Months ago, when I was shopping for blood oranges and oysters at the Allemany Farmers Market, I ran into these beauties:
Fresh olives! I couldn’t believe it, and grabbed a huge bag of them. Olives are so delicious, and the thought of curing my own was majorly exciting. Of course, I had literally no experience purchasing or curing olives, but the anticipation of a new project was too much to bear…
Now that I’ve learned a little bit more about what I’m doing, I’m summarizing it here so that if any other crazy folks randomly buy pounds and pounds of olives without knowing what they’re doing, the power of Google will bring us together to make olive perfection. So here goes:
- The color of the olive is determined by the ripeness (not the variety). Green olives are the least ripe, with shades varying all the way to black, the most ripe. When selecting olives for curing at home, look for unbruised fruit, and avoid the very dark, jet black shades and pick slightly lighter shades. Olives that are that dark are not always firm enough to hold up well during the curing process and most people make olive oil with these. Note: Since I don’t know what I’m doing, I actually cured this exact type of super ripe olives, and while the texture isn’t quite perfect – they are a little soft – I made my own olives, damn it! and they taste great!
- Fresh olives are bitter and inedible, so you have to cure them to make them taste awesome. There are a lot of different methods, including brine, dry salt, water and lye, all of which function to pull the bitterness out of the olives over varying periods of time. The olives actually ferment during this time, which means develops the flavor and makes you a preservation superstar and a wizard in the pantry.
The most appropriate method for my olives was a brine-cure. It’s easy as pie- all you need is salt, water, and a food-grade plastic or glass storage container to keep the olives in while they soak. The whole process takes 2-3 months (depending on how bitter you like your olives) and you end up with a bitter, salty, tasty dark purple olive. (If you’re interested in lye-curing, Hunter Gardener Angler Cook has a good set of instructions here.)
Any variety of ripe olive will work for this recipe. These olives are bitter and very flavorful, perfect for making tapenades, pastas, pizzas, salads and more. Some shriveling is normal because of the high salt solution in the brine.
Special Equipment: a large food-grade plastic container for curing, and a glass jar for storage (I would prefer a glass or ceramic pickling crock to plastic, but I don’t own one and had to scramble for a container since I don’t plan in advance. It’s really ridiculous.)
- uncured black olives (such as Mazanilla, Mission, or Kalamata): buy as many as you feel like you want to have on hand
for the brine:
- kosher salt or pickling salt
- water: If you filter your tap water, make sure you filter the water you’re cooking with as well. This helps ensure good flavor and that there are no strange minerals in your ferment that you don’t want to be in there.
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 fresh bay leaves
1. Make the brine first, it will need to cool to room temperature before you can use it so that it doesn’t cook the olives when you put them in. In a large pot, combine 1 gallon of water with 3/4 c. of salt, garlic, and bay leaves. Bring to a full boil to dissolve the salt and infuse the water with the herbs and garlic. Set the pot aside to cool. Olives are in season in the winter, so it’s probably freezing outside, and you can just set the pot out on the back porch to make it cool faster.
2. Wash and sort the olives. Pull out any bruised or strange looking olives and discard. The sizes of the olives should be relatively uniform to ensure an even cure, so if you have a range of sizes, you’ll want to separate them into two or more different batches. Put the olives into the container you will be curing them, and cover them with the brine. Make sure that the olives are fully covered with the liquid, which you can do by putting a ceramic plate on top of them to weight them down. (If there are a few that float to the top… no biggie… just keep an eye on them and discard if they start to look weird). Cover the container and store at room temperature for one week. You may have some gas buildup in the container this week from the olives starting to ferment, so attach lids loosely or open the lid every once in awhile to check on them.
3. After one week, drain the olives. Cook a new brine, this time with 1 1/2 c. of salt per gallon of water, and let it cool to room temperature. Sterilize a glass jar (or multiple jars) for your olives. (Do this by placing the jar in the oven at 200 degrees for twenty minutes.) Pack the olives into the jars and pour the cool brine over them. Feel free to add a bay leaf or other fresh herbs to the jars if you want. Thyme, rosemary, and marjoram all would work well. Attach lids to the jars. The olives will be ready to eat in two months, but if you want less bitter olives, wait another month.
4. As long as the jars are kept air-tight, olives will keep for a year in a cool, dark space. You may have some gas buildup, which could cause the lids to bulge or the brine to seep out, so you’ll want to keep half an eye on them while they’re in the pantry. If you do notice this happening, just make a new batch of brine to top off the jar again and put the lid on tight. You can also just put the jars in the fridge if you’ve made a smaller batch and don’t want to worry about checking on them.
P.S. Once your olives are done you can do fun stuff like put them on pizza! I meant to photograph this pizza right when it came out of the oven, but instead we ate it, and now I’m photographing the one last leftover piece the next morning instead. It was so delicious! Here’s a recipe for a basic pizza dough, which I then topped with about a cup tomato sauce from the pantry, 3 ounces of goat cheese, 1 c. of shredded mozzarella cheese, 1 small jar of marinated artichoke hearts, 1/2 c. of caramelized onions, 1 c. of roughly chopped miner’s lettuce, and 1/2 c. of pitted olives. A little twist of fresh cracked black pepper on top, and pop that baby in the oven for about 15 minutes at 475 degrees. Cook until cheese is bubbly and crust is golden brown.
P.P.S. Once you start making things like olives and preserved lemons, you’ll really feel like you have a sexy looking pantry. At least that’s the feeling I had. Not just jam on these shelves, no way.
For more information about preserving olives, read this article from UC Davis.