One of the first things I bought after moving to San Francisco many years ago was a tiny little potted olive tree that I saw sitting outside the Smith and Hawkins on Fillmore Avenue. It was just a twig with a little flounce of long, dusty green leaves, and I thought it would look nice in the window of my new apartment. It wasn’t until years (and several pot upgrades) later that I realized it could actually grow olives. I’m not sure why that hadn’t occurred to me – I guess I thought it was just ornamental, and olive trees do take a long time to fruit, especially if grown in apartment-dweller quarters.
A few years ago, ensconced in a giant new pot and set in a sunny part of the garden, olives appeared. Just a few the first year, then more, until this year it was covered, and I decided I really needed to harvest them and try, for real this time, to make cured olives.
If you’ve ever tried an un-brined olive, you know that they taste absolutely terrible. It was really hard to imagine the olives going from deeply bitter to anything resembling what comes in a jar. I did a little research online, and found that really, all you need is time – and salt. Following the advice of a few different online recipes (like this one: https://www.thespruceeats.com/how-to-brine-cure-olives-1327766), I prepared to treat my olives as if they were being lulled by the soft waves of the salty ocean while they hung off a pier in their brining bag. But instead, they just spent a month on the lower shelf of our kitchen island, submerged in saltwater.
First, I rinsed the olives and removed the leaves and stems. Then I cut a small slit lengthwise down each side, put them in a ceramic bowl and covered them with cool water. I used a small plate to keep them submerged, and left them on the shelf for three days.
After the initial water soak (which turned the water a deep, purplish-brown as the color and the bitterness, caused by a substance called Oleuropein, leeched out), you soak the olives in a saltwater solution for one month, changing the water solution weekly.
Drain and rinse the water-bathed olives in a colander, and return them to the bowl. To make the brine solution, dissolve 3 tablespoons of salt in 4 cups of water, and pour over the olives. Make sure the olives are submerged, and leave for 1 week. Repeat 3 more times, mixing a new saltwater solution each week. I did a little taste-test each week, and it was amazing how much more delicious they got over time.
Finally, after 1 month of leeching and brining, I enlisted my 9-year-old’s help and we did a last rinse and poured the olives into a wide-mouth jar (according to the Spruce recipe, this jar does not have to be sterilized). We mixed a solution of 1 1/2 Tablespoons salt to 2 cups water, added 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, and poured the solution over the olives in the jar. Voila – delicious homemade olives! I have to admit, I found the red wine vinegar to be a bit strong, so after a couple of days I poured the solution off and added straight salt water instead. I’m not sure if this will affect the preservation of the olives, but they’re so good they won’t last long.
There were a few olives left on the tree, so now we’re going to try a salt/oil curing technique on those. I’ll let you know how they turn out!