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A cure for olive lovers

Curing olives at home is a cinch. (Jane Black/The Washington Post)

It was one of those moments when I think: Why don't I live in California? I had hopped on the back of Michael Chiarello's quad bike -- yeah, the chef you saw last night on Top Chef -- and we were rumbling through his vineyards. At 4 o'clock, the sun was sinking low in the sky and the vines glowed, tinged with gold and orange. We were on our way to pick manzanilla olives so I could cure my own, for the first time.

Recipe Included

As a certified Italophile, I've always loved olives. So I had become curious when I read a recent discussion on an Internet food list about making them at home. Chefs and scholars debated the merits of salt-curing and brining and whether using lye, which hastens the process but also creates a mushy texture, defeats the purpose of home-curing. I read Hank Shaw's excellent account of curing green olives on his blog Hunter Angler Gardener Cook and perused the University of California at Davis's scientific paper "Olives: Safe Methods for Home Pickling" (pdf).

I was immediately determined to try it.

Which is how I had ended up persuading Chiarello, whom I had only met that morning at the Culinary Institute of America's Worlds of Flavor conference, to let me have the last of his harvest.

But first, a valuable lesson.

Fresh-cured olives. (Jane Black/The Washington Post)

Chiarello pulled up under an old olive tree and asked: "Have you ever tasted a fresh olive?"

I shook my head. How exciting! I reached up, plucked one and put it in my mouth. It was screw-up-your-eyes bitter, the kind of bitter I imagine signaling to Early Man that, yep, it was poisonous.

"You can spit it out now," Chiarello said with a laugh. "I always get East Coasters to taste them. You wouldn't believe how many people try to pretend it's good. They say, 'Oh, I love olives when they are bitter.' "

That bitterness comes from a compound called oleuropein. Some sort of curing is required to draw it out and make the olives palatable. Brining most successfully eliminates bitterness but takes between three to six months -- not a terribly attractive option in my small kitchen. Water-curing, the process often used on kalamata-style olives and cracked Mediterranean varieties, takes three to four weeks and involves changing out buckets of moldy water. I decided to go with salt-curing, which takes two weeks or less. The only catch: The olives are salty and retain a slight bitterness because the salt does not remove as much of the oleuropein.

Fresh, black olives should be processed within a few days. I picked about a pound and stored them outside (it's chilly in Napa at night) in a paper bag so they could "breathe" before the plane ride home. My olives survived the trip without spotting or bruising. I washed them and set them in a colander to dry overnight.

The process is amazingly simple, as Greek cooking teacher Aglaia Kremezi explained it to me. Dump a bunch of salt on the olives and toss to coat evenly. I placed the colander over a baking sheet to catch any liquid. I turned the olives in the morning and at night when I got home from work for eight days.

After about three days, the smaller olives began to shrivel and I found liquid had dripped down onto the baking sheet. The larger ones took longer. (This is why, ideally, you would cure similarly sized olives.) After another five days, I sliced into one of the larger olives. The inside was completely black so I tasted it. The flavor was pungent and salty, with a touch of bitterness on finish.

I rinsed the olives and dried them overnight on a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Before serving them on Thanksgiving Day, I treated them to a drizzle of good olive oil and a sprinkling of fresh herbs. Perfect.

– Jane Black

Salt-Cured Black Olives
Makes 1 pound olives (about 10 servings)

Store the olives in resealable plastic food storage bags or in vacuum-sealed bags in the freezer or refrigerator until ready to serve. They should last for months in the freezer and many weeks in the fridge.

Based on a recipe from Kremezi's "Mediterranean Hot and Spicy" (Broadway Books, 2009).

1 pound fresh black olives
Coarse sea salt
Olive oil
Mixed fresh or dried herbs, such as oregano, savory or thyme, for serving

Place the olives in a large colander that is sitting on top of a large bowl or baking sheet. Sprinkle the olives generously with coarse sea salt. Place in a cool corner of the kitchen.

Shake and toss the olives at least once a day. After 2 to 3 days, they will start to wrinkle and release some of their juices. Keep tossing for at least 4 to 6 days. To check doneness, use a knife to slash 1 or 2 olives; the color of their inner flesh will be dark all the way to the pit when they are fully cured.

Drain under cold water and let dry completely on paper towels, preferably overnight. Place the olives in a bowl; drizzle with the oil and toss to coat, then sprinkle with the herbs and mix well. Let stand a few hours or up to 2 days covered, before serving.

By Jane Black  |  December 3, 2009; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Recipes  | Tags: Jane Black  
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This sounds great! Is it possible to get fresh olives in our area?

Posted by: eastwoek | December 3, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Sigh. Not that I'm aware of. Produce distributors can get them so you could ask one of your favorite restaurants to do you a favor. Or you can look to see if anyone ships online. Otherwise, trip to Napa?

Posted by: Jane Black | December 3, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

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