If you're lucky enough to have olive trees, you may have considered eating one of the fruits, only to discover that there's a big difference between the olive on a tree and the olive on your plate. That's because the olives we enjoy are essentially pickles. Whether steeped in oil or a salt brine, olives only become truly edible after curing. The raw fruit is bursting with oleuropein, a bitter compound that must be removed prior to eating.
Of the various methods of curing, including oil-cured, water-cured, brine-cured, dry-cured, and lye-cured, the simplest for the novice is water-curing and brine-curing, which is essentially the same process as pickling. Green olives, which are young, immature olives, can be cured in water, which removes the bitter taste of the raw fruit. They will have a fresh, nutty flavor and firm texture. After a week or so of water curing, they are stored in a pickling brine, which adds a salty flavor. Brine curing is a similar process, but instead of simple water the olives sit for a week in salt and water solution. This method can be used with green olives as well as ripe (purple or black) ones.
The longer the olive is permitted to ferment in its own brine, the less bitter and more intricate its flavor will become. Green olives are usually pitted, and often stuffed with various fillings, including pimentos, almonds, anchovies, jalapenos, onions or capers.
Choosing the Right Cure
Different kinds of olives benefit from different cures. Manzanillo, mission, and kalamata olives are the best varieties for brining or salt curing. Larger fruits, such as Seville olives, may need to be steeped in lye to fully cure.
No matter what kind of cure you select, the brining process is similar. (A salt brine is different in that there's no liquid involved, but immersing the olives in salt is not too far from dunking them in brine.)
First, select olives that haven't been bruised or succumbed to pests, in particular the olive fly, whose larvae burrow into the fruits. Wash the olives thoroughly. Then slice or crack the olives, depending on your aesthetic sense, to allow the bring to penetrate the fruit. Take care not to cut the pit. Brine, changing the brining medium per your recipe over the course of a week or more. Store in a strong brine and refrigerate.
Below are recipes for curing your own.