Olives ripe on the tree. Photos: Aisha Abdelhamid
For those fortunate folks living in the northern hemisphere, now is the right time to find fresh organic olives at your local market. For an extra special treat that carries the sunshine of summer into the late days of winter, start your olive brining in the autumn. Doing it yourself is easy, and the advantages are many, not the least of which is the great, naturally tart and meaty flavor of the beloved olive.
Brining your own olives will cause your olives to not only taste better, but will be safer than commercially brined olives with unhealthy levels of sodium and other preservatives. The health risks associated with too much sodium include stroke, hypertension, heart disease, kidney troubles, water retention, and inflammation. When you brine your own olives, you control what goes into the recipe. No artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives — just olives, water, vinegar, salt, spices, and a few lemons. Some garlic and chili peppers are also delicious when added into the mix.
Olive tree in flower
The many health advantages of olives
A 2006 study of the olive published in the Journal of Nutrition points out several important health advantages in olives. Antioxidant phenols, e.g., hydroxytyrosol, are shown to be antimicrobial, and they help ‘thin’ the blood by dilating blood vessels, facilitating the flow of nutrients to the body, and reducing the risk of blood clots. Hydroxytyrosol has also been shown to help prevent DNA damage, and abnormal cell growth.
Another phenol recently discovered in olives is oleocanthal, a natural anti-inflammatory property that is similar to NSAIDs like ibuprophen. Oleocanthal is also responsible for the slightly bitter or tart, peppery taste we love about olives. Other olive phenols are proving effective in colon cancer prevention, perhaps by reducing irritating bile acids in the gut, or protecting the lining of the large intestine. The skin of olives also contains maslinic acid, which may be an effective agent against colon cancer cells.
A 1-cup serving of black olives has about 142 calories, about 1 gram of protein, and about 13 grams of fat. Approximately 75% of the fat in olives is useful for reducing the risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Polyunsaturated fats in black olives can help lower ‘bad’ cholesterol, and reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. They also help regulate heart rate, and protect against high blood pressure. The monounsaturated fat in olives, oleic acid, not only lowers cholesterol, it is also proving useful in the treatment of breast cancer. Lab data has shown that oleic acid may inhibit a gene that becomes overactive in cases of aggressive breast cancer.
The immediate ancestry of the cultivated Olive is unknown. It is assumed … that Olea europaea may have arisen from O. chrysophylla in northern tropical Africa and that it was introduced into the countries of the Mediterranean Basin via Egypt and then Crete or the Levant, Syria, Tunisia and Asia Minor. — Wikipedia
Many locations worldwide will support the growth of olive trees, but a mediterranean-like climate is preferred. Olives need a long, hot summer and a cool, but not frigid, winter. Any prolonged weather under 15 degrees farenheit will likely kill even a mature olive tree. There are some varieties that can withstand colder temperatures, but should only be purchased from nurseries located in those colder regions. A good rule of thumb for any variety of olive is to purchase only from nurseries in locations similar to your own growing conditions.
Choosing an olive variety from your target nursery will be dependent on your interests. If oil is the goal, be sure an olive mill is within a convenient distance to you. Basically, any olive can be crushed for oil, or cured for table fruit. Tastes and commercial interests will guide that decision. The World Catalogue of Olive Varieties is a very helpful guide. There are many varieties of olive trees that produce fruit suitable for both oil and the table.
Understanding the curing process
Any olive can be picked when it’s green, to make green olives. Some varieties taste better green, and others taste better if allowed to ripen more fully, to make black olives. One advantage of growing your own is the ability to do both, and experimenting with degrees of ripeness.
Commercially cured olives, especially green olives, are usually given a lye treatment to chemically reduce bitterness, darken the fruit, and speed up the curing process, which can be lengthy. Olives brined naturally will require about four months to stabilize the flavor and reduce bitterness. Using lye reduces the time down to two months.
Lye is the active ingredient in "draino" pipe cleaner, and is also used to make soap. It is a chemical that is getting harder to obtain in many places, especially the U.S., and it’s a dangerous substance for the inexperienced person to be handling. Fortunately, lye is totally unnecessary for producing delicious table-quality olives. Personally, eating anything soaked in lye seems like a really bad idea. I’d much rather wait two more months for delicious, natural olives.
Do it yourself, the natural way
Olive trees are fairly disease resistant, and pest-free. In ten years of growing olives on our farm in South Carolina, I never sprayed them. It is not difficult to grow organic olives, and finding a good supply of ripe organic olives in your local market should not be difficult, if you are in an olive-growing region.
Harvest or purchase your fresh olives in the fall. Optimally, they should not be completely black, but still showing some green and red colors. Even if they are fully ripe, but still firm, they will make delicious cured olives. They will soften sooner, though, so for curing large quantities that will be eaten throughout the year, it’s better to start with fruit that is less ripe. However, overly soft olives separate from their pits easily, and are great for making an olive-and-tomato spread or salsa for bruschetta.
Olives ready for brining
How to brine fresh olives
First, make the brine:
- To one gallon of water, add
- Two cups of salt and
- One pint of your favorite vinegar
- Bring to a full, rolling boil
(Boiling it reduces the opportunity for mold growth while curing)
- Let cool completely
Next, prepare the olives:
- Wash approx. 10 pounds (4 kg) fresh olives to remove any dust
- Peel 10 cloves of garlic
- Wash 10 chili peppers (optional)
- Quarter 10 small round lemons (or slice 2 or 3 large lemons – limes also work well)
- Line a big enough container, or clean bucket, with a big new plastic bag (helps to keep the air out) — make sure you have a good, tight-fitting lid
Now, put it all together:
- Fill the bucket 1/4 with clean olives
- Throw in a few garlic cloves, chili peppers and lemon pieces
- Repeat the layers until done
- Toss in any extra seasoning that seem interesting, like some fennel seeds, bay leaves, mustard seed, etc.
- Sprinkle the top with 2 cups of your favorite seasoning salt
- Pour in the cooled brine until the olives are completely covered (complete covering with vinegar if necessary)
- Close up the bag carefully with a wire tie, trying to get out as much air as possible
- Close the container or bucket tightly
Olives, lemons and spices ready for the brine
Finally, check the calendar:
- Write a note on your refrigerator to open the olives in four months
- Put the bucket in a kitchen cupboard, and be patient!
- After 4 months, eat your olives for breakfast with warmed pita bread and feta cheese, build a big greek salad for lunch, or make an awesome black olive and mushroom pizza for dinner (these are my favorites, what are yours?)
Black olive and mushroom pizza