Olive w: Orange Zest
Photo by Donna

When I left the Hudson Valley last month, after shenanigans with Bourdain, I did have enough wits about me to grab a bagful of Chef Pardus's fresh olives to cure myself. I'd never cured olives.  Olives straight off the tree are bitter fruits, so defiantly inedible that one wonders why anyone would think to try to make them edible in the first place. But the transformation from inedible to delectable is an extraordinary one I wanted to attempt.

Neither of us knew the exact type of olive we'd procured but they were big meaty ones, like cerignola, which are my favorite kind. They need to be cured with lye, aka sodium hydroxide, the stuff often used to burn through gunk in drains. I picked some up at the hardware store, 100% Lye, the bottle said. I was told there are probably good reasons why they make a "food grade" lye, so it's a good idea to get this if you want to put your food in lye. I bought some here with the intention of making pretzles. The lye works by drawing out the glucosides that make olives bitter (a little more info on this here).

If you have access to raw green olives, this method works great and results in a fresh clean flavor.  The olives are soaked in a lye solution followed by several days of soaking in fresh water, followed by a brine. I'm sure you could add flavors to the brine as well but I kept mine plain. Be very careful working with the lye.  It's a powerful acid base when the crystals combine with water and will cause bad burns.

Home-Cured Olives

Green olives (I used about three cups)

Food grade lye

Salt

Determine how much water you'll need to cover the olives in a non-reactive container (glass or Pyrex is best) by an inch or two.  Measure one tablespoon of lye for every quart of water you're using.  Dissolve the lye in the water and pour the water over the olives.  Let them soak for 12 hours (I did mine at room temperature).

Drain the olives and soak again in the same strength lye solution for 12 hours.

Drain and rinse the olives. Soak for three days in fresh water, changing the water twice a day (you'll see a brownish haze in the bowl; I believe this is the tannins leaving the olives).

After the third day make a brine. Pardus prefers a 3% brine, but I found this not salty enough. I'm rebrining with a 5% brine, the strength I pickle foods at. Depending on your preference, make a 3%-5% brine.  That would be 30 grams kosher salt for a 3% brine or 50 grams of salt for a 5% brine per liter of water. Soak the olives in the brine for three days, then store them in the fridge for up to 2 to 3 months.

Share

60 Wonderful responses to “How To Cure Olives”

  • vitamins

    I’ve got visuals of Mr. Ruhlman in Fight Club.I thank you too, Pamela. I love my lye cured olives.I found this post very wonderful as it is very informative in nature.

  • the a la menthe

    Curing is even more “stupid easy” than the water-cure, but with a minor element of danger. It results in a buttery “olive oil” tasting olive, as opposed to anything with a ferment-based tang. I’ve got a vat going now. Happy olive curing!

  • Lyn Reid

    Great post and beautiful photo. Looking forward to curing some olives very soon.

  • michael pardus

    I thank you too, Pamela. I love my lye cured olives, but I’ll look forward to trying this method.

  • Pamela Garelick

    For 5 kg of blakc olives you use 300 gramms of salt, sea salt or kosher salt – some recipes use up to 500 gramms, some use even less than 300 gramms, this is up to your taste.
    For 5 kg of olives you use 200 gramms of vinegar or more, or even lemonjuice if you prefer that.
    And you can add herbs and garlic to the olives in the end – just use your imagination…

  • Pamela Garelick

    I also forget to mention that black olives definitely need curing/brining. The bitterness is less pronounced than the green olives but you definitely just could NOT put them straight into olive oil.

  • Pamela Garelick

    Here in Greece we don’t use lye. For the Green (unripe olives) the Athenaki, we either crush them with a stone, or leave them uncrushed. We then soak them in plain water with salt and it takes about six weeks for the bitterness to leave.
    For the black olives (Kalamata or Coronaki) there are a number of methods more or less along the same lines. Some of the older ladies here put their crop into the sea in hessian bags, but if we get storms you’ve lost your crop if they bash against the rocks. Most of us split them vertically close to the pit, then put them in water and change the water every day until it runs clear and then add sea salt for twenty four hours, followed by vinegar for twenty four hours. Then they are bottled in water and a film of oil is added on top to stop the top olives going bad.
    The green olives , when ready are traditionally made with slices of lemon and thyme, but I do mine with orange juice, balsamic, smashed garlic and chile.
    The only thing we use lye for is soap making

  • Elise

    Hi Michael,
    I’m curing some green olives right now in brine. Not really that interested in playing around with lye. I also cure ripe olives, but to do that I pack them in rock salt for a couple months.

  • luis

    Donna, seriously … Can’t you do some limited edition of this pic??
    Anyway, I am starting to get it. Why you do what you do and don’t do videos like everyone else. The picture is amazing.. I am not looking for anything to large or pretentios… My best pic is probably five by six in a six by ten mat… This picture reminds me of the gent in tha bolo hat in that movie…

  • luis

    Can you put a bolo hat on that olive..???? Don’t answer…that lest tha Bourdain side of youse come out to slash and burn…

  • ruhlman

    Elise, hope you’ll post results. i hear brine curing takes a long time. i’ll bet more flavorful result. Also curious as to what strength brine you use.

