If you grow your own olives, you’re probably wondering: can I eat olives right off the tree? After all, there are few things a gardener loves more than eating their own produce fresh off the plant.
While eating olives off the tree is technically safe, the taste is bitter to the point of being inedible. Usually, olives undergo a curing process before being eaten.
Read on to learn more about why you shouldn’t eat olives off the tree, and how they’re prepared for eating.
Why shouldn’t I eat olives off the tree?
First off, fresh olives are incredibly bitter. Olives contain a compound called glucosides, which creates this bitterness. And the olives glucosides are known as oleuropein which is very bitter. So biting into a fresh olive will definitely not be pleasant.
This compound can be removed, though. That’s why most olives you get at the store aren’t terribly bitter.
Additionally, olives fresh off the tree have a different texture from cured olives. Fresh olives are much crunchier and much less soft. If you enjoy the soft squish of an olive, you won’t like eating a fresh one.
Lastly, fresh olives still contain pits. This hard pit protects the seed of the olive, and is not edible. Many olives you get in the store have had the pit removed. Though of course, there are lots of olives sold whole with the pit, which is my personal favorite as I think it helps retain the flavor.
While you can easily remove the pit from a fresh olive yourself, you still need to be aware of that, and buying pitted olives is easier.
So, those are reasons why you shouldn’t eat olives off the tree. But then why are olives in the store so delicious? How are they made that way? I’ll tell you!
Methods of curing olives
Most olives you’ll find in stores undergo curing, a process that softens the olive and helps remove the bitterness. Different methods of curing provide different results. I’ll go over some of the most common ways that olives are cured.
Curing olives in brine
This is the most common way to cure olives, and how many commercial olives are cured. Olives are harvested, and within 24 hours placed into a brine solution.
This brine is just a mixture of sea salt and water, at the desired salinity. Black and purple olives are typically kept in this solution for 3 to 12 months, depending on the salinity and the process used. The solution is changed at regular intervals to prevent the growth of mold or bacteria.
This method maintains the natural flavors of olives, while drawing out the sweetness, and softening their texture. The brine draws out the oleuropein so that the olives will be less bitter. Sometimes, other flavors can be added to the brine to get a different flavor in the olives.
If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like pickling, that’s because it is! The process for curing olives is very similar to how one would pickle many vegetables.
Curing olives with lye and brine
This is just a slightly different version of a brine cure. The olives still end up in a brine solution, but first they are washed with lye.
Lye is a chemical that can draw out the oleuropein much faster than simple brine. Olives are washed in lye for 8 to 12 hours, giving plenty of time for the compounds to be pulled out.
Then, the olives are washed at least 3 times, to remove the traces of lye. Then they are placed in a brine solution to ferment. With this process, though, the olives only have to soak for 1 to 3 months.
This is obviously a faster process. Olives that are cured this way are often sweeter than olives that have only been cured in brine.
Curing olives in water
This is a simpler version of curing olives, although less common. First, the olives are scored, so that the water is able to get into the entire olive.
Then, the olives are soaked in cold water, which is replaced daily. This process takes at least 4 weeks, and can sometimes be longer. It does require more water replacements than a brine solution.
Olives cured in water have a more mild taste. They are often given other flavors in the water because of this. And in the end, they are stored in brine, as most olives are stored.
Dry curing olives
The last common method for curing olives is dry curing — it doesn’t involve water or brine at all. This method is very common in the Southern Mediterranean, where olives are grown extensively.
In this method, olives are placed in drums in-between layers of salt. The olives stay in these containers for 3 weeks or longer. They are rotated at least once a week, to make sure the olives get completely covered.
This salt method draws out the oleuropeins from the olives much faster than a water or brine method. However, because there’s no water to dilute the salt, it also has other effects on the olives.
Olives cured in salt have a texture similar to raisins, rather than the smooth skin of other cured olives. They have a slightly more bitter and salty flavor, but a pleasant one.
How to cure your own olives
Well, now that you know how olives are cured, you may be wondering: can I cure my own olives at home? Yes, you can! Curing your own olives is a great way to be able to enjoy your produce, since you don’t want to eat them fresh off the tree.
The most common and efficient ways of curing olives at home are to use either water or a brine solution.
First, harvest the olives you want to use. It’s a good idea to select the darkest olives as they’ll be the most mature and less bitter.
For water curing, first wash your olives and score them. Then place them in a container of cold water, making sure they are all submerged. You will need to change this water every day to prevent bacteria or mold from growing.
Do this for four weeks, then taste one of the olives. If you like the taste, great! You’re done. If not, keep them going and check every week until you get a taste you’re happy with.
If you choose to cure your olives in brine, start by making a simple brine of 1 part salt to 10 parts water. Again, make sure all of your olives are completely submerged in this solution.
Keep the olives in the brine for 3 to 6 weeks, again tasting to see if they’re good. You will need to replace the brine solution every week.
To store them, make a simple brine with a ration of 1 part salt, 2-3 parts vinegar, and 10 parts water.
Then, you’ll have your own delicious olives that will be edible and taste far better than olives fresh off the tree!
Olive curing recipe ideas
Olives in Salt Brine – from Home Grown Happiness
Curing Olive: Brine and Salt Method – from Milkwood
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