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Olives are the small oval fruit of the olive tree.
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Olives ripen from green to black; the flesh encloses an oval stone and is the source of olive oil - the fruit stoned or stuffed is used as an appetiser and as a flavouring and ingredient in dishes. Originating in the East the Olive was consumed by both the ancient Egytians and Greeks and was spread in its cultivation to all Mediterranean regions by the Romans. More recently the low level of saturated fat has made the olive more popular as a healthy and tastier alternative to other vegetable oils.

There are two basic types of olive green and black (ripe).

Green olives are harvested before they ripen and treated with an alkali to reduce the bitterness the rinsed and pickled in brine.

Black Olives are harvested when fully ripe and are not treated with alkali but are still pickled in brine.

Varieties are well illustrated on Cook's Thesuarus



Pickling and Preparing Olives:

The following passage comes from Lynn Alley's book "Lost Arts - A Cook's Guide to Curing Olives, Crafting Fresh Goat Cheese and Simple Mustards, Baking Bread and Growing Herbs".

"The Brine Cure ... is simple and safe, and it offers the most plausible response to my question about who first discovered that the olive was, given the right circumstances, edible.

I suppose it's possible that, long ago, some olives fell into a saltwater tide pool and stayed there undisturbed for a considerable length of time. Then one day someone, perhaps a housewife or fisherman, happened by and decided to give one a try. Much to her delight, the olives had become pleasantly salty and quite edible.

No doubt, she then took some home to her humble abode and, to her even greater delight, was able to duplicate the process. People still cure olives today in some Greek islands by dipping a basket of olives daily into the sea for 10 days. When the inner flesh is dark brown, the olives are ready to eat.

To begin the brine processing, place your clean olives in cold water and change the water each day for 10 days. (I use large, plastic, covered buckets from a local restaurant supply.) Weight the olives down with a plate so they all stay submerged. No need to seal at this point.

This will start leaching the bitter glucosides out of the olives. At the end of the ten day period you can make a more permanent brine solution in which to continue the process. Add one cup of noniodized salt to each gallon of water. Use enough of this brine to cover the olives.

Change this solution weekly for four weeks, transfer the olives to a weaker brine solution until you are ready to use them. The solution should contain one half cup of noniodized salt to each gallon (4.2 litres) of water.

Just how long it will take for your olives to become edible I cannot say. Mine seem to take about two or three months to develop a rich, olivey flavour. The best piece of equipment you have for assessing when the olives are done is located between your nose and your chin. It doesn't cost much to maintain (outside of your regular dental checkups), so use it!

Store your olives in the weaker brine in a fairly cool, dark place and keep them covered. A scum may form on the top of the olives, but according to my mother's Italian neighbours, this simply adds to the flavour of the olives! (One of my Italian sources swears that this is the "culture which consumes the bitterness of the olives.") Toss out the scum and use any olives that look unspoiled. (A squishy olive is a spoiled olive.)

Editor's note: Using the pickling method outlined above, and the complete absence of salt during the initial ten day rinsing period, bacteria can form and turn the fruit soft and rotten during the following weeks. If this happens, you will lose your entire production. Experiment with it, use about 5% salt solution for one batch and no salt for another batch. To care for the environment, there are some commercial methods that do not use the daily rinse method.

Pickling in Yesteryear

The following five recipes come from the Beaumont Nursery Catalogue of many years ago. The Brock family who operated the nursery have since moved on, but Beaumont House, which was taken over by the National Trust in about 1976, is very much a landmark today. Beaumont House was Sir Samuel Davenport's original home in the 1850's.

The nursery catalogue claims that the first olive trees imported to Australia were shipped by Sir Samuel Davenport and planted on his Beaumont property in 1844. Our thanks go to the Brock family for the years they spent in developing the Australian Olive Industry.

"It is a very simple matter to pickle olives and all you need is a small wooden vat or barrel or an earthenware jar with an open top similar to a glazed bread crock, and if you are interested the following recipes may be of some assistance to you:

Referring to all the following recipes, it is essential that when pickling, the olives must not be bruised in any way. Fruit must be picked just as the olive is turning colour from green, that is when it shows a small patch of pinkish purple and is commencing to soften. Always cover the containers to exclude all light.

No. 1 Recipe. Place olives carefully in container, cover the olives with a caustic soda solution (3 oz. of caustic soda to 1 gallon rainwater) for 40 to 48 hours (no longer), using a piece of flat, clean wood to keep them below the surface of the liquid. At the end of 48 hours pour off the caustic liquid, then cover with fresh rainwater and continue the renewing and pouring off of the water twice daily, night and morning, for at least one week (until all caustic soda is eliminated.) Do not worry if olive is bitter to taste.

