Panzanella is an Italian salad which features stale bread which has been moistened, either by being pre-soaked or with the vinaigrette which the salad is dressed with. This salad is most commonly found around the area of Tuscany, where it is generally served as a summer salad, featuring garden-fresh ingredients like tomatoes and cucumbers. Panzanella is quite easy to make at home, and it is a very flexible salad; any number of things can be added to the salad to make it more interesting or to take advantage of locally available ingredients.
A very basic panzanella includes bread, tomatoes, and basil, dressed with a mixture of oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Many cooks also like to add vegetables like cucumbers, sweet onions, and bell peppers, and panzanella can also include olives, cheeses, and meats, depending on one's personal taste. The use of other fresh herbs can also jazz the salad up a bit, as can a squeeze of lemon juice.
There are a number of ways to prepare the bread for panzanella, and the preparation of the bread is actually a topic of debate among people to try to make the most authentic version of the salad. Some people argue that the bread should come from a traditional Italian loaf, and that it should be cut into thick slices before being soaked in water, wrung out, and then crumbled. Others think that the bread should be cubed and toasted in oil, butter, or bacon drippings, while some cooks prefer to tear the bread and rub it with flavored oils.
The focus of this salad really is the fresh, seasonally available vegetables. High quality produce should be used in panzanella, and the flavors and additions should be kept fairly simple for a more traditionally Italian version of the salad. With good produce, this salad is flavorful and complex enough on its own, and the wedges of bread can be used to soak up the juices. Too many ingredients can obscure the naturally simple flavor of panzanella.
If you are making panzanella and you are planning to serve it later, wait to add the vinegar. The acidity can cause the vegetables to turn slightly acidic, detracting from the flavor of the salad. For taking the salad on a picnic, one can bag the ingredients and vinaigrette separately, and toss them together at the picnic site; this will prevent the salad from getting soggy or mushy.