A few decades ago, buying olives for your relish tray meant choosing green or black, pimiento-stuffed or not. Today, the world is as close as the nearest well-stocked olive bar, where you can find cultivars from around the globe. This accessibility has changed the way we think about olives – less like a ready-made product and more like fresh produce. Here we’ll learn how different varieties get their individual texture and flavor and how to pick the best olives (and olive oil) for your needs.
1. 10 Varieties Worth Seeking Out
Honorable Mention: Developed in the late 18th century, California-grown Mission Olives are the only U.S. olive officially recognized by the International Olive Council. They are also included in the Ark of Taste, a list of endangered heritage foods throughout the world. Their mild, go-with-anything flavor is perfect in all sorts of applications, and their grassy, clean finish gives them broad appeal, even among timid olive-eaters. Choose either the black oil-cured or the green brine-cured variety for your next party.
Meet Bidni: The vibrant purple Bidni olive is one of the most unique varieties in the world and is renowned for its superior oil, which is low in acidity. Native to the island nation of Malta, Bidni olive trees are designated national monuments. They are thought to be the most ancient species on the island, with some dating back to the 1st century A.D. Despite their age, the trees continue to bear fruit, which is lightly fried in oil before being packed in brine.
2. The Cure
Popping fresh, straight-off-the-branch olives into your mouth while lazing in a sun-soaked Italian field seems dreamy, right? Unfortunately, in reality, fresh olives are abrasive and bitter when picked. Before landing on your plate, they have to undergo a curing process – that’s the only way to bring out the texture and flavor inherent to each variety.
It’s simple science: Olives contain phenols, specifically oleuropein – a type of phenolic bitter compound found in green olive skin, flesh and seeds – and the curing process removes those elements by leeching them out of the fruit and allows its layers of sweet, fruity, herbaceous and spicy goodness to come through. Environment plays a critical role here. An olive cultivar grown inland will have a different profile than the same one grown near the sea and a variety grown in California will vary from the same type grown in Italy because the different soils and weather conditions alter the end result. But no matter where they’re grown, unless they're being harvested and pressed for oil, olives need some sort of cure before you can pop one in your mouth.
Each variety has its favorite cure, and here’s how it’s done.
For: unripened or nearly-ripe green olives
Results in: tart, snappy flavor
In seaside towns, it’s possible to cure olives in the cool salt water by placing them in a mesh bag and tying it up on the side of a dock. More commonly, olives are put in large glass canning jars or large oak barrels with water and left to soak until the bitterness is gone – a process that can take weeks, in which the water has to be changed multiple times. Typically, water-cured olives are finished with a brine of water, salt and either vinegar or lemon juice.
Natural Brine Cure
For: fully ripened black olives
Results in: soft texture and sweet, intense flavor
Olives go straight into the brine with this method, where they sit for several months or up to a year. The brine is changed approximately every week – a process that continues until all the bitterness is gone. Once finished, the olives are stored in a mixture of water, salt, vinegar and olive oil.
For: green and black olives
Results in: tamped-down, muted flavors compared to water and natural brine cure
Curing olives in vats of alkaline lye solution is a shortcut to final results, and large commercial production depends on it to get olives to market quickly. Those olives still taste like olives, however, due to the chemically accelerated process, the depth of flavor and nuance of texture may not be as pronounced as they are with other methods.
For: fully ripened black olives
Results in: soft, wrinkled fruit with concentrated, sweet flavor
For a dry cure, olives are packed in salt and left undisturbed for a month. As the salt pulls moisture from the olives, they soften and become wrinkled. Once the process is complete, the olives are either stored in olive oil – which plumps them up a bit, like a raisin – or tossed in olive oil and eaten as they are.
3. Liquid Gold
Nowadays, it’s difficult to grocery shop without experiencing decision fatigue. Buzzwords lurk around every corner, and it’s nearly impossible to know which matter and which are simply there to distract you. When choosing a quality olive oil, you have to look beyond the flashy phrases, striking labels and colorful tins. Here’s where to start.
Put the EV in your 00. “Extra-virgin” is not a buzzword: Extra-virgin is a specific designation given to only the highest-grade olive oils. Extra-virgin olive oil, by definition, is unrefined, cold-pressed and chemical-free; the designation is evidence of care taken during the entire production process. Bear in mind that olive oils within this category can vary in individual quality, fragrance and flavor.
Light? Not Right. Buying light olive oil is like buying light coconut milk: It’s not a special variety of oil made from a mild-flavored cultivar, but rather a watered-down version of what was once a decent product. In the case of olive oil, it means the product has been subjected to chemical processes that strip it of much of its inherent flavor and degrade its overall integrity.
What’s Your Sign? Olive oils boast where they’re from right on the front of the bottle, big and bold for everyone to see. Beware: That “Product of Some Exotic Country Known for Olives” label is distracting you from the small print on the back. Turn the bottle over and look for the country of origin mark – generally initials – signifying where the olives were actually grown rather than where they were packaged. Choose one where the olives were grown and the oil was manufactured in the same place; travel takes time, and if your olives have trekked across borders, they’ve degraded before the curing process can begin.
Harvest Date. Olive oil doesn’t last forever – olives are only good for approximately two years, gradually degrading after the initial harvest, even in the form of oil. While a bottle may not list an expiration date, look for the harvest date, and try to buy an olive oil that has been harvested as recently as possible to get the best flavor.
Tall, Dark and Handsome. Have you ever wondered why fancy olive oils come in vibrant, multicolored tins? Beauty aside, those tins provide a cool, dark haven for olive oil. Light and heat cause olive oil to go rancid faster than it’s supposed to, so producers who want their product to have sufficient shelf life ensure optimum conditions for their oil. A dark glass or opaque metal container is really the only option. If you see olive oil in anything else, walk away.
Price Point. You’ve scoured every square inch of that appropriately dark bottle to find the perfect olive oil, but what about the price? It matters, but more as a guideline than a steadfast rule. An outrageously expensive oil won’t necessarily be the best, but the dirt cheap one probably won’t meet your expectations either. In general, look for a sturdy, moderately priced option that meets all of your criteria.
Choose Your Own Adventure. Your head is filled with knowledge; use it at your favorite local international market, where you’ll find a dizzying array of imports in equally as exciting packaging – but I know you won’t let that distract you from selecting a first-rate olive oil.
Better yet, keep it local (and interactive) by visiting specialty shops throughout the region. Ask questions, get more information and sample oils until you find your favorites.
4. How to Serve Olives
Where there are olives, there is cheese. Talk to your local cheesemonger about which cheeses to pair with the olives you’ve selected for this recipe and maybe add some dried meats and pickled vegetables to create an entire spread. Serve it up with grissini (crispy thin breadsticks) and toasted flatbreads.
Stuff It! Looking for the perfect olive to stuff? Cerignola will take your olive bar to the next level. A jumbo-sized olive that can be green or black, this cultivar has a classic flavor and usually comes pitted, so it’s easy to stuff. Let your imagination run wild: Stuff Cerignola olives with cheese, peppers, garlic, capers or anchovies – or any combination of these.