Next, mix well 1/2 lb. of salt to one gallon of rainwater and cover the olives in this solution for a week, then drain. You then mix 3/4 lb. salt (12 oz.) to each gallon of rainwater, cover for another week and drain again. You then place the olives into jars. A-Gee jars or similar. Place jars in tub of very hot water up to their necks and fill with a boiling brine solution (3/4 lb/ salt to one gallon of water) to overflowing and seal immediately. As the jars cool the rubber rings will seal the tin inner lids perfectly and the olives will keep indefinitely.

Recipe No 2. Place olives in vat and cover with a caustic soda solution (1 lb. caustic soda to five gallons of rainwater). Allow to stand for 18 to 20 hours, then pour off the dark brown liquid. Keep washing in rainwater until the water comes away clear, changing the water each day. This will take seven or eight days. Then bottle the olives in A-Gee jars or other suitable containers. Stand jars in tub of very hot water up to their necks and then pour boiling brine solution over olives to overflowing and seal immediately. This brine to be one cup of salt to 12 cups of rainwater.

Recipe No 3. (for green olives). Dissolve 1 lb. caustic soda in five gallons of water. Pour over the olives and let stand for 15 hours. Drain this off and cover the olives with clear, cold water, and when this becomes discoloured pour it off. Continue in this way until water remains clear. Pack the olives into jars and cover then with a strong solution of salt & water (one part of salt to five parts of water), which has previously been boiled for 10 minutes, then seal.

Recipe No 4. (green olives). three ozs. of caustic soda dissolved in one gallon cold rainwater (glass or stone or wood containers) in sufficient quantity to cover the olives to be processed.

Important: Cover to exclude all light. Cover olives with this solution, according to size of olives, 20 to 24 hours. Then wash with running water for at least 3 days (exclude all light) and drain then. Add a prepared solution of 1/2 lb salt per gallon of water and change every day for at least 12 days. Then drain, bottle and cover with a fixing solution of brine, 3/4 lb salt to one gallon of water (use coarse salt. "from the butchers".)

Recipe No 5. (Our experience of this recipe is that the olives do not keep more than a few months). Place olives in container of wood, glass or earthenware and cover with a solution of caustic soda, 5 dessert spoons to one gallon of water, for 48 hours. Then pour off and keep washing in pure cold rainwater until water is clear and natural (change water each day). Then place in jar and cover with brine solution (1 1/2 lb. salt to each gallon of water) and seal. Ready in seven days. When the supplier of this recipe was told his recipe did not keep too long he replied: "If you like pickled olives there will be no need for them to keep!"

The following pickling recipes article has been adapted from Australian Olive Grower Issue 4, November 1997

Olives Australia's Favourite Method

There are many different ways to prepare olives and the following old Greek recipe is one of the simplest. Commercial pickling processes generally use caustic soda, food acids and salt. This old fashioned recipe uses salt only.

Olives can be pickled when green or black. A black olive is simply a ripe olive. Generally the green olives are used for pickling. Some black olives are pickled and pressed for oil.

In about February - March, some of the fruit begins to turn from plain green to purplish black. When some of the olives begin to change towards black, it will be fairly safe to pick the green olives for pickling.

If the tree is large, place cloth sheets on the ground and strip the fruit from the tree with your hands or with a rake with suitably spaced prongs. Collect the fruit from the sheet, remove odd stems and leaves and rinse olives in clean water in a bucket.

Place the olives on a clean stone surface or cutting board and bruise them with another stone or hammer. Alternatively prick several times with a fork, or make three slits in the skin of each olive with a small serrated knife while turning the fruit between the thumb and index finger. This bruising, pricking or cutting will allow the water and salt to penetrate the fruit thereby drawing out the bitterness and also preserving it. This will also do away with the need to use a caustic soda solution as used in commercial processing of olives.

Toss them immediately into a bucket of clean water in which one half cup of coarse or cooking salt has been dissolved into every ten cups of water. A clean plate can be placed on top to keep the olives submerged. All olives must be under the liquid. Pour the liquid away each day and replace with fresh salt water. Repeat this washing process for about 12 days for green olives and about 10 days for black (ripe) olives. The best test is to bite an olive. When the bitterness has nearly gone, the olives are ready for the final salting. As you can see, this simple recipe involves the disposal of salty rinse water into the environment. If you decide to commercially pickle olives, there are other recipes that require a longer pickling time but do not result in salty waste water.

