Author of The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves and The Joy of Pickling, Linda Ziedrich likes to cook with every sort of food she can grow in Scio, Oregon.

Cure your own olives

Simple brining is easy

February 12, 2010

To my regret, I never got around to curing the fruit of the huge old olive trees on my parents’ California ranch, which they have long since sold. Like many other gardeners in the Pacific Northwest, I now have my own little olive tree, of the hardy Arbequina variety, and I await the first crop with greedy anticipation.

Last year, though, I got to wondering: In the age of the Internet and overnight delivery, did I have to wait? Could I buy some fresh olives to cure at home?

In fact, I could. For less than $30, I had 10 pounds of green Sevillanos delivered to my door in early September. I looked them over carefully; you don’t want to cure olives that are bruised or otherwise damaged. Nearly all were perfect. I grabbed my copy of the University of California’s Olives: Safe Methods for Home Pickling, and studied up.

It’s not difficult to cure your own olives.

There are many ways to cure olives. The best choice depends on the variety, whether the olives are green or ripe, how you want to store them, and how long you’re willing to wait before you eat them.

I chose the method that the booklet calls Sicilian-style — that is, simple brining — for most of the olives. For the rest, I chose a lye cure followed by a shorter brining.

For the Sicilian-style olives, I filled two glass jars, one gallon-size and one three-quart-size, with olives, hot peppers, chopped garlic, bay leaves, and fennel umbels, and then I added a brine made of 1 cup pickling salt, 1 gallon water, and 1 pint red-wine vinegar.

The remaining two quarts of olives I treated with lye — Red Devil, which you might use to clean out a kitchen drain — mixed with water. The olives soaked in the lye water for about 12 hours, and then I repeatedly rinsed them and soaked them in pure water for about 30 hours, to remove the lye.

At this point the olives had lost their natural bitterness, but they still needed to ferment to develop their flavor and texture. I mixed up a brine with the same ratio of salt to water as before, but this time I left out the vinegar.

Presumably because lye kills the lactic-acid-forming bacteria on the olives, the recipe told me I needed to add a starter. I used a little brine from a jar of unpasteurized fermented cucumber pickles.

Two months later, the lye-treated olives were already tender, but they also tasted of dill and cucumbers from the pickle brine. So, though the recipe didn’t call for seasonings, I added hot pepper, garlic, bay, and thyme. A week or so later, these olives were delicious, and my husband and I started eating and sharing them.

Now we have finished off the lye-treated olives and are waiting for the Sicilian-style ones, which have lost most of their bitterness. I actually like the slight bitterness that remains, but the texture is still a little too chewy. We’ve just reached the minimum curing time for these olives — about four months. We’ll probably wait another two weeks or so before we start eating them.

Olives includes recipes for other curing methods, and none of these methods is more complicated than the two I tried. Curing olives, like making other sorts of pickles, is not only possible for people who don’t grow their own; it’s also easy.

Culinate editor’s note: This post also appeared on Linda Ziedrich’s blog, A Gardener's Table.

There are 14 comments on this item
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1. by anonymous on Feb 12, 2010 at 10:14 AM PST

Hi, I just recently did the same thing with olives from our tree. I used the same document but I did the water cure since I had trouble finding lye and I was too impatient to try the brine method. After slitting the skin of each olive with a knife they soaked in water for a week, changing the water every day. Then I put them in a salt/vinegar brine with lemon, tarragon, and marjoram. They came out great. I would love to try other methods, where did you purchase your olives from?

2. by Liz Crain on Feb 14, 2010 at 12:29 PM PST

I just checked on my two back parking strip arbequina olive trees this morning and they look great -- planted them last summer. I can’t wait to one day get olives from them although I know it’ll be a while.

Thanks for the two methods you described here. The last time we were in Northern California we got to eat home water cured olives that a friend made from southern CA olives and they were dreamy. Thanks Linda!

