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House Cured Olives

House-cured olives

What would you do when faced with a huge bin full of raw, uncured olives? Most people would crinkle their noses and move on. But when I saw these black beauties staring back at me from the Knoll Farms booth at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, I knew they were coming home with me.

raw_olives

Of course, I didn’t know what to do with them right out of the gate. So I asked. The fella at the booth said he’d email me directions, but that it was basically a matter of soaking in fresh water and then brine until the alkaline toxins were leached out. No lye, no chemicals. Water.

This got me thinking. Olives, much as I love them, are one of those things that has always mystified me. How did humanity come to realize they could eat this bitter, nasty fruit by treating it? Who was the first to make this discovery? But knowing now that mere salt water can be the agent of change, it seems entirely possible that olives found floating in the briny drink of the Mediterranean might have been made edible enough to pique the curiosity and ingenuity of some ancient epicure. Could it really be as simple as that?

Monday morning I received an email with two methods for preparing the olives. The first, from Chris Cosentino of Incanto, involved a glazed earthenware crock and three months of brining. The second, from Andy Galli, produce manager at the Brentwood Raley’s, was more labor-intensive, but was also faster, resulting in edible olives in about a month.

First things first: The olives go into the drink.

 

olives_in_brine2

For the first seven days, cover the olives in fresh water, rinsing and changing the water daily. Some will float, most will not.

For the next 10 to 15 days, soak the olives in a brine of 1/2 c. salt to 12 c. water.

olives_in_brineChange the water every five days or so — but use your instincts. If the water gets especially scummy, change it sooner. Don’t worry too much about it just being murky.

During this stage, one of the most amusing parts was that many olives were clearly at exactly the density of the saline solution, so they would slowly rise and fall, occasionally hovering in the middle, like a mouth-watering lava lamp.

However. What Andy doesn’t tell you, and what I am telling you now, is that mold is the biggest scourge here. Ultimately, I took to dropping a length of cheesecloth in the mix to keep the olives submerged under water so as to avoid exposure to air.

After 10 days in the brine, start tasting. They should be mild, almost bland. Keep soaking until all bitterness is gone.

At this point you can drain the olives, and transfer them to a sealable container. Cover with good olive oil and add any flavoring agents you like — spices, garlic, what have you. I used a couple bay leaves, some red pepper flake, a few good pinches of coarse salt and some julienned orange rind. Stir at least once a day to keep the olives well covered in oil.

The olives were delicious, with an almost nutty flavor and good, firm texture. Sadly, we only got to enjoy them a short time, as the persistent scourge of mold reared its ugly head once again. One morning I cracked open my container to find the orange rind covered in a fine white fur. I hadn’t stirred the olives the day before. Damn.

Still, it was fun while it lasted, and worth it for the opportunity to taste my own handiwork — to say nothing of demystifying this intriguing food. For one brief moment, I felt I was not just preparing a snack, but reaching back through time, reconnecting with something that recalls to the very foundation of Western food and culture. I can hardly wait for next year’s harvest.

Related: Evidently lots of folks are curious about curing your own. Cookiecrumb ventured into these waters moreΒ  than a year before I did. And thanks to Sarah at Slashfood, my own experiment has been picked up in a number of places, including The Food Section.


One year ago today … I feasted on the Salad of Pain. I miss 2 Tasty Ladies!

  • I wouldn’t use garlic in marinating your olives in oil. You don’t want to add the scourge of botulism. πŸ™‚

  • You rock!
    So sorry you had the mold invasion. I had that problem myself when I tried a simple dry salt cure of black olives. Bleh.
    The green olives were more of a success, but I confess I used the lye cure.
    I’m so glad you had your (limited) enjoyment. Beautiful pix. (And that kooky formica! Awesome.)

