Soggy bread haters need not apply.
Soggy bread is divisive and I get it. It's not for everyone. But it is definitely for me. I love the texture—soft but satisfying—and I love all the applications: French toast with maple syrup, French onion soup croutons with melted cheese, and panzanella, that traditional Tuscan dish of tomatoes and stale bread turned chewy from the combination of oil, vinegar and the moisture and acid in the tomato juice.
Classic panzanella often includes basil and onions in addition to tomatoes and bread, and I love adding red peppers and capers, and either shaved Parmesan or chunks of mozzarella. You can add anything in, though, from roasted fennel to peaches, and you can omit the tomatoes altogether, too (although this time of year, I'm not sure why you would).
When late summer rolls around and tomatoes are in their prime, I make bread salad for dinner at least once a week. It's a great way to use up any vegetables I have lying around after over-eager farmers markets trips, and it's super easy to prepare. Trying out new recipes has become a summer tradition with one of my friends (we love Smitten Kitchen's "summer's last hurrah" recipe and have been eyeing her new grilled pepper and torn mozzarella recipe).
But even though it's a very simple dish, there are still some key pointers that I follow to make sure I'm making the most out of panzanella season. Here are five lessons I've learned after many a bread salad:
Stale bread is the best bread.
This dish isn't just a great way to use up stale bread. Bread that's gotten hard will stand up well to the acid and moisture, so don't use fresh bread unless you absolutely have to, and in that case, toast the bread first.
And use a loaf that's hefty and crunchy.
Leave the soft Pullman loaf for sandwiches. You want something hearty here, like a country loaf. You're looking for something with a nice crust.
Acid is critical.
Tomatoes provide that punchy tang you're looking for, but vinegar, lemon juice or caper brine will help the flavors of the fresh produce shine. If you're not using tomatoes, use a fruit that will provide that same zing, like peaches, nectarines or plums.
Don't rush it.
Let the bread, vegetables, oil and whatever acid you're using sit and meld together for at least 30 minutes, but even up to four or five hours before serving. This step is crucial for the flavors to really sink in.
Remember that it's all about texture.
Don't let the bread soak too long that it disintegrates, but give it time to get soft and chewy. And include other elements that will balance out those round, chewy bites. It's why so many people like adding crunchy cucumbers or peppers, in addition to herbs like basil, parsley or mint to carry it home.