Growing up, I was one of those kids who loved olives, and like this little fella here, there was no better way to eat them then sucking them off the tip of each finger. Mind you, we’re talking those bland, black olives, the predominate requirement was their ability to attach to the tips of my fingers. It was not until I discovered an Aladdin’s cave of culinary treasures in the form of a Greek grocer that I found just how incredibly tasty olives can be in the hands of someone that cared about the results, and equally import how many options there are. I used to bring home at least half a dozen bags at a time to compare and contrast. My knowlege was still pretty basic, but at least I expanded beyond green and black as my sole method of selection.
The more I learned about olives, the more I am convinced that they should be added to my sporadic posts on “Huh Foods” as in why did people first decide that eating them as food as in their unadulterated state are incredibly bitter, but perhaps not as extreme as the maggot cheese so I passed. Last year I was determined to try my hand at making my own brined olives, unfortunately I got up the gumption for this project just after the season ended. This year, I bided my time and pounced on the first batch of fresh olives of the season. Note, perhaps I am still too new to this game, but I have yet to find fresh black olives in the markets.
The first thing I learned when I tried my hand at brining is that there were two primary methods Sicilian and the Greek method. The difference being between the selection of fresh green or black olives determines the degree of ripeness. The Sicilian method uses the unripe olives which are green, whereas the Greek method incorporates the fully ripe olives are black (or maybe dark reddish brown with a blue tinge to be more specific). Because they are allowed to ripen longer, black olives contain more oil than green, which is why green olives are used from pickling and the black olives are primarily related to making olive oil. According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, that meaty part of the oil fruit surrounding the pulp can be as much as 30% oil. They are also one of the few fruits that are extremely unpalatable in their natural state. When olives come straight from the tree they are:
- green (the least ripe)
- reddish brown, the ripest stage for the olives that started as green
- black can be ripe depending on the variety, or if they started out as green are dead on the tree and not used (Included here are “drops” olives that have fallen to the ground)
When Size Matters
Black olives are graded by size as small (3.2 to 3.3 grams each), medium, large, extra large, jumbo, colossal, and supercolossal (14.2 to 16.2 grams).
Here are some of the more popular olive varieties for eating:
• gaeta: (Italian) black olive, dry-salt cured, then rubbed with olive oil, wrinkled in appearance and mild flavor, they are often packed with rosemary and other herbs, although some can found be brined in vinegar
• kalamata: (Greek) black olive, harvested fully ripe, deep purple, almond-shaped, brine cured, packed in vinegar with rich and fruity flavor
• niçoise: (French) black olive, harvested fully ripe, small in size, with a rich nutty, mellow flavor, high pit-to-meat ratio, often packed with herbs and stems intact
• liguria: (Italian) black olive, salt-brine cured, with a vibrant flavor, sometimes packed with stems
• lugano: (Italian) black olive, very salty, sometimes packed with olive leaves
• manzanilla: (Spanish) green olive, available unpitted and/or stuffed, lightly lye-cured then packed in salt and lactic acid brine
• picholine: (French) green olive, salt-brine cured, with subtle, lightly salty flavor
• ponentine: (Italian) black olive, salt-brine cured then packed in vinegar, mild in flavor
• sevillano: (Californian) olive that is salt-brine cured and preserved with lactic acid, very crisp
Saveur offers some additional olives that are prized for their oil.
If you are curious as to the options for making olives edible, here are some of the common curing treatments, generally black olives require less processing before they become edible. The longer the olive is permitted to ferment in its own brine, the more mellow and intricate the flavor becomes:
This was thought to be the original method of removing the bitterness from the olives. By Roman times it was discovered that the addition of alkaline wood ashes accelerated the removal of the bitterness significantly and became the preferred approach. Generally the large green olives are water cured; right before they turn red. The olives are cracked with a rolling pin (I sliced an “X” at the top – hopefully that is sufficient), then immersed in cold water, that is changed daily for at least 25 days. If after 25 days they are still too bitter, keep it up until they are edible, they’re just stubborn.
Brine cured red or black-ripe olives is Greek-style while brine cured green olives is Sicilian. The red-ripe olives generally turn a grey green to pink, while the black-ripe ones keep their color, (e.g. Kalamata-deep purple). Slit each olive with a paring knife, then cover them in a brine (¼ c salt in 1 qt water). the olives may need to be weighted so they remain fully immersed. Keep the olives covered, stirring occasionally. Rinse, and change the olive brine weekly for at least 3 weeks. Sample and if still too bitter, continue, sampling ever week until they reach the desired bitterness – six or more weeks is not uncommon. Scum often forms on the top of the vat; its harmless only if the olives are immersed, but skim it off when you see it.
Lye curing is for green olives. If air is bubbled through the lye solution, those green olives turn black; et voila California black olives were born – the marvels of oxidation. Immerse the olives in a lye solution (2 T flake lye in 1 qt water) for 12 hours. Repeat the process with a new batch of lye solution. A good tip I read was to place your largest olives at the top of the batch, now select on and determine if the lye penetrated the olive (the olive meat will be soft to the pit, easy to cut, and the flesh will be yellowish green when ready). Soak the olives in water for 3 days, changing the water multiple times a day. By day four, its time for a nibble, sample one of the olives. It should taste sweet and fatty, with no bitterness, maybe reminding you of avocado. At this point, its time to switch to a light brine solution for about a week (6 T salt in gallon of water). Note people seem to prefer curing the results of olives cured in lye. I confess I was too much of a wimp to try it on my first attempt, but for my next time, I plan to try the multiple techniques simultaneously and see for myself how they differ at the end. For this first batch, I started with the water curing technique and ending with the brine curing to impart the saltiness which I love to the olives.
Other methods exist, the these approaches seem to be the most popular.
Try making marinades for the cured olives, great flavor combinations might include: garlic, bay leaf, oregano, thyme, dried chiles, fennel seed, peppercorns, coriander seed, orange peel, lemon peel, lemon slices, cumin seed.
Never tried fried olives? This recipe may make it difficult to stop eating them. Don’t blame me.
Hunter Olives – Table Olive Recipes This list offers up kalamata and Spanish style among some additional options.