Health & DiseaseProcessing & Food Preservation

How to Brine Your Own Olives


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.

Olives 101

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?)

Enjoy!


Black olive and mushroom pizza

31 Comments

    1. 10% is probably best, though opinions will differ. Vinegar is standardized at 5% and lemon juice is twice as acidic as vinegar, i.e. 10%. Salt is variable because there are many varieties of salt, with differing weights, but it all boils down to experience, and just like cooking something you learn to recognize the ‘right’ amount of salt in the flavor. There are acidity calculators for brining and fermentation available online, if you need really specific details. Hope this helps!

  1. Here in Spain what we do first is hit the olives with a wooden mallet or a flat stone to open and acquire the salt and lose their bitter taste quickly. Then we change the salted water every day for a week until you see that are not too bitter. After we put the spices, lemon, pepper, fennel … In each village are made differently. At last we wait a couple of weeks (one month at most) to taste the olives. Enjoy!

    1. Would you mind sharing your recipe for curing olives? I just received a large amount of green olives and want to make something delicious. I remember seeing my mother in law hitting the olives with a mallet (not sure of next step) and putting them in olive oil and lemon and spices. Thank you!

  2. I’m surprised you need to boil since that much salt and vinegar will kill off any mold. As long as no olives are breaking the surface it should be fine. If anything, the boiling process will greatly reduce the amount of oxygen in the liquid and hinder the growth of beneficial bacteria that thrive in salt water.

    1. The water on our property in SC comes from an unchlorinated well, this is the first reason for boiling, also, depending on the salt variety used, it is preferable to boil with the water. I wouldn’t worry too much if the water was from a municipal supply, but ours isn’t and I don’t like to waste a 5-gallon bucket full of olives!

  3. Hi from Greece , another way to lose their bitter taste is to carve them on both sides and then follow the procedure as described the friend from Spain. What variety are the olive trees you owned ?

    1. We have greek kalamata, italian leccino, and french picholine – all from a great nursery in Santa Cruz, CA, since they have very similar growing conditions as our farm in South Carolina. I like the idea of cutting the green olives, but living on a farm is full of too much work to do already – individually slicing a 5 gallon bucket full of olives is too much for me, but I admit it would probably speed up the brining.

  4. We do our olives in 10 percent brine solution, no vinegar or flavoring and no refrigeration. They are packed in large glass jars with a little olive oil on top to keep out air and mould. They take six to twelve months to cure, but will last for years. When we need a new jar we rinse them in fresh water, add herbs and flavourings and a little olive oil and then keep in the fridge to eat. Safer to add the flavoring after curing as off flavours can develop during the curing process with some herbs and additives. While you wait for the olives to cure you are eating the ones from the year before. Easy

    1. I do it like you. I find the flavour is better than rinsing in new water a few times at the beginning. I just make up a new brine that is not so strong and add a little tyme and that’s it.

    2. Thanks Jamie, for the tip about olive oil on top to keep out air and mould.

      I’ve never done this before and I can’t wait to see how they turn out.

      I’ve used Mason jars, storing in a cool dark cupboard, and have done a few variations – brine only and brine with 3 different vinegars, slice of lemon and clove of garlic in every jar – to see what works best/tastes best.

      Jamie, you said that your olives take 6 to 12 months to cure with your method.

      Does adding vinegar affect curing time?

      And would you say that the curing time was closer to 6 months or 12 months?

      And is the curing time affected by how ripe the olives are? (I sorted my olives into “riper” and greener” before bottling).

  5. Olive fruits produced from my farm oil 20% and The taste is good and pickling olives beginning we put olives in water for three days with changing the water daily this about olive green gloss and then we work cracks in olive and place it in the solution (10 parts water and part salt) and the addition of lemon and chili and a tablespoon of turmeric to give olive yellow color

  6. I have tried this recipe this year, my olives have been in a plastic bucket in a plastic bag for 2 months now. I am hoping someone can answer this question. After 4 months and I open my buck to jar olives, do I jar the olives in the brine they have been sitting in for 4 months and if not what do jar the olives in ? New brine? Oil? New seasonings?
    Thank you

    1. Hi, I just pulled out my bucket of green olives from about 2 years ago. There was a thin layer of scum/mold on the top and I used a big metal spoon to scoop it off. The brine underneath was still good, very salty and not ‘bubbly’ or fermented, so I removed all the olives, washed/rinsed them well and replaced them in smaller clean jars with new salty water with some fresh lemon juice added. They taste great! Hope yours are delicious, too!

  7. Hi
    I brined some olives in plastic bags. There seems to be black stuff inside the bag when I opened them. Is it mould? I have pics but can’t post them here. Would appreciate advice.
    Thank you

  8. Guys, I want to empty some store-bought ripe olives, stuff them with my own blue cheese, and throw them back in the brine. Tired of nasty store-bought versions. Question is, how long will they last in the fridge? Any suggestions?

