Olives, I Love You – Let Me Count the Ways

Counting the ways

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.

olives of varying degrees of ripeness

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.

wishing they could be eaten straight from the tree

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

tying to choose

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).

Olive Varieties

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:

let the fun begin

Water curing

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 curing

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.

olive trees in Tuscany

Lye curing

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.

More Reading

UC Ag and Natural Resources

Hunter Olives – Table Olive Recipes This list offers up kalamata and Spanish style among some additional options.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook – Don’t Be Afraid of the Lye

WkiHow – How to Cure Olives

Update me when site is updated

34 comments for “Olives, I Love You – Let Me Count the Ways

  1. November 20, 2010 at 8:08 PM

    Fascinating to learn about all different kinds of olives and different ways of making them. We have a huge olive bar in Wegmans, with a lot of varieties and we’ve been meaning to do some good olive tasting very soon, that should be a fun adventure.

  2. November 20, 2010 at 8:15 PM

    This is a great project to take on yourself! It’s one that I look forward to trying. I’m also afraid to use lye, apparently there is food grade lye that should be used. They do produce some great results though.

  3. November 21, 2010 at 12:56 AM

    I used to dislike olives for many years. I guess it was the taste that didn’t jive well with me. Now…more and more I’ve grown to really like them especially in tapenades.

    I’m not too familiar with the different varieties. Though I have seen them at the hot foods section at Whole Foods. I just always associated them by color. I’m bad. hehe…

  4. November 21, 2010 at 5:20 AM

    the best i have ever had are from Kalamta preserved in olive oil !!

  5. November 21, 2010 at 7:05 AM

    Lye frightens me – although in MN – of course the Swedish soak their fish in lye. I’ve wanted to brine – but hard to find fresh olives in MN (read: impossible). I am an olive-lover. I brought up my children on olives and cheese as appetizers and we always have a bowl of olives waiting. Love the Sicilian olives with asiago – nutty (asiago) and salty (olives, For Thanksgiving – the lovely nicoise. And with so many foods, I do wonder ….who thought of doing this? Really, I just think people had to be foragers to survive.

  6. November 21, 2010 at 11:36 AM

    As Greek I can tell you that olives is a basic produce found in any ordinary Greek table. This tree is in our culture, in our food, in our myths, in our economy. We have different varieties of olives that are not known to the rest of the world apart from Kalamata olives. Unfortunately these types are circulating only here in Greece. Very interesting article. Thank you for visiting my blog.

  7. November 21, 2010 at 12:12 PM

    Oh my little girl loves olives, she loves browsing the olive bar at our local grocery store..lye makes me nervous also, fried olives..oh goodness what a treat!! a great post for novice olive lovers, I am sending this link to my little brother,

  8. November 21, 2010 at 5:21 PM

    Fried olives, oh no 🙂 I will have to peak…
    Fantastic post, I was never aware at all of the water curing process.
    Not that I have ever done this, but since I love all olives I have read just a bit.
    Love the into photo, I did this as well and played along with my own kids fashioning those beauties on all ten fingers…
    I really think that olives are a delightful way to open children to culinary delights.

  9. November 21, 2010 at 9:45 PM

    Wow! I didn’t even know it was possible to cure olives with just water. Though, I guess you have to be patient and diligent about changing the water so many times. I’m definitely going to have to give that a try.

  10. November 21, 2010 at 10:08 PM

    How cool that you liked olives as a kid! I seriously disliked olives for many, many, many years… I didn’t even like olive oil until I was into my 20s… Yes, I’m a late bloomer… But now I love olives. And I love olive oils, and tasting different olives oils at the Farmers’ Market is a special treat! Thanks for all the olive info! I learned a lot!

  11. November 22, 2010 at 5:07 AM

    I love olives! Actually I am now savouring some preserved olives (with Chinese herbs), that my mom sent me all the way from my hometown. :-))
    Fried olives? wow..that sounds very adventurous and interesting.

  12. November 22, 2010 at 9:32 AM

    As a child I also loved olives. I particularly like Kalamata olives. They have such a wonderful flavor.

    wow, I’ve never heard of fried olives but that sounds sooo good!