  • Bob delGrosso

    The white stuff that comes out of the olives is probably a compound created by the reaction of the lye (sodium hydroxide) and the tannins.

    The lye (a base) is added to “neutralize” the tannins or, more precisely, tannic acids. When that happens various salts are created some of which are apparently not water soluble -which is why you see it floating around in the water.

  • PDB

    Natalie S.

    Your comment abt chemistry hits home. Over the years, my husband and I have had the privilege of knowing some incredible “home” cooks and bakers, not trained as chefs. Three of the four that come readily to mind were chemistry undergraduates. The fourth I don’t know about. They may have gone in banking, or sales, or whatever, but it always struck me that they understood the chemical processes involved in creating delicious, inventive food.

  • Victoria

    As always, this is a great post.

    I guess sodium hydroxide is a base.

    “May his rest be long and placid, he poured water into acid.”

    “Do as you oughta, use acid with water.”

  • scordo.com

    Michael, nothing wrong with nitrates, per say. And I understand people like to use them for the taste and because of fear of botulism (and because they are more consistent), but you can simply use unrefined salt.

    I guess my method is more old world…

    Vince

  • Archie

    Note to everyone planning to use lye and having small children at home: Please, please keep it well out of their reach, in a clearly marked container with a child-proof lid. Swallowing lye results in terrible internal burns.

    Incidentally, there is an olive tree in next door’s garden. Hm…

  • allen

    I’ve checked online and all over Seattle, can’t find an uncured olive anywhere and it is suppose to be peak season – near the end perhaps, but come on, one friggin cup of olives will do! Next year I’m all over it.

  • HankShaw

    Ah, the lye cure… Everyone has different concentrations of lye to water they use, and that is the real trick to that style. Too much and you get a bland, “Lindsay” tasting olive like the ones on Domino’s pizza, which, incidentally, were all picked green and exposed to air.

    Lye cure works best on green olives, but is also used a lot on black, too.

    I mostly do a brine cure, which predates the lye cure by about 1,000 years — and that’s saying something, considering that the ancient Romans used wood ash lye to cure olives.

    Big problem with brine cure is that it takes 4-9 months, so that first year you are hurtin’ fer certain until May(ish). After that, the olives last more than a year in storage, and are nicely fermented. God bless lactic acid.

    There is also the water cure, which is labor intensive (10-30 days of constantly changing water), but results in a nice firm olive. Best done with green ones.

    Finally, once December hits I do the salt-cure with fully ripe plack olives. I mix 50-50 by weight salt to olives and hang them in a pillowcase outside for a few days. Works great.

    Hope you bought lots of olives, Michael, as you will find yourself eating your home-cured a lot!

    - Hank

  • noah

    Perfect timing for me! just picked up a pound and a half from the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Oh yea, thanks for the work you do.

  • microgaming

    Aww, I love this post it reminds me when I was a little kid. I am from Spain and my granpa had olive trees and we used to cure olives. Actually I do it some years but I got to buy the olives because I care no more about the olive trees (which now are mine). Cured olives are great to the taste and taste even better if you add lemon or some other ingredients.

  • allen

    darn! fresh green olive are available at http://greatolives.com/ but the season ended Oct. 5. Next year maybe I’ll score some. Emeril used them cured for a few days in a gin bath with fresh thyme and chiles for the ultimate dirty martini. I’ve made this with Costco olives and they improve significantly, but they go down way to easy – make a small batch for some friends.

  • luis

    Dona, can you make me a Kick Ass copy of that picture?. I am sure there are some picture processes that would do it justice. If you can tell me what it would take for your effort $$$ you guys know my email.

  • ruhlman

    carri, i don’t know but it might work?!

    sean, thanks for cool link.

    scordo, what’s wrong with nitrates? spinach, celery, and other veg loaded with them?

  • scordo.com

    Hi Michael,

    Learned the olive making thing from my grandparents and nonna did not use lye as bring worked well. Seasoning is key for making olives at home.

    Same on the salumi making front, no nitrates used with our family.

    I suppose there’s a technical way to make things and the method that works day – to – day and with experience. My two cents.

    Best,
    Vince from Scordo.com

  • Neal L.

    Unbelievably, I have found uncured olives at the store Central Market. Never knew what to do with them, so I never picked any up.

  • Peter

    I had read once that olive oil production doesn’t require the lye — they just press the olives and harvest the oil.

    It was later that someone wondered if there was a way to make the fruit edible, and it reminds me of ways of trying to make acorns edible.

    The history of olives might make a worthy book, Ruhlman. It only impacts some of the major cultures of western civilization. I’d buy it.

  • Jake

    After soaking in the brine for 3 days, do you rinse and then refrig, or continue to refrigerate and soak in the same brine, or rinse and regrig in a fresh/flavored brine?

