Olives Brined Greek-style (Almost My Grandfather’s Recipe)
Olives straight off the tree are mouth-puckeringly bitter. But transformed through brining or dry salting they become the delicious morsels we are familiar with. Here’s a Greek method of curing olives that starts with a salt brine and then adds flavor with a vinegar, herb, and oil finishing brine.
If you’re lucky enough to live in a place where olive trees grow (anywhere with a Mediterranean climate, including California, the Middle East, North Africa, parts of Australia, parts of Central and South America, and of course, Italy, Spain, France, Turkey, and Greece), then you can easily cure your own.
If you don’t live in any of those places, don’t despair. You can also find raw olives in late fall in some big city gourmet stores (New York City folks can get them at the Grand Central Market November through early December).
Although I grew up in California, I’ve spent most of my life in northeastern America where olive trees can’t grow because the winters are too cold for them to survive. But Papou, my Greek grandfather, used to cure his own olives. I got to visit him in Greece a few times when I was a kid.
I remember him cutting a slit down each raw olive lengthwise, which is what I still do today.
Then he’d put the olives in a mesh bag and hang them over the edge of the pier in front of his house. There they’d be washed by the salty waters of the Gulf of Patras for a few weeks, during which time the bitterness would leach out of the olives.
You say you don’t happen to live near clean-but-salty seawater? Neither do I. No worries. The following recipe translates my Papou’s olive-curing method into something you can do in your kitchen. It may lack the ambience of the Mediterranean, but the olives are just as tasty.
When I moved to Jerusalem, I found myself surrounded by an abundance of olive trees to forage. I did a little research and learned how to brine them in saltwater in a way that mimics Papou’s seawater cure. But something was still missing: I was sure I remembered that there was another step after the salt brining.
What happened next was magical: I had just put several pounds of olives into their initial saltwater soak when I decided to reorganize my office. From one of the bookshelves I took down an old spiral notebook stuffed with recipe cards and clippings from food magazines. One recipe card fell out.
It was in my Grandma Nea’s handwriting, and had on it the recipe for “How to Finish Olives So That They Are Good to Eat.” Her instructions made it clear that this was the final flavoring step after the salt brine treatment.
I read the ingredients: vinegar, water, herbs, a top layer of olive oil…Yes! This is what I remembered Papou’s olives soaking in…But I guess they weren’t just Papou’s olives, after all.
Grandma Nea and Papou’s Olives: Salt Brine Method #1 (stayed tuned for Method #2, #3, etc…)
You can use under-ripe olives for this method, but it is especially suitable for fully ripe, purple to almost black olives.
- Remove any leaves and twigs from your olive harvest. Put the olives in a colander and hose them down well using either a garden hose or your kitchen faucet.
- Use a paring knife to cut a single slit lengthwise in each olive. As you work on this, discard any olives that are shriveled or have insect-bored holes.
- Put the olives into a clean glass jar, or a few glass jars. Narrow-neck jars are better than widemouth jars for this because they eliminate the need to weight the olives in order to keep them submerged in the brine.
- Prepare a brine of 1/3 cup coarse, non-iodized salt (such as kosher salt) dissolved in a quart of water. Bringing the water to a boil decreases the time it takes the salt to dissolve, but then you have to wait until it cools to room temperature before proceeding to the next step. Feel free to speed things up by putting the hot brine in the refrigerator.
- Pour the room temperature brine over the prepared olives. Fill all the way to the rim of the jar. Loosely cover the jar with the lid. Some brine will overflow. That’s okay. Place the jar on a small plate to catch any additional overflow. Leave at room temperature for 1 week.
- Drain the olives. Cover them with fresh brine using the same ratio of salt to water as before. Cover and let soak for 1 month. Drain again. Taste. If they are still too bitter for you, cover them with salt brine again and give them another month. Otherwise, proceed to the next step.
- Combine ¼ cup salt, 2 cups vinegar, 1 gallon water. Stir to dissolve the salt. Pour this liquid over the olives, tucking in some cloves of garlic cut in half. Also tuck in sprigs of fresh herbs. Grandma Nea recommended oregano, parsley, celery leaves, and dill. She also added the note why not use some sage (but I don’t know if she actually ever tried this, and I haven’t yet).
- Pour ¾ to 1 inch of extra virgin olive oil over the other ingredients. Wait at least a week for the flavors to mingle before eating them (but they will keep for months).
Note: Grandma Nea made small, single jar batches and stored them in her big American-size refrigerator. Back in Greece, Papou made big batches and stored them in a plastic tub at room temperature. Your choice, depending on your storage space situation (I do both).
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