Ever tasted a fresh-picked olive? If so, you know that olives are one of those magical foods that undergo a complete transformation on the way from tree to table — the briny, deeply-flavored, tasty little morsels we love to snack on bear little resemblance to their bitter, astringent cousins on the branch except in that they are green (or purple) and grape-shaped. I always imagine the delight with which some primitive Mediterranean fellow must have discovered that the olives bobbing around in the sea tasted a whole lot better than those horrid little fruits on the tree nearby!
There are a variety of methods for curing olives, ranging from simple (i.e., toss them in the sea) to complicated indeed. Our olive trees are laden this year, so we’ll be making several kinds of olives: water-cured, lye-cured, and salt-cured… and, of course, sharing the methods with you here…
The simplest, and quite possibly the oldest, method of curing olives involves soaking them in water to draw out the bitterness — a similar technique to the one the Native Americans in our area used to render acorns palatable. Breaking the olive’s skin allows the water to penetrate and wash out the astringency more quickly; it’s a bit time-consuming, but the result will be a much tastier olive, so it’s worth your while. And the work goes quickly if you round up a few pals to help — it’s one of those pleasantly mindless activities, like shelling beans or polishing apples, that are well-suited to conversation and daydreaming!
This recipe is adapted from the UC Extension publication “Olives: Safe Methods for Home Pickling.” You can download the complete document at anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu (highly recommended, with a nice variety of methods for curing olives.)
Water-Cured Olives, Kalamata style
This is a good place to start — a simple method, adaptable to any amount, large or small. You’ll need olives that are ripe but firm; ours are fairly red with a greenish tinge, but you could use riper ones too, as long as they aren’t soft (be sure to check them over for worms!) Uniformity is important when making olives: pick fruits that are fairly even in size and ripeness for the best results. A gallon or two is a good amount to start with.
ingredients and supplies:
• Firm-ripe olives (light to dark red)
• Water — plenty of it!
• Pickling salt
• Red wine vinegar
• Olive oil
• Sharp knife or razor blade
• One-gallon glass jars, or other similar glass or plastic containers
• Extra jar or bucket for mixing brine
Rinse and drain the olives. With knife or razor blade, make two or three lengthwise cuts on each olive, on opposite sides of the fruit, to pit depth. (These olives were fairly large, so we made three slices; smaller olives would only need two.)
Place the olives in the jars or your containers of choice, and fill with cool water. Place a small saucer, wooden disc, or a plastic bag filled with water on the surface to keep the olives submerged — too much air exposure will turn them dark. Soak for 24 hours, then drain and cover again with water.
Change the water once or twice daily. After about a week, taste the olives to check for bitterness; continue to taste every day or so until the olives are no longer bitter. (It may take up to three weeks to remove all the bitterness.)
To make the brine: Mix one pound (1 1/2 c) pickling salt with 1 gallon cool water. Stir to dissolve, then add 1 quart (4 c) vinegar; pour mixture over drained olives. (Note: this will make enough brine for 10 lbs of olives; you can increase or decrease the amounts to suit your needs.)
Drizzle about 1/2 inch olive oil over surface, close container firmly, and store at 60-80° for about 1 month before eating. The olives may be stored this way for up to a year.
If slicing each olive sounds like too much work, you can also make cracked water-cured olives: start with green olives rather than red, and give each fruit a whack with a mallet, rolling pin, rock, or other similar device. You want to crack the skin and meat, but not mash the fruit. Proceed as above, replacing the red wine vinegar with 2 cups white wine vinegar. Pour brine over drained olives and refrigerate. Let the olives soak in the brine for at least four days before eating; keep these ones in the fridge, where they will also last for up to a year (provided you don’t eat them all up immediately!)