Olives have been a staple in the human diet for thousands of years. Once, olives were limited to those regions lucky enough to have the right climate to grow them, but today a wide selection of olives can be purchased in most grocery or specialty stores in other corners of the world.
Olives are typically purchased canned, bottled or from a “bar;” the latter meaning shoppers select their own olives, place in containers and purchase by weight. There are many kinds of olives, such as bitetto, kalamata, and manzanilla.
A great accompaniment to meals or used in recipes, olives are a popular food, particularly in Greek, Italian and Spanish cooking. Unlike other fruits, however, raw olives from the tree are very bitter and, as a result, not very palatable in their natural state. Before olives can be eaten they must be cured; the resulting flavor and texture of olives depends upon which type of curing process has been done and at what stage of ripeness they were picked. The types of olives available are further distinguished by their harvesting time and curing process.
This process of curing olives comes from soaking in oil for months, using a container such as a burlap sack or, as some suggest, a pillow case. Over the time of soaking, the bitterness of the uncured olive will fade away and be replaced with a pleasant taste.
According to Whole Foods Market, the water-cured method of curing olives is the “slowest of all” and not used very often. It entails soaking, rinsing and re-soaking in plain water. Following the curing, the olives may be seasoned with brine, which is also used for curing.
Green or black olives can be used for this type of curing. To create this type of olive, the producer soaks the olives in a prepared brine, which is a mix of salt and water as a base, for one to six months. During this period, replacing the brine periodically helps improve the flavor. Some recipes call for other ingredients, such as garlic, vinegar or flavorful spices.
Dry-cured olives are made from fruits that have been fully ripened to maturity (dark red to black). Smaller olives work best. Once these are picked, they are packed in salt in order to prepare for market. These olives are salted for a minimum of five to six weeks. They can be stored in the refrigerator for six months or frozen for longer periods of time.
The International Olive Council recommends lye-curing for green olives at the time they reach full size. After the olives are washed, they are then placed in a lye solution. Afterwards, the olives are then seasoned and preserved.
Not all olives are created equal as they come in different sizes and color, and much depends upon the time they were picked. Some olives are sold off for consumption while others are destined to become oil. How an olive is prepared for market varies the taste and texture of the olive and the above are the better-known methods curers use.
Usually canned and bottled olives are the green and black varieties; green ones may be stuffed with pimentos or garlic, while the black ones are often pitted, sliced or mixed with other foods and/or spices that augment its flavor. Purchasing from an olive bar, if available, will typically provide you with a large variety of olive flavors.