  • carri

    Having a wood fired oven, I possess ALOT of wood ash, is it true you can make lye by pouring water through it, Paul K.? I’d heard that but wasn’t sure if there was more involved. It would be an interesting way to repurpose some of that waste. Do tell!

  • Jesse

    I have a collection here with some old recipes in it. A few of them start out with “make some lye” (or something to that effect), as though it were a fairly common kitchen task. Anyone happen to know..?

    And, gorgeous looking olive!

  • arugulove

    Thank you for this post. Curing my own olives is a goal of mine…I’m determined to do it at some point soon. The lye just makes me really nervous, so it’s nice to have a method from a trusted professional. Thanks!

  • Natalie Sztern

    It’s the ‘lye’ that brought this to mind: why didn’t you go into chemistry? I had a chemistry professor whose sole interest was the chemical reactions of food. All his classes had waiting lists and the best: we marked ourselves-all he wanted was people to show up for class….I loved him…I got an A in his class…I loved him. Attendance he took… But more I loved his classes which sometimes were standing room only in a room that held 300

  • Caitlin

    Thanks for this post. My dad cures a batch of olives every year around Thanksgiving, but he always makes such massive quantities that I never thought about it as something that would work in smaller quantities. I will have to wait a bit for them to finish ripening in CA, but then I am excited to try it here in a teeny NY apartment.

    I may even split the batch when it comes to brining – half plain, half flavored. I often add flavorings to plain olives that I purchase, so it would be interesting to see if the flavorings work differently when included from the start.

    Thanks again for the inspiration.

  • Hema

    From the photo, it looks like maybe those are castelvetrano olives?

    I’ve read that it’s possible to order crates of fresh olives from California at this time of year, but I’d love to know whether there is a way to get smaller quantities!

  • Paul Kobulnicky

    Two comments. The first is that one makes lye at home by passing water through wood ash. This was how people used to get lye for soap (or for olives). The issue here would be calculating the strength of the resultant lye.

    The second, and minor point, is that I understand that Pryex is no longer the Pyrex it once was. This is not important for a non-reactive vessel but is important for using Pyrex containers with direct heat. Evidently the Pyrex patent and intellectual property was bought out from Dow Corning and it is now little more than standard glass, no longer a Borate glass.

  • Jonathan

    Now I’m interested in the pretzels… My efforts with baking soda have been good, but not great. My threat to get some lye is looking more realistic. Why don’t they sell it in pre-diluted form? Wouldn’t that be a lot safer?

  • Christine@Fresh

    This is a very informative post. One day I’d like to cure my own olives, and this post will be helpful when that day arrives. Thanks for sharing!

  • Scott

    I cured some for the first time last year, both some cerignola and some tiny missions. I did lye, brine, and salt cures.

    For the lye cure, I followed a time-based recipe like your 12-hour, twice. Once I was finished with all the rinsing and brining, they were mushy (but tasty).

    An experienced olive making friend said that it is better to cut one open after a few hours and look for the cure to be about 75% through the olive — you can see a clear demarcation. Keep sampling every hour until it gets to that point. Then start the days of rinse soaking.

    Comment to Gavin’s comment: yes, you need to cure black olives to remove the bitterness.

  • Gavin Fritton

    This is something I have always wanted to try but I don’t have access to raw/uncured green olives. Is there a source for those as well?

    A couple of other notes: I don’t think black (ripe) olives require the lye soak. I could be wrong about this, but I think that the bitter compounds leave the olive during ripening. If you can get ripe olives, I think you should be able to salt them and soak them in olive oil (and other flavorings) and there you go.

    I once saw a recipe for curing green olives where they didn’t use lye but instead used wood ashes from the fireplace. This makes sense because ash is also a strong base. The problems there are that it is not nearly so exact as measuring out lye in a concentration that is definite and specific. I imagine you’d also want to make sure you’re only using “clean” ash from a wood fire. I would think that chemically treated wood and such would be a questionable practice.

    But back to my original point, is there someplace to get raw green olives?

  • Ricky

    I’ve got visuals of Mr. Ruhlman in Fight Club…but instead of making soap, he’s making olives.

  • Walker Lawrence

    Glad to hear this turned out after the long discussion that ensued. Because of this and some of your previous blog posts I plan on curing an assortment of things, once my wife is convinced it won’t kill her.

  • JP

    Lye is actually a powerful base. (It will cause bad chemical burns regardless.)

  • cleek

    strictly speaking, lye is a powerful base (not an acid). they’ll both eat your flesh, but one does it with a lot of H+ ions and the other with a lot of OH-.

  • slarochelle

    Thought I heard somewhere it was in Greece that olives would fall off the trees and make their way into the Mediterranean. After soaking a while in the ocean (brine), they became edible to someone/thing. And it went from there? Not sure if that replaces the affect of the lye, or where and when that came in.

  • carri

    sorta makes me want a martini…right now! I wonder what the history behind making the olives edible, who do you suppose stumbled on that one? We need a food anthropologist, stat!