  • Rebecca: You know, that’s exactly why I did not use garlic. I’ve always heard you cannot leave garlic in olive oil for more than 3 hours for the risk of botulism. Yet, the produce manager specifically mentions garlic in his notes, and I have of course seen many olives with garlic cloves in the mix. Maybe they’re quickly cooked/pasteurized first?
    CC: I do so want to do the dry-cured olives, as they are my favorite. But was your lye local? πŸ˜‰

  • What a great post. It’s fun to read step-by-step accounts of daring home kitchen projects.
    You post reminds me of a funny story about home-curing olives. This guy had an olive tree on his lot and so he contemplated curing some. But he was a somewhat lazy and didn’t think he would remember to change the water. So he said to himself, “What objects in my house have a regular change of water?” The toilet tank, of course! As technically brilliant as that idea sounded, it was a bit too much, and he decided that olive curing was not for him.
    If you want to learn a lot about the history of olives, I recommend the book by Mort Rosenblum with the not so surprising title “Olives.” It’s the same Mort Rosenblum frequently mentioned on David Lebovitz’s site.

  • My mom has a bunch of olive trees in her Southern California garden, and I was always wondering how I could brine my own olives. Thanks for demystifying the process with your step-by-step post! Do you think if you put the olives in the fridge, that there would be less mold? I’d love to brine my own olives, but am a little put-off by the prospect of a white carpet of living organisms. Eek! Especially the risk of botulism!

  • I didn’t know that about garlic! Good to know, to say the least. :):) The first picture is insanely gorgeous! It’s a work of art (that tingles the tastebuds.)

  • This post is awesome! You’ve (almost) made me want to go out and try this myself πŸ™‚
    And ditto to sher’s comment… that first picture is totally sweet.

  • Marc: Ingenious, but … ew. πŸ™‚ And thanks for the reco on the book — sounds right up my alley!
    PE: Refrigeration would definitely keep the mold growth at bay (no pun intended). However, I chose not to as I was afraid it would also inhibit flavor development. I figured there are tons of olive vendors out there with giant bins full of the things that never seem to mold, so it must be possible to keep them fungus-free at room temp. But it is clearly a matter of diligence. (Either that, or all the olives you ever buy at Andronico’s et al are riddled with mold!)
    And for the record, I did taste a couple olives even with the mold on the orange rind. I wanted one last fleeting sample, and perversely wanted to see just how dire the situation was. I suffered no ill effects, but still managed to talk myself out of serving them to guests. :-\
    Sher and Eric: DPaul thanks you! (The other crappy images I took with the point-and-shoot.) Definitely the gloss of a coat of olive makes you want to lick the screen, no?

  • beautiful…they look like big black pearls!

  • What a great experiment! I love the way it made you feel connected through time… olives really are such an ancient food. I feel that way just looking at olive trees.
    Great tabletop, by the way. Did you order it to match your dishes?!

  • Jennifer: Actually we had the table first, but we did have it custom-made about a decade ago. There is, or was then anyway, a company here in SF that makes custom retro tables and chairs — you pick the formica, chrome edging and pleather, set the dimensions, and they do the rest. You get a glimpse of the set in our post about the kitchen.

  • Very cool – thanks for sharing this! I am a little surprised they got moldy so quickly. Must have been disappointing after working on them so hard! I used to keep garlic in olive oil in my fridge and never got poisoned, but I don’t think I’d do that now. I do want to try making some infused oil sometime though to put on salads!

  • Wow… go you!

  • Now that you mention it, how do all those olive vendors keep mold away? I’m sure they’re not going around stirring constantly. I wonder if they add a bit of citric acid to the olives, or vinegar, and if that would help? I’m pretty sure that inhibits botulism, too, regarding the fresh garlic. It must, or my family would all be dead, since I always have fresh garlic in my oil and vinegar salad dressing and sometimes have a jar going for a month in the fridge.

