Friday, May 6, 2011

The Olive Experiment

Today is a departure from the usual subject of tried and true recipes.   There is always some kind of experiment going on around our house -- horticultural, culinary or otherwise. (Please refer to my vegetarian husband's HAM paintings on the Raisin Sauce post).

There is this big Russian Olive tree here on our property in Altadena that is in desperate need of a pruning.  This spring, thousands of olives appeared, weighing down the limbs and causing a consistent rain of fruit down on my new garden beds.  While some netting could have solved the latter problem, it seemed like an opportunity for a more creative solution.  

We are rich in olives, therefore we must maximize our currency.

Basic brine is simply salt and water.  There are some fancy, advanced recipes for flavored olive brines out there.  I was tempted by one, supposedly from a gypsy woman, who concocts a mixture of lemons, oregano, cumin seeds, garlic cloves and vinegar, in addition to the salt water.  I think the process also involved cracking the skins with a blessed wooden mallet and performing an interpretive dance around the marinating fruit.  Maybe next time.

For now, I accept that I’m an amateur olive briner.  Therefore, I’m following the most straightforward recipe I could find.

(The water to salt ratio is approximately ¼ cup salt to 1 quart of water.)

Prepping the olives:
This was the most labor-intensive part.   I sorted through thousands of them looking for those that were firm, unbroken, unblemished and had a sufficient level of red/black hue.  Too much green would mean using another brining process altogether.

Then the olives needed a bath to remove dirt and debris.  After cleaning, I laid them out on a sheet in the shade and started the second round of olive selection.  Using a paring knife, the flesh of each olive needed to be pierced  before brining.

When my stockpot was full, I added the cold water and the salt.  The olives need to be submerged in the water, not floating on top,.  A glass pot lid inverted did the trick.  Then the pot went back to the guest bath and was covered.  They need to be brined in a dark place with a temperature below 90 degrees.

Each day, I need to shake the pot.

Each week, brine should be replaced with fresh salt water.  This goes on for about three weeks, then we can start tasting the olives.  It could take up to 6 weeks until they taste good.

(I am also prepared for the distinct possibility that these olives won’t taste good at all.)

If they do taste good, you place small batches in a colander and dip them in boiling water.  Then refresh them in fresh cold water, spread out on paper towels and dry for several hours.  If we get to that point successfully, then on to the canning process!

The olive tree.

Heavy fruiting branches are sawed down by Ben, making a big (and unavoidable) mess.
Sorting through the debris.

Olives get a bath in a mild fruit/veg cleaning soap.

Clean olives spread out to be picked through.

An hour later...

Two hours later...

Olives floating in salt brine.

Using an upside-down pot lid to weigh down the olives.

If this works, everyone gets a mason jar full of olives this holiday season!


  1. This is super cool and really fun to read about!

  2. Wow. We have giant olive trees in our neighborhood but all the olives had little larvae inside so we skipped this experiment. Our trees are city trees that line the streets so have more exposure to the stresses of pollution, making them more pleasant for pests to infest.
    Read about the olive fruit fly at