  13. November 22, 2010 at 10:40 AM

    I am not a fan of olives…I don’t know why. Maybe every time I eat olives, they are just so so salty!

  14. OysterCulture
    November 22, 2010 at 12:27 PM

    5 Star – I remember that olive bar at Wegman’s, it was something to behold. Check out the olives at Aphroditie grocers along Route 7 sometime.

    Christine – Its teaching me patience, which is well needed. =)

    Jenn – For many years, I did the same as you and then I had my breakthrough moment =)

    Pierre, I agree that kalamatas are something special.

    Claudia – I’m with you, I am amazed at the first person that thought that olives were edible and that this was the solution, those raw fresh olives are so BITTER its a wonder anyone tried.

    Katerina – Are you giving me an excuse to head to Greece as I did not mention some of your local varieties? I am so on this one. Thank you!

    Sweetlife – I should have posted a warning that those fried ones are addictive.

    Magic – I’m with you, kids just seem to gravitate towards the black ones and then you can add a bit of variety.

    Carolyn – The water method calls for patience, its not the fastest one. Many people prefer it, I just wish I had the space and room to do both simultaneously but I think that might be a bit much the first time.

    Andrea – My pleasure, nice to have you stop by

    Angie – Wow, olives with Chinese spices, I am intrigued.

    Rosa – Fried olives are truly a tasty treat.

    Tigerfish, I’ve never met anyone ambivalent about olives, much like cilantro. You must just fall in the other team.

  15. November 22, 2010 at 4:27 PM

    I hated olives as a kid, but love them now. I always forget how to store them aferwards, so thanks for the hints

  16. November 22, 2010 at 5:13 PM

    I thoroughly enjoyed your overview of all-things olive, but I was especially pleased to find the link to NPR and the recipe for olives ascolana. This dish I recall from my childhood, dining at a restaurant west of Chicago, which featured this wonderful dish. It seemed both odd and unusual back then. No other Italian restaurants in “Chicagoland” ever had it on their menus. Now I shall try it at home!

    Thanks very much,


  17. November 22, 2010 at 6:33 PM

    I think I could be an olive addict. (Fried olives are fantastic too.) I love trying different kinds, and they don’t last long in my house. Wish I could grow them and cure my own!

  18. November 23, 2010 at 4:33 AM

    My younger sister used to eat those black olives like that when we were kids! Unfortunately, I never acquired a taste for olives and have to admit that it is one of the foods that I actually dislike! I’ve tried desperately to like them and have tried them in so many countries, but never seem to enjoy them. Though a fried olive…

    I think maybe I should try making some with those marinades you suggest though, because I desperately wish I liked them, and almost find it childish and embarassing that I don’t!

  19. November 23, 2010 at 12:21 PM

    Love you post…so informative about the olives…for the first time we seen olive trees in Turkey during our vacation…and now I get to read about it 🙂

  20. November 24, 2010 at 11:36 PM

    I hated olives when I was little. I didn’t really start eating them when I was 22.

    I didn’t know anything can be cured using water. Interesting!

    Most of the olives that are available here are imported from Spain and Italy. It’s usually the mazanilla and ponentine that are available here. Kalamata-I might as well be asking for a white Christmas in the tropics!

  21. November 25, 2010 at 9:49 AM

    In Lebanon, everybody loves and eats olives daily; for a lot of people, these olives come from their family’s olive trees; my grandmother used to cure gallons of olives every year and I would watch her; I cured a few this past summer with olives from our garden and it was so easy: just used water, then rock salt and kept them in olive oil, also from our trees.
    I am going to keep your article for future reference because it is thorough and very interesting. I am planning to use lye at some point, as it is used in Lebanon for olives as well as other things. I am fascinated by these traditional methods. Would love to try the stuffed ones that they eat in Italy.

  22. November 25, 2010 at 1:28 PM

    Magnificent research and post! I’m a big fan of olives my doubt now is which variety I’ve locally – no idea!

    I guess I’ve the French or Spanish version…I’ll be see at my supermarket!

    Happy Thanksgiving 🙂



  23. Lazaro
    November 26, 2010 at 11:05 AM

    Interesting and well written post. On Food and Cooking is such a wonderful vast resource of knowledge.

    Olives are a staple in my kitchen. So versatile.

