berens used that information to reinvent it.
First recorded in medieval Italian texts as pan lavato, or “washed bread,” panzanella historically was made from little more than day-old bread that was soaked in water and squeezed dry, then crumbled and mixed with olive oil and whatever vegetables were available. When tomatoes entered Italian cuisine, they added a balancing sweet acidity. Eventually, cooks further improved the dish by toasting the bread and tossing in handfuls of wild herbs as if they were salad greens.
Berens started with the tomatoes. Her recipe calls for splashing them with vinegar to heighten their acidity, a key flavor in balancing the bread and rich olive oil.
She also made sure the bread was well toasted, which both primes it for soaking up more of the oil and juices and ensures it has crispness that contrasts with the other, more tender ingredients. Berens compares it to the bread in French onion soup, which sports comforting soft bits balanced by crunchy-crispy edges. “Soggy bread is so good,” she says.
Then she took a nontraditional turn. She has a hack for turning basic supermarket mozzarella into a burrata-like cheese simply by tearing it into pieces and tossing it with heavy cream and lemon zest. Adding this to her panzanella pushed the salad entirely over the top.
For our version, we kept most of Berens’ ideas. One difference: Instead of adding vinegar to the tomatoes, we used it to quick-pickle red onions, which added the same bright acidic pop, but also a light crunch. We also salted the tomatoes, which ensured they were thoroughly seasoned and would release juices to help dress the other ingredients.
We didn’t want to turn on the oven for a summer salad, so we toasted the bread in a skillet before adding it to the tomatoes. The warm bread, torn into irregular pieces, haphazardly soaked up the flavor of the released juices, leaving contrasting crunchy, chewy and soggy pieces.
With a drizzle of olive oil, copious herbs and Berens’ mozzarella, our take on her panzanella is perfection, even when our produce isn’t.