  • I’m always amazed at how we humans figured out stuff like curing olives. (Or baking bread–like, here’s this weedy looking thing. I bet if I grind it up and add a bunch of other random ingredients…)

  • Alice: From what I’ve read, you can do an infusion by gently heating the oil with lightly crushed garlic on the stovetop for several minutes — not enough to boil it or bring it to smoke, just to heat it up. Then, strain out the garlic, and the resulting infusion should be good.
    Garrett: I do go, don’t I?
    Rebecca: Actually, good olive vendors do stir the olives very frequently. Not only does it keep them pretty and glossy, but more evenly moist and obviously mold-free. But still. I think the botulism thing is probably one of those one-in-a-thousand kind of things, but still enough to scare the pants of your average home cook.
    Jenn: Oh yeah, and what about artichokes? I mean, really. To say nothing of all the scary things in Chinese food.

  • Hi Sean,
    A few years ago I attempted to cure my own green olives. It was successful. So I thought I’d try again this year. It didn’t work. Like you I ended up with mould on the olives that floated…. On to the compost heap they went!
    I’ll try again next olive season.

  • I spoke with one of the folks at Knoll Farms’ stand on Saturday, and she said that if you get mold, you can rinse the unaffected olives, re-soak in brine and start over. Good to know!

  • How to cure your own olives

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  • Elizabeth

    Where can I buy uncured raw green olives?

  • Well, keep an eye out at your farmer’s market, ask around and find out when olives come into season in your neck of the woods. If your climate isn’t conducive to olive trees, you may be out of luck!

  • Laura

    You can also buy them online. I bought a box of green ones at greatolives.com. They’re $14 for 10 pounds, plus shipping (also about $14) 10 pounds is an awful lot of olives for a first-timer.

  • Italian Olive Grower

    How stupid. Why did you use such a small amount of salt? You obviously did not add enough salt for mold to appear. Add as much salt as the water will hold. No mold will grow when the brine has enough salt. When you want to eat the olives just rinse the salt off and eat it.

  • As I clearly noted, I used a recipe given to me by a reliable source. As it was my first attempt, I hardly think it makes me stupid.
    Laura–thanks for the tip! I’ll definitely buy some.

  • Just received my 10-lb box of fresh olives from Penna …. the process begins anew!

  • Kim

    Hi Sean: Your friend Anita sent me here from Tea and Cookies when I asked in a comment there how to cure olives. (Check out Tea’s beautiful photos of uncured olives and other gorgeous produce if you haven’t already.) Anyway, thanks for the fun and informative lesson. I hope you’ll tell us how the next batch turns out.

  • I’ve got a batch going right now — 10 lbs of manzanilla olives ordered from Penna (www.greatolives.com). We are in the brining stage now, so I’ll be sure to report back on the final results in a few weeks.

  • This is regards to the garlic/botulism issue- I read somewhere that it is the ROOT of the garlic bulb that may contain botulism, so if you just cut your garlic ends off, you should be fine. Heating the cloves to a certain temperature in oil would also be an additional precaution.
    Just started my olives today! Very excited. My family owns olive groves in Greece but I’ve never tried to cure them at home.

  • James

    I love this site! I just finished the (6 week ) process of brining my olives from my neighbors trees and am looking forward to flavoring them and enjoying them for the holidays.As a working Chef I have never done this before, and understand the concern of Botulism and even though I am no expert, I have to agree safety should come first! I will not only blanch my garlic first but also heat seal my jars. That way if any buddies start to grow I or my friends will have fair warning… (if the seal is broken!). I do this with all my jams and pickles already and feel It’s the least I can do as a canner!

  • Olive me

    Three months, two food service containers, one stockpot and lord only knows how much salt later, ten pounds of olives are ready to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world. These puppies took a fair amount longer than our last batch.

  • Beth

    I harvested some olives from a neighbor’s tree down the street a couple weeks ago (2/11). I’m using the salt curing method since these are black and fairly small, and small is recommended for the salt cure. I’ve stirred them a second time, and just for interest, cut one open and tasted the flesh. Still somewhat bitter, but nowhere NEAR the bitterness of the green one I tried several years ago. Blgh! The flesh toward the pit was still pretty wet, but the outside 1/16″ was less moist. My thumb and finger do have a purply stain now.

  • caz

    i still dont know how to cure olives
    can anyone help with a recipe plez?