  24. November 28, 2010 at 8:17 AM

    Olives….ok, I’m a super sucker for the black ones but I also love the long, bright green ones from the Med. Thankfully my kids love them too! Love the info…as always

  25. November 28, 2010 at 6:34 PM

    I’ve never seen fresh olives in my neck of the woods! That is so cool. As is all this great information you’ve amassed for us olive lovers! I have to admit I’m not very adventurous – the bland black ones are my favorite. I’m inspired to try some different ones now.

  26. November 30, 2010 at 11:30 AM

    I didn’t like olives as a child but now I love them! This is a very informative article and I’ve learned so much!

  27. December 1, 2010 at 12:00 PM

    good for you for curing your own olives. Our Swedish guest also popped an olive straight from the tree into his mouth. Way too bitter. I have been using the water method to cure my green olives and this year I tried curing black olives for the first time. My relatives use the lye method because it is more convenient but I prefer the flavor of water cured olives. In fact I still have a batch of olives from last year to finish up before this years olives are ready. The variety I use are Souri, Manzanilla and Nabali (some of the varieties you listed here are also grown in Israel but these have been introduced). As for slitting or cracking the olives, there is a special machine that does that for you at the souk. Otherwise I slice each one, a very boring job.

  28. December 3, 2010 at 1:00 AM

    I too grew up eating plain black olives alongside the plain green olives stuffed with a red pimento but learned the joys of real olives along with the diversity when I moved to Italy. Both in Italy and now here in France we have olive sellers with huge bins lined with tray after tray of every sort and flavor of olive imaginable and the only problem is choosing. Our sons grew up with such a huge range of olives and they absolutely love them! My favorite are the luques – green olives cured without the brine so no salty flavor just pure, clean and fabulous!

  29. December 5, 2010 at 6:15 AM

    As always, I’ve learnt so much. I never liked olives as a child and it really was sheer hunger that drove me to eat them, but now I can’t stop eating them!! I love going to the market and just smelling the different ones before trying them – smoked ones, spiced ones, you name it, they’re all great.

  30. OysterCulture
    December 5, 2010 at 8:51 AM

    Joshua – my pleasure, enjoy

    IslandEAT – Nice, enjoy the culinary memories for Chicago. What a treat,

    Lisa – No shame in admitting your addiction. Same here.

    Gastro – I’m not sure its something to be forced, it might be just the ones you encountered before.

    Juliana – Great, timing is everything!

    KM – The water brining is a SLOW process, for that reason alone I may switch to lye.

    Taste of Beirut – I’m on to the salt portion of the process today and so excited to be moving one step closer to savoring my olives. I’d love to claim I used my own olive oil, ah some day!

    Gera – The options thankfully are plentiful, happy belated Thanksgiving to you my friend.

    Lazaro – I can only imagine what delicious dishes you develop with those olives, must peek for ideas.

    KB – I love you do not have to be dedicated to one color.

    Sarah, would love to compare notes with you on the curing process at some point. I’d also love to go to the store for a special olive cracker.

    Reeni – The California black olives have their place, but I am surprised you have not decked some up in an amazing Italian appetizer, your creativity would really flow here.

    Azita – Plenty of time to catch up on missed olive eating!

    Jamie – Can I just say I am a wee bit jealous that you are in the heart of olive land. Ah, pop a few in your mouth for me!

    Crystal – You got a point, they’re a bit like popcorn, you just cannot stop once you start.

  31. December 9, 2010 at 2:17 PM

    We always have green and black olives at breakfast as they are part of typical Turkish breakfast. And luckily my parents brine green olives for us. They crack the olives before waiting them in salted water. We also make salad with green olive for breakfast.

  32. December 12, 2010 at 8:49 AM

    Love this post. We have four olive trees and I’ve accomplished a wide variety of mishaps over the years. My best efforts have been working with the green ones and I’ve had total failure with the black ones. Fair success with purple.

  33. OysterCulture
    December 12, 2010 at 6:49 PM

    Zerrin – I cannot help but think that starting the day with olives is a good thing

    Tammy – Wow, we may have to compare notes sometime. I confess the first time I sampled one after it had been curing in in water for a month was a shocker. It was SO BITTER. Unbelievable.

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