Pour off and measure the last lot of water so you will know the volume of salt brine that will be required. Measure that quantity of fresh, warm water into a pan and dissolve the salt, this time at the rate of 1 cup of salt to 10 cups of water. Bring the salt water preserving mixture to the boil and allow to cool. Place olives in bottles and then pour the salt water brine over them until the fruit is completely submerged. Top up the bottles with up to one centimetre of olive oil to stop air getting to the fruit and seal the lids on. No further preparation is required and the bottled olives will store for at least 12 months in a cool cupboard.

When you are ready eat your olives, pour out the strong preserving solution and fill the jar with clean, cool water. Leave in the refrigerator for 24 hours and taste them. If they are still too salty for your liking, then refill the bottle with a fresh lot of water and return to the refrigerator for a further 24 hours. (The plain water leaches some of the salt back out of the olives). At this stage you can also add any or all of the following flavourings: Grated garlic, basil, oregano, chopped onion, red capsicum, lemon juice and lemon pieces. Especially popular is a combination of garlic, basil and lemon juice.

Now sit back and enjoy the unique flavour of your own olives. You will probably never want to buy chemicalized commercial olives again.

Pickling Peasant Style by Lynne Chatterton, Umbria - Italy

(Extracted from Australian Olive Grower, Issue 5, January 1998)

"I was interested in the section on pickled olives in the last issue. I've been playing around for some years with different ways of preserving olives and have discovered some very simple methods that may be of interest to your readers.

In Umbria we have a range of uses for olives besides the oil of which we are justly proud. We use them when cooking dishes 'al cacciatore' - the method used by hunters (for instance with wild boar, pigeons, rabbit and pork) - we use them in bread and in pizzas, and we eat them on their own.

Olives to be used in various types of casseroles and stews don't require much work. I have a friend who cooks in one of our best restaurants here. The restaurant is famous for its pigeon dishes which have olives as part of the recipe. He simply takes small black olives directly from the tree and freezes small quantities in plastic bags and then puts them directly into the casserole when cooking begins. I've tried this and it works very well.

My neighbour (a woman of 80 years), takes fresh black olives and packs them into one litre lidded jars with rock salt and leaves them for a couple of months, then rinses them off and uses them straight away in cooked dishes and also for eating with prosciutto or salad. This is another simple yet effective preparation.

I have a Tunisian friend who is a mine of information about traditional products there and he showed me how to preserve olives Tunisian peasant style. You need a shallow tray with sides, two pieces of strong reasonably fine wire netting and several heavy stones. The olives are spread out on the netting (or plastic open weave shelf) which is suspended over a shallow tray. The fruit is interspersed with coarse rock salt and branches of fresh rosemary. The top piece of netting is put on and the whole package is weighted down with heavy stones. The olives are put outside (sheltered from rain) and left for about three weeks. At the end of this time juice from the olive should have leached out into the tray. If not, leave them until it has. Rinse the olives, pack them in jars, cover with either a salt solution or with olive oil. Add some rosemary twigs, black pepper, orange and lemon peel, a clove of garlic and put on the lid and leave until they are needed. I used 2 pieces of rigid netting 30 x 20 cm and it worked very well.

I picked up a tip from Maggie Beer's Book (Maggie's Orchard) that is quite useful. Like most cooks I am always left with part jars of olives I've used for bread or pizza, or half dishes of olives I've put out for nibbles. What to do with them? I keep a glazed terracotta lidded container in the kitchen and put all these olives in there with oil, a dash of wine vinegar, and some weak saline. As long as the olives stay under this mixture they keep very well and when I want to use some, I use a small sieve to get them out and add herbs or spices as I want. By the way, crushed Coriander seeds go very well with olives.

This year I'm using the Greek and Italian method I've used in the past for initial preserving. I picked some large green olives, and the usual medium sized black olives. I do between 2 to 3 kgs of each. With both lots I used a sharp knife to cut across on one side. I then put them into fresh water in a large bowl so that the water is well above them and also between them. I left the green olives for a couple of weeks and the black olives a week or so longer. I changed the water every two days.

Towards the end of the fortnight I began to add a bit of rock salt because, although I've never had olives go off in this process, we had a bit of warm weather and I was being prudent. At the end of this process I put the green olives into a strong solution of brine - about 1 cup of coarse rock salt to 8 cups of water - in a 3kg Kilner jar, and put a half inch of olive oil on top before sealing. These are now in my cool, dark pantry and will stay there for about six months before I begin to use them.