  9. following this method upon opening there is mold on the top , is it still safe to use the olives if I remove the layer of mold /scum

    1. Hi Treena, Hi, I just answered this above, but here is the answer again for you: I just pulled out my bucket of green olives from about 2 years ago. There was a thin layer of scum/mold on the top and I used a big metal spoon to scoop it off. The brine underneath was still good, very salty and not ‘bubbly’ or fermented, so I removed all the olives, washed/rinsed them well and replaced them in smaller clean jars with new salty water with some fresh lemon juice added. They taste great! Hope yours are delicious, too!

  10. About this time last year I picked 30Kg of Organic olives, maturity wise they where anywhere from green to black. In a 55 Kg black plastic food approved container with a screw lid I mixed enough spring water and sea salt at 10% ratio to cover the Olives. I didn’t wash them as I’m looking for the wild yeasts to go in with the Olives. This past May ( 6 months after) I opened the container. The brine smelled pleasant and was red in color. The Olives kept their color, where firm and tasty although a little salty for me. ( I use little salt on my food) other people like them straight out of the brine, personally I soak them for 3 days changing the water every day and then they’re perfect, pure Olive nothing added and only the unpalatable stuff taken away. I will eat a handful at a time and not die of thirst like when I eat any commercially available Olives. Once Summer hit and the ambient temperature rose the surface membrane started developing. Right now (12 months after) the membrane is thick, almost like rubber and white in color like the mould on Brie cheese, the Olives are still great and I never once changed the brine.
    Occasionally I soak a larger quantity which I will then dress with a little Fruity Olive oil and fresh herbs. Al this to say that yes curing Olives with a salt water brine is ridiculously easy.

  11. I prerinsed my olives because there were some fly eggs on them. Is this common? After putting them in mason jars in 10% brine, in only 1day they were very gassy with lots of bubbles upon opening to drain and replace with fresh brine. I was pleasantly surprised that there was enough natural yeasts on the to naturally ferment. Im going to refresh the brine 3 more times, once a day, before leaving them alone for 3 months, a n d then taste test. When they taste good then I will add some rosemary and maybe peppercorns, lemon slices, and a layer of olive oil on top.

  12. After 3 weeks in brine water changing it once a week and curing in the refrigerator, my olives have a spicy bite to them, have they gone bad?

  13. I’m in Melbourne, Australia, so I’d season’s are reversed to the Northern Hemisphere. It’s the beginning of Autumn here now. I have a single Kalamata Olives tree in the backyard. It’s about 3-4hrs old with quite a bit of fruit on it. They are mainly still bright green and are about 2cm long (3/4 inch).

    My first question: is it true that you should shake the tree and use only the olive that fall off? I didn’t. I picked the olives by hand today, and they were really removed. I have slit them all and immersed in a salt brine at 14% salinity.

    There’s heaps of fruit still on the tree, so should I wait until it’s mostly dark or black before picking again?

  14. Hi Peter,
    I’m in Melbourne too. I just picked my olives. I usually pick the ones that are either black already or around 50% coloured. I have no idea if this is standard but it always works for me. I usually do two or three pickings from the one tree. I slit them and cover them with plain water changed twice every day for 10 days then move them into a 10% salt solution which I change weekly for a month. After that, I store them in a salt and vinegar solution for ages. Reading the other comments, it seems like this is overkill so I’m going to put my next picking straight into brine.

    1. Hi Martine, thanks for your reply.

      I’ve changed my brine3 times now. I try an olive each time, they are far far less bitter already, but there’s still a undertone of bitterness, so i hope that when I put them down into brine for good, they’ll be settled right down.

      I have noticed a lot more on the tree have now ripened and turned black. I think i’ll harvest again this weekend or next.

      I’m pretty excited about this, this is my first home grown olive crop. I’m into making cheese and curing my own prosciutto and panchetta. I also love making {oven} dried tomatoes. All the antipasti!

  15. Near Melb on The Bellarine. I just picked this year’s crop, a little later than usual, not to worry, they look ripe and plump. I took a peek at your brine and mix and note that you don’t score your olives either. I did that the first year and found that they spoiled and went soggy. My last year’s batch we are just eating now and are superb. I don’t use any plastic bags and keep mine on their brine for longer. One batch is water brined for earlier use – I then marinate them in an oil brine. Timing is to taste. I salt brine a second batch. I take them for the whole year. I use local pink salt and save the brine as a salad dressing. I never boil my water, using collected and filtered water. I don’t wash them either!

  16. No mould will grow in brine boiling is unnecessary and likewise with vinegar its a preservative. Lye is caustic soda otherwise known as sodium hydroxide. Bit of an exaggeration about lye and olive processing. Once the lye is washed out they are fine. The remark about lye is an exaggeration. If you have ever have eaten tinned peaches how do you think they remove the skin, not by peeling they are passed through a heated bath of lye then washed thoroughly and canned. I simply wish that people would stop spreading myths and inaccuracies stick to the facts.

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