Olives come in all different shapes and sizes. Having worked at a Mediterranean grocery store for 3.5 years in college, I know this better than most. They come in green, black, shades of purple and even red. Some are round, some pointed, some shriveled or drenched in garlic-y olive oil.
Growing up there were two main kinds of olives – store olives, and homemade olives. Both came in glass jars. From the store were salty green or black olives in little jars with twist off caps and paper labels. At home, the olives were plump and green, cracked so that the pits were exposed, packed away in large glass Mason jars.
My grandfather was born and raised in Sicily, and curing olives is something he’s done for as long as I remember. Each fall, he’d cure jars and jars of these green olives in salty brine, and then, once properly cured, they’d make their appearance at family events, rinsed and dressed in olive oil, balsamic vinegar and garlic.
In early October each year, the fresh green olives appear in local produce markets and every year I think that I’d love to make my own, but the time has never been right. This year, in my own house with space and time I thought…let’s do this. I’ve been enjoying having my own kitchen and storage space, playing homemaker with my from-scratch tomato sauce and my little garden. They’re small steps, but still steps towards self sufficiency, and I like that.
So off I went, driving the two blocks to the Italian market down the road with Little Miss in tow. Wearing black yoga pants and a long blazing red tank top, I tossed my toddler onto my back and secured her in a short, sunny yellow wrap. I wandered into the store and made my way around the produce section, Little Miss squeaking in irritation because she saw fruit she couldn’t eat immediately. Sure enough, the olives were out for $2.59 per pound, but I was looking for a little more than that.
I found an employee packing boxes of pasta onto the shelves in one aisle and asked if there was someone working in produce. “What do you need?” he asked. “I see the green olives are out by the pound, but I was wondering if you have them in cases,” I replied. He said he thought so, but he’d need to find them. He returned a moment later with another employee in tow, saying “the lady with the baby on her back needs a case of olives.”
The case was 16 pounds of olives, and cost $38. Despite being urged to take a cart to the car, I carried the box out with no problems, smirking inwardly at the looks I got leaving the store and crossing the street, bag full of italian bread on my arm, box of olives in hand and Little Miss riding snugly on my back.
Once home, I carefully split the box into two bags, 8 pounds for me and 8 pounds to go upstate to my brother. I called my mother to review the curing process, and it just so happened that the stars aligned; my grandfather was at my mother’s house for the week and she thought he’d get a kick out of coming over to help me with the olives. So as it turned out, no over-the-phone instructions here, I got a real deal lesson from the master himself!
For the record, this really isn’t difficult. Essentially, you prepare the olives by cracking them, and then let them sit in salt water until they’re cured. Then you’ve got jars of yummy, shelf stable olives just waiting for be used.
So here goes…this isn’t a recipe or a tutorial because it’s not that precise, but you can certainly use this as a guideline to make your own.
Things you need:
- fresh olives
- plenty of kosher salt
- cutting board or clean countertop, large pot or pitcher, wooden spoon, glass/small Mason jar/tenderizing mallet
- large canning jars
- 2 raw eggs
First I rinsed the olives, just a little running water over a colander full. Most of the olives will be green, but some may have started to ripen and darken (that’s okay, as long as they’re not squishy). Then one by one, the olives go onto a cutting board and get smashed. Grab a glass or a mason jar (you could use a meat tenderizing mallet too), and smash it down onto the olive until it splits. You may need to do it more than once depending on how hard the olive is. You’ll get a satisfying “thunk” sound, and see a crack; maybe the pit will even come out a little – that’s okay. Fresh olives are extremely bitter, and you need the brine to be able to get into them well to remove that bitterness.
I remember an autumn afternoon as a child, maybe around 8 years old, helping my mother prepare the olives. I had a short, heavy glass in my hand and was trying my best to crack the olives. “Pretend it’s someone you don’t like”, she told me. My olive cracking got much more effective after that.
As you’re cracking your olives, drop them into large, clean Mason jars. As a point of reference, my 8 pounds made 6 jars.
Once you’re done cracking your olives and filling your jars, get a large pot or pitcher and fill it with approximately as much water as you’ll need (for my 6 jars, 3 liters was a little too much). Gently place the two eggs into the pot. They will sit at the bottom. Start adding salt and mixing, and don’t be shy. I had to use roughly a half pound of kosher salt. You’ll know when your water is salty enough because your eggs will float when you stop mixing. No, I’m not joking.
Now take your crazy salty water and fill your jars with it. Close them up, label them with the date and set them aside. After 40 days in the brine, they’re ready to use. They’ll last for years in the salt water brine if you don’t use them all. Just pack them away into the pantry.
When you’re ready to eat your olives, open the jar and dump the salt water. Refill the jar with fresh water and let it sit (overnight, if you think about it in advance, but a few hours will suffice). Drain, and rinse again to get residual salt from the brine off. Then dress them with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic and pepper and enjoy. If you’re an olive person, they’re pretty awesome.
Added 11/30/15 – I opened my first jar of olives this weekend. They came great! A little olive and vinegar, black pepper and garlic and they were ready to go. I dressed them right in the jar, and the remainder of the olives are hanging out in my fridge waiting to be used. Just as a note, if you open your jars and they fizz, don’t panic! Fermentation is part of the curing process. Just pour out the salt water brine and follow the instructions above to prepare them.