A few years ago I was doing some last minute birthday shopping for the Old Man at a local hardware supply store. Lo and behold, I stumbled across something I knew he would want (like, really want): a Kalamata olive tree.
Not only does he like the olives, but the tree itself was something he had been wanting to add to our growing, edible landscape. Both of us have family heritage that traces back to the Mediterranean and the Middle East, so how could we not have an olive tree in our yard?! Sacrilege!
The tree has grown quickly, and this was the first year we got a real harvest of olives from it. So this was also the year I got a crash course in olive curing! My biggest problem was how to do this. There are a variety of methods that would work for these kinds of olives, but many of them involved a lot of water use in such a way that the water is now useless. I just have a hard time with that, given the severity of drought we have been experiencing in California.
Olives taste pretty horrible untreated, and most curing methods have you use repeated soakings with fresh batches of salt water or caustic lye to leach out the nasty tasting compounds. That salt/lye water can’t get reused, nor can it go in your yard, and if you flush it down the drain you’ve made it harder for water treatment facilities to filter the water for ground water recharge.
Thankfully, I found information that came from the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources that provided instructions for a home curing method perfect for my Kalamata olives or any other kind of black olives. The drained water is safe to go either in your garden or down the drain. The process is also ridiculously easy and you have olives ready to go in just a few short weeks.
Kalamata-Style Home Cured Olives
- Large jars or buckets that are food safe, preferably with a spigot at the bottom. The size and quantity of your containers will depend on how many olives your tree (or source) produces. I was able to use just a few gallon-sized beverage jars this year, but I will need a larger set-up as my tree gets bigger.
- Sterilized canning jars and lids (read my article on Food Canning, especially if you are new to the process)
- Canning Salt or pure Sea Salt; avoid salt that has non-caking ingredients added as they will discolor your brine
- Red-wine vinegar
You will need to process your olives very shortly after harvesting them. They will not last long once picked and become more at risk of spoiling during processing. Start by washing them thoroughly. Rinse them in a colander and allow the water to drain, then follow it up by soaking and swishing them around in water in a large bowl and drain the water off again. Clean olives means less risk of contamination and trips to the hospital.
Using a sharp knife, slit each olive once lengthwise, nearly to the pit. Place the cut olives into your large container. Once the container is full of the cut olives, fill the container with water and place a clean object (like a plate or bowl) on top to keep the olives submerged. If your container has a narrow neck, you don’t need to worry as much about keeping the olives submerged. Cover the container loosely with a lid. Put the containers someplace cool and out of direct sunlight. Keep track of the date you first soak your olives.
After 24 hours, drain the olives. Fill the containers with water, gently swish the olives around, then drain again. Refill the containers with water, submerge any olives, loosely cover and return them to where you were storing them before. Repeat this process for the next 10 to 20 days. You will want to taste them after 10 days to see if they have lost enough bitterness for you. The longer they soak, the less bitter they will be, but also the less flavor they will have.
After your last soak date, prepare the brine solution. For every gallon of water used, dissolve 1 pound of salt, 1 quart of red-wine vinegar, and mix thoroughly together. **Fill your sterilized canning jars with olives and then completely cover with the brine. Give the jars a gentle shaking to make sure no bubbles of air have been trapped. Top each jar with a 1/4 inch layer of olive oil. This will create an air-tight seal, so make sure that the oil completely covers any floating olives sticking out of the brine. Any leftover brine can be stored in the freezer, pretty much indefinitely. It’s just salt and vinegar in water, so there is nothing that will deteriorate. You will notice that it may not freeze solid, this is due to the salt content but it’s not a problem.
**You could also put your olives into larger containers and cover them with the brine and oil, and store them that way. The containers you used for the leaching process, once cleaned and sterilized, are suitable. You would then remove whatever amount of olives you wanted each time, and the rest could remain. This is how it was done in the village. You just need to be sure to have a layer of oil covering the top as described above. I used smaller jars this time so that I could give some away (maybe!).** Update: I have some 1 gallon sized screw-top jars that I will be using to store my olives rather than several smaller jars, as it will be more efficient with the amount of brine and olive oil needed.
Set the jars aside in a cool, dark place or refrigerator. Allow them to cure for at least a month before eating, so keep track of the date they were first covered in the brine. According to the University of California Div. of Agriculture and Natural Resources, these olives can be safely stored for up to a year, either in a cool, dark location, or in the refrigerator, as long as the olives remain submerged under the oil. That’s of course assuming that you will have any left!
You will, of course, have leftover olive “brine juice” in your jars once all the olives are consumed. A quick internet search will lead you to a variety of options, including using it with olive oil as a salad dressing, adding it to a pasta sauce, or even saving it up and using it for brining meats. I’ve even used it to help sooth a sore throat by gargling with it. The salt and acidity help to draw out extra water from your tissues and temporarily reduces swelling. Give it a whirl!