I too would love to know your source for fresh olives or any advice on sourcing them in the Northwest...

3. by Linda Ziedrich on Feb 15, 2010 at 10:02 AM PST

My olives were from Penna, at Last year the people at Penna knew they wouldn’t have enough olives to meet demand, so hopefully other olive farms are selling over the Internet.
Lye should be available in hardware stores.

4. by Sarah Melamed on Feb 16, 2010 at 2:06 AM PST

I cure my own olives but use only the brine method, leaching out bitter oleuropein by soaking in water first. I prefer this method to using lye as it preserves the flavor profile of the olive.I add lemons, garlic, pepper, hot pepper and grape leaves for added flavor and cover the brine with olive oil so it doesn’t get contaminated.

5. by Linda Ziedrich on Feb 16, 2010 at 9:58 AM PST

Sarah, your method sounds like a good one. Do you add any vinegar?

6. by Sarah Melamed on Feb 16, 2010 at 10:43 AM PST

it took me 10 days to remove the bitterness, so it is time consuming. The solution was a 10% brine solution with 1/8 vinegar which took about 1-2 months to cure (manzanillo variety). I keep them at room temperature covered with olive oil. Next year I would like to cure black olives, which I couldn’t obtain because it was a very bad season for olives here

7. by TRISTA on Feb 17, 2010 at 1:16 PM PST

Could you help me understand what lye is? I read that it’s also used to make hominy, but I thought lye was poisonous! Am I getting it confused with something else?

8. by anonymous on Feb 17, 2010 at 2:37 PM PST

NOTE; I hope you people are using proper precautions, if your using lye.That being said, you shouldn’t use RED DEVIL LYE for any food related recipe!!!
You should only use FOOD GRADE LYE, period. But hey, it’s your body. RED DEVIL: OH MY GOSH.......

I wonder whether the LYE treatment is absolutely necessary, and couldn’t have a concentrated baking soda treatment instead. I’ve seen concentrated baking soda substituted for LYE, in PRETZEL making, just thought i’d mention it.

9. by Linda Ziedrich on Feb 17, 2010 at 5:26 PM PST

Lye is a strongly alkaline substance made from wood ashes. Yes, it’s used to make hominy, and also soap. Lye is dangerous and must be handled with care, but it speeds the process of curing olives. Olives can certainly be cured without lye; as I wrote, I cured most of mine simply by brining them. You could also use Sarah’s method, which I may try next year.

10. by mrsighents on Feb 20, 2010 at 4:15 PM PST

BTW, for us western Oregonians, olive trees can grow well here. Also, we can easily grow our own tea, some citrus, and a non-fruiting banana for cooking leaves. “Exotic” doesn’t really have to be.

11. by Zeke on Feb 21, 2010 at 4:25 PM PST

You can never go wrong with pickling your own foods. They are so tasty and very healthy. I’ve always wanted to cure my own olives. At least someone is living the dream.

12. by Yosefa on Nov 28, 2010 at 12:50 AM PST

I bought a kilo of olives in my local market (Israel) and I was also interested in trying baking soda to spead the process. Has anyone tried this? Will I need to add a starter if I use baking soda? I’ve also seen where it says to crack them with a mallet or slit them to spead the process. If I pit them with a cherry pitter will I end up with mushy olives? Or is that considered like anti-gormet?

13. by Stephanie on Jan 24, 2011 at 6:37 AM PST

Thank you for sharing your results. Two cautions about lye: read bottle carefully to ensure it is 100% sodium hydroxide (NaOH. When mixing lye powder NEVER pour water into the powder as the heat generated could break the mixing container and splatter you, causing burns. Slowly pour lye into the water in amounts indicated by the recipe.

14. by Linda Ziedrich on Jan 24, 2011 at 1:11 PM PST

Thanks for the tip, Stephanie. The University of California publication has a lot of helpful details about olive curing, including aboutlye.

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