Curing Olives

In my backyard is Mission Olive tree that is about 40 years old.  Every few years it produces a large crop of olives.  When I found out that olives could be cured at home I thought, “I’m in!” About two days later, I fortuitously made a new friend in my local Transition Town group who knew how to cure olives. We planned a harvest date and set out to secure burlap tarps for gathering olives as they fell from the tree.  It was October and we had an early rain. The next morning when I looked out my window I could see something was wrong with the olives.  Literally every olive had some sort of black spot. I thought the rain had caused them to mold. I later learned that the rain was just coincidental and that the damage was caused by the olive fruit fly.  Unfortunately, the olive fruit fly larva that feeds on the fruit has been destroying olives crops throughout Southern California since 1998.  I have been learning techniques that may help ward off the fruit fly from the next olive crop but will have wait and see.

Olive Tree

Through efforts to learn about olives, I discovered Chaffin Family Orchards , a permaculture based family farm in Oroville, California.  The family farms with respect for the environment. No chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides are used. The irrigation water for these orchards comes from mountain rain runoff and the soils are kept mineralized and fertilized with only certified products. My friend Lauren, who tended orchards on this farm in college, vouches for the integrity of their farming practices. 

The Chaffin farm has both Old Growth Mission Olive Trees and a 30 year old grove of Barounis olive trees that flourish in mineral-rich volcanic soil.  Mission Olive Trees were planted in the 1700’s by the Jesuit and Franciscan fathers who produced olive oil for the early California Missions. From the Mission Olives, the Chaffin farm produces a fantastic olive oil and also offers a portion of olives for sale for home curing. I salt cured one batch of their Mission olives. The Barounis' are large green olives sold only for curing. They are hand picked and shipped the same day.  I have been curing these green olives for several years. They are, absolutely the best olives ever!

To cure these beautiful Barounis I follow the directions for Mediterranean style water-cured olives in an online publication from UC Davis. For details, definitely refer to this publication but here is a general description of the procedure along with photos, my personal experience and tips.

Start by sorting though the olives, discarding any that are damaged or bruised.  This is the most difficult part since many have bird pecks and other small knicks.  You have to be ruthless as an olive that is spoiled could ruin your entire batch.  

Discard bruised, bird pecked or otherwise damaged olives.

Once you have the selected batch of olives, it is time to crack them. This is to help the bitter oleuropein leach out during water curing. You want to crack the flesh of each olive.  Do not crack or remove the pits.  This takes a long time if you have a lot of olives and since I buy them in a 40 pound box, I definitely have a lot!  I recommend watching a movie, listening to music or an audiobook. Put each olive on the cutting board and whack it with some sort of mallet.  I use what I think is a wooden meat mallet that I bought at an antique store. Hit each olive individually (I have tried to do 2-3 at a time but they inevitably fly off the table) to crack the flesh, then put the olive in a food grade container that your will use for the water curing. 

Olives ready for Mediterranean style water curing

Next cover the olives with fresh, cool water. I always use filtered, dechlorinated water as I don’t like the idea of soaking them in chlorine. To keep the olives submerged, place a heavy plate or a sealed plastic food-storage bag filled with water on top of the olives. Close the container lid loosely and leave the olives to soak. Every 24 hours, drain the olives and change the water. I place a large colander in the sink and pour the water and olives into it and let the water drain off.  I put the olives back in with fresh water. The water initially gets very oily. Change the water daily about for about 10 days then taste the olives to see the level of de-bittering. If you want less-bitter olives, continue to soak for a few more days changing the water daily. Once you like the taste, it is time to put them in a finish brine.

Cracked olives in water to leach out bitter flavor

The finish brine will flavor your olives.  Make a brine of 1 1/2 cups of pickling or kosher salt to 1 gallon of cool water. If you use kosher salt, be sure to use a brand without an anti-caking agent such as Diamond Crystal (not Morton’s). Stir to dissolve the salt and then add 2 cups a vinegar that has an acidity of 5% - white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar. This will brine 10 pounds of olives, so adjust for the quantity of olives you have. 

Ingredients for Olive Brine

At this point I pack the olives into a variety of jars along with flavorings. I use lemon slices, peeled  garlic cloves, chopped oregano from my garden, and red pepper flakes. I pack olives in plain jars to keep for myself and fancier jars for gifts. I put the lemon slices, garlic, chopped oregano and red pepper flakes in the bottom of the jars and then put a few lemon slices and whole sprigs of oregano on the sides to make the jars look pretty. I cover the top of the olives with a final lemon slice or two since I think it looks nice when the jar is opened.

Olives in their finishing brine.

The olives will be begin to be flavored and ready to eat in 4-5 days but I prefer them after about 10 days. They must be refrigerated. Under refrigeration, they will keep for about one year if you can actually keep from gobbling them up much sooner.