There’s no question that tomatoes and crusty bread are made for each other. The alchemy that occurs as the bright, sweet juice of the tomatoes soaks into the bread is why people love bruschetta and BLTs. And it’s what makes a tomato and bread salad—ripe tomatoes cut into chunks and tossed with bite-size pieces of bread, a tangy vinaigrette, and fresh herbs—so satisfying as a main course for lunch, a light supper, or a sensational side. Come summer, when my tomato plants are weighed down by juicy beefsteaks and adorable Sungolds, I make bread salads often, including riffs on the classic Italian panzanella, made with a hearty Italian bread, and Middle Eastern fattoush, made with pita. But I don’t stop there. Thanks to a range of bread styles, so many beautiful and tasty tomato varieties, plus add-ins, such as olives and fennel, this pretty dish is endlessly adaptable.
Read on for more details about the building blocks for a great tomato and bread salad. I’ve provided a few recipes, but to be honest, I almost never make my salads exactly the same every time. It’s too much fun tweaking the formula based on what I’m in the mood to eat and what looks good in my garden. And after making so many delicious permutations of this pretty dish, I’ve learned that as long as I start with good bread and tomatoes, it’s almost impossible to go wrong.
The Building Blocks
Although bread salad was created as a way to use up old bread, it can be awkward to plan to let your bread go stale. That’s why I prefer to grill or broil it. I also love the flavor the bread picks up from a bit of char and the way the outside gets crisp but the inside stays slightly chewy, ready to sop up a tasty vinaigrette and delicious tomato juices. I especially like how ciabatta, with all of its airy pockets, grills. Italian bread, sourdough, and other rustic loaves work great, too. Whole-grain and rye breads are fun to experiment with, as are naan and pita.
Toast first, cut later. For the best flavor and texture, broil or grill thick slices of bread (or pita or naan) until golden brown or until grill marks have developed. Let cool briefly before cutting into bite-size pieces.
You’ll want to use a good amount of beefsteaks, those big, classic beauties, because they tend to be the juiciest with a nice meaty texture. Add other varieties for a mix of flavors, textures, and colors. I like to add both plum and cherry tomatoes,
including my favorite tomatoes of all, Sungolds, which are so sweet that I eat them like candy. At farmers’ markets, you can
find quirky heirlooms—varieties passed down unaltered through the generations—that may look funky (they come in all sizes and shapes) but that boast superior flavor. For drama as well as bold flavor, look for increasingly popular “black” tomatoes.
Cut to similar size and salt briefly. I prefer that my tomatoes be cut into bite-size (3/4 to 1 inch) pieces. Depending on the size of the tomato, these can be halves, wedges, or slices, and a mix of different cuts is always appealing. I like some of the juices to be drawn out by salting so that they can easily mingle with the dressing, but I also want each bite of tomato to be juicy. For that reason, I salt them, combine the tomatoes with the vinaigrette, and let them sit for 5 minutes. In that short time, some, but not all, of their juice will flow out.
An oil-and-vinegar dressing is classic and adds welcome acid as well as moisture. I always add garlic to the dressing because I like that pop of flavor. However, you can change the kind of vinegar and add other flavor boosters, such as shallots, onions, and anchovies.
Herbs and Other Additions
Given the season, it makes sense to take advantage of the bold flavors of fresh herbs. I chop them and add them by the handful. (In fact, I rarely put them in a measuring cup, eyeballing the amount instead; if you do, don’t crush them.) I tend to stick with tender herbs such as basil, parsley, mint, tarragon, and cilantro. Bonus ingredients like olives, roasted red peppers, capers, thinly sliced fennel, cucumber, salad greens, beans, and cheeses like feta and mozzarella are also welcome additions. I personally don’t include meat or fish, but cooked bacon, pancetta, shrimp, or chicken added to a bread salad can make it feel more hearty.