  • tony dos Santos

    Hi….! once I watch an Armenian Lebanese processing black olives in salt (only)in a bag, pressing the bag or place some weights on it. Black juice driped from it, after 3 or 4 days great stuff to eat easy piel from pips. Cannot locate the person or know how much salt per pound of olives. Please help. Thank you

  • Scott

    BLACK OLIVES TOO SALTY! Anyone know how I can reduce the saltiness before I can these things? I’m thinking soak them in fresh water and change the water frequently over a week or more but wanted to get some opinion on this first. Guess I soeked them too long in brine but the bitterness took forever to go away.

  • Chez Papi

    Dear Sean,
    Thank you for all of the great info here. I also bought some olives (both black and green) from Knoll Farms a couple of weeks ago along with some fantastic cardoon (which must be ordered ahead). I too had the mold issue and I removed the affected olives and rinsed the remaining ones in hot water and rebrined and was hoping that was OK. So, I was happy to read one of the other comments.
    Does anyone know if olives are brined before oil is made from them?
    Happy olive eating!

  • Thanks for the kind words! Olive oil is pressed from fresh, uncured olives; most of the bitter compouds are water-soluble rather than oil, though if you’ve ever had really fresh olive oil, you’ll know that it has a bitter aftertaste that tickles the throat. It’s been recently discovered that this is a powerful anti-inflammatory similar to ibuprofen. See: http://health.dailynewscentral.com/content/view/0001581/35

  • no

    That’s daft, garlic is antibiotic, antifungal and antiviral

  • No, it’s true — garlic in olive oil can breed botulism.

  • Dave

    Great article. Working from my rememberance of my Grandfather’s efforts, plus help from professionals, I’ve used lye in the past to cure olives, then brine for year-long storage after hot bath canning. Good times! Brought tears to Grampa’s friends and the family, which of course made my day. For my olives, no color (other than green) or bruised olives are allowed – yuck!
    Many specialty oliviers (my term) buy pre-lye-cured olives, and they do use a lot of salt in the brine in 50 gallon containers, stirring daily, at least. Most important is to keep the buggers underwater, away from air. Grampa had concrete tubs with oak-plank lids that would not float – worked for him, good luck finding concrete tubs now.
    Pickling!!! Why ruin a perfectly wonderful fruit? Just kidding.
    If you do use lye, please be CAREFUL! Nasty stuff, extremely dangerous. Do NOT use Drano – it has additives that are not ‘good eats’ and won’t necessarily rinse away like lye. Keep a bottle of vinegar (acid) handy to neutralize spills, and don’t just drain the stuff into the gutter/ground without adding some acid first. If you’re not up to handling lye, contact a packer, see if they’ll sell you some pre-cured olives for personal use.

  • In Spain we use enough salt so that an egg will float, when curing olives

  • Mary

    I cured California olives for the first time. They are in large glass containers with lids. I covered the top of the water with olive oil and to my dismay, I have mold on the surface of the water. The olives don’t have mold, just the top of the water. Are the olives safe to eat, or must they be thrown out? I’m new at this and I would love to hear from anyone. Thanks!
    Mary

  • Hi Mary — as long as the olives aren’t moldy, you’re still in good shape. Hank Shaw of Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook actually allows a raft of mold to form over his brine, simply discarding it before draining the olives. If you don’t want that, skim off what you have, and replace the brine.

  • Old Biddy

    In Morocco our Berber ladies repeatedly soak the new olives in spring/well water – ie no chlorine. Once clear of bitterness they will stay indefinitely in more non-chlorinated water.
    Also, try not to touch the olives w/ your hands as this may tend to rot the ones you touch, & well, “one bad apple…”
    As for the black olives, these I do in my kitchen. I rinsed & drained o’nite a kilo of black olives then put them in a 1/2 gallon glass jar, sprinkled 1 heaping Tbs sea salt on them. I turn the jar every which way & will continue to do so for about a week. The bitter fluids can then be drained. The olives will be lightly salted & keep well for over a year. (At least they did so with the last batch I made.)
    Good luck w/ your olives!