The black olives (which took longer to lose their harsh bitterness), have been rinsed and packed into the jar with the same saline solution as above plus 150mls of malt vinegar (I couldn't get this here so have used some white wine vinegar), and some rosemary, some black peppercorns, and topped the lot with half an inch of olive oil before sealing and storing in the pantry.

Another neighbour here tells me that she never adds aromatics to her olives until the night before she wants to eat as antipasto. Then she takes them from the storage jars in which they live and puts them in a solution of oil, weak saline and a little vinegar, and adds lemon and orange peel, rosemary, garlic, chilli, coriander seed, black pepper, alone or in combination, and soaks them overnight. She takes them out about and hour before using them and serves them in small dishes. I can guarantee they are delicious.

Olives here are also just dried outside in the fresh air and then salted and stored in jars without any liquid or oil at all. They are taken out and rinsed and used just as they are. The same thing is done with tomatoes. Strings of tomatoes hang from every contadino household at the end of summer. Onions and garlic are also dried outdoors and keep very well because of it.

In my experience, the critical thing is to leave the olives in their brine or brine mix for as long as possible before using them. Whatever method you use to process them, the flavour needs about six months to become acceptable for eating. I've known people forget they have stored olives in dark places in a saline solution for a couple of years and then found to their surprise that they are delicious. Salt seemed to be a common means of leaching out the bitterness but once that is done a combination or salt, vinegar, and oil (all traditional preservatives) can be mixed or used alone to preserve the fruit. Alternatively drying alone is a perfectly acceptable way of preserving olives.

One has to remember that olive preservation has been a tradition in peasant societies where complicated methods, fancy utensils and sophisticated chemicals are not possible or available. Today, wooden tubs, and terracotta storage pots are chic and not easily obtainable in anglo-saxon countries (although I can get them easily and cheaply here), but a large crockery bowl and glass preserving jars are, salt and vinegar are cheap and handy, and oil is always available, so one can simply adapt the peasant methods to one's kitchen.

We don't grow large quantities of table olives here in Umbria so all our recipes are for olives we take from our existing trees - Frantoio, Leccino, Dolce Agogia, Moraiolo, and, in our case, some very old and unnamed varieties that we inherited. We have planted some Spanish and Greek table varieties but to date they've had little fruit as we suffered from severe frosts and hail for their first two years of growth. I've found our oil olives quite good for both eating and cooking. - Lynne Chatterton - Umbria, Italy."

Ash and Olives! by Craig Hill

Craig Hill has very kindly sent us this 'environmentally friendly' pickling recipe.

Following last issue's pickling recipe article, you might be interested in the following green table olive recipe adapted from "L'Olivier et la préparation des olives en Provence: recettes familiales" by Max Lambert:

1. Crush and sift a quantity of new wood ash; the weight of the ash should be equal to the weight of the olives to be prepared. The olives should be freshly picked, clean and undamaged.

2. Make a fairly liquid paste by pouring boiling water on the ash. Cover and allow to cool completely.

3. Carefully stir in the olives to coat them with the ash paste.

4. Gently stir the olives once daily for 5 to 7 days.

5. Towards the end of the week, cut several olives lengthwise; the 'désamérisation' ["de-bitter-isation"] is complete when the fruit has darkened to about 1mm from the stone.

6. Rinse the olives clean [dispose of the ash paste and contaminated water thoughtfully] and submerge them in clean water (avoiding contact with the air); the water should be changed every 4 or so hours for the first day, then daily for 3 or 4 more days. This process is finished when the water remains clear and has no or little rusty discoloration. [At this stage you should also taste the fruit: although the flavour will be rather crude, the bitterness should have all but disappeared.]

7. Preserve in sterile jar(s) in a saline solution or vinegar mixture as in the usual recipes, adding aromatic herbs, garlic, lemon pieces to taste and with a 5mm layer of olive oil.

The concentration of the preservative/saline solution in point 7 should be sufficient to partially float an egg or a small potato. Personally I err on the generous side with the salt (thinking that the olives are doing me so much good that the body can probably tolerate a bit more salt!). Depending on the aromatics, I've usually added about 10% vinegar. An Italian contact also taught me the trick of keeping the olives submerged by placing a 'wreath' of wild fennel stalks under the lid.

An unusual method but with a sound explanation! Wood ash is about as alkaline as the usual soda/lye recipes and this neutralises the oleopicrine. The advantage of this "alkaline" bath is that, done properly, it preserves the integrity ie the flavour, firmness and colour of the fruit. The advantage of this method is that it 'appears' to be a bit more environmentally friendly than using caustic or washing soda. There is still the problem of disposing of the strongly alkaline paste, but it seems to be less environmentally disastrous than some other methods. - Craig Hill"