It’s only in the last decade that Americans have begun to appreciate olives. Gone are the days when we thought of them as green and stuffed with tired pimento slivers, as a lonely martini garnish, or as the soft, tasteless, canned black condiment most of us grew up eating (or avoiding). With so many more delicious choices now available here, olives are gaining recognition as a valuable and important food—the status they’ve held for thousands of years all over the Mediterranean basin.
Olive trees need hot, arid weather
Olive trees have been a cultivated crop for more than 6,000 years. Their birthplace, the Mediterranean, remains home to more than 90% of the world’s production.
Olives thrive only in hot, dry climates with mild winters. The trees take 12 to 15 years to bear full crops, and they can live up to 600 years. At specialty markets, you’ll find table olives from Greece, Spain, Italy, France, Israel, and Morocco. There are newer entries, too, from olive groves in California.
Olives are actually fruits. Like cherries, peaches, and other stone fruits, olives are botanically classified as drupes, distinguished by fleshy pulp, a single seed or pit, and an inner stone that contains the seed.
All olives ripen from green to black, through intermediate stages of reddish, brown, and purple. Green and black olives aren’t necessarily different varieties; they’re harvested and cured for the table at all stages of ripeness.
Olives are inedible straight from the tree. Because of their bitter component, oleurpein, olives must be cured before eating.
Brining or dry-curing makes olives delicious
While factors such as ripeness, climate, and handling all play a part, the flavor of finished olives relies mostly on the curing method. Curing not only reduces the olive fruits’ inherent bitterness, it also brings out rich olive flavors. Curing is done in one of two ways: either by brining or by dry-curing.
Brining may involve a brief soaking in an alkali solution, and then washing and fermentation in brine for as long as six months. Or if bitterness and acidity are low, it may simply involve repeated brine fermentation. Many cured olives are then finished in vinegar, wine, or oil. Garlic, herbs, spices, chiles, or citrus peel are often added to their final soaking to add additional flavors. Flavors can vary widely, so ask for a sample to see if the olives suit your taste.
Dry-curing involves rubbing and packing ripe black olives in coarse salt to leach out bitterness, followed by rinsing and then soaking in oil for the final cure and for sale. Dry-cured olives have a dry, wrinkled, pruney appearance and often a coating of olive oil. They’re usually stronger in flavor than brine-cured olives.
Olive flavors span a wide range
At the market, you’ll see olives in a wide range of colors, from golden yellow, dull green, and bright green, to buff, red, purple, and black, and in many sizes depending on the variety and when they were harvested and cured. You’ll find them in jars or offered in open crocks so you can choose among all the different kinds. Finished olives are available both pitted and unpitted, cracked, slit, seasoned, and stuffed.
Olive flavors cover a range of possibilities: strong or mild, salty or vegetal; buttery or nutty; spicy or slightly bitter. They can be bittersweet or sour and even richly fruity, with overtones of prune or licorice. Keep a dish of olives on the table throughout a meal; they’re surprisingly good with full-bodied, tannic red wines like Barolo from Italy, Cahors from France, and big-style California Cabernets. At the market, olives should be unbruised, clean, and firm (if brine-cured). Brine-cured olives should be plump, with smooth, shiny skins and moist interiors. Dry-cured olives should look meaty and not overly dry.
Always keep olives moist, either in brine or sprinkled with olive oil. Store olives in the refrigerator, but be sure to let them come to room temperature before serving. Drain brined-packed olives before serving, reserving the brine for storage, and then rinse the portion you’re going to use in water before eating or cooking with them. (If you need to make extra brine, dissolve one tablespoon coarse or kosher salt in a pint of water.) If the olives you’re serving will be sitting out for a while, dress them with a little olive oil to keep them from drying out.
When cooking with olives, reduce the recipe’s salt, as olives will add their own salty flavors. If the olives you’ve bought taste a little bitter, toss them with oil and fresh herbs or garlic (or both) to balance their strong flavors.
Depending on their size, olives have only 5 to 20 calories each, and they have a high proportion of healthy mono-and polunsaturated fats.