Did you know the olives you buy in jars from the grocery store aren’t actually raw?
A raw olive is a fresh, non-cured olive straight from the olive tree. The texture and taste are completely different from store-bought olives.
Eating raw olives is an intensely unpleasurable experience, due to the overwhelmingly bitter taste of their oleuropein and phenolic compounds.
What are these compounds? What about them makes eating raw olives disgusting?
Are Olives Okay to Eat Raw?
While raw olives aren’t poisonous to eat, they’re “not okay” in terms of texture and taste. They’re actually terrible!
They’re a mealy and mushy texture, totally different than olives from the jar. They also have a super bitter flavor from oleuropein and ligstroside compounds, which are removed when the olives are cured.
The olives we consume and that are sold in grocery stores must go through a curing process, such as brining, lye curing, or water curing. This is what makes them edible.
Why You Shouldn’t Eat Raw Olives
Raw Olives Have a Bitter Flavor
You may think that a fresh-picked olive could be a delightful, bucolic snack if you’re in an olive grove. However, their bitter flavor would immediately throw you off.
The olive would be totally missing the flavor of jarred olives, whether they be briny or earthy.
Instead, you’d be assaulted by a bitterness so intense you’d probably start to gag if you tried to continue eating it. Your first response would definitely be to spit out the fruit.
They’re so bitter mainly because of the presence of oleuropein, a phenolic compound. Oleuropein is plant material that must be removed in order for the olive to be palatable. It exists on the raw olive as protection from predators like mammals and microorganisms.
Oleuropein is literally there because it makes olives essentially to animals, who eat things like dirt and tree bark. Thus, raw olives definitely won’t taste good to humans.
Raw Olive Texture is Mealy
Unlike store-bought olives, which are a pleasant mixture of crunchy and juicy, raw olives are an uncomfortable mix of hard and mealy.
All olives start green and darken as they ripen. A fresh green olive off the tree is the most bitter, as it’s the youngest stage of an olive’s life. Black olives off the tree are softer, but maintain a gross bitterness and a mealy texture.
Fun fact: olives are actually in the same family as stone fruit! Their seeds aren’t far off from the pit of a peach or a nectarine. Like stone fruit, the less ripe an olive is, the more the fruit clings to the seed (or stone) in the center.
You Should Wash Your Raw Olives (If You Do Eat Them)
A raw olive off the tree has probably been exposed to a lot of contaminants, some potentially toxic. It’s important to wash any fresh-picked produce.
Even if you do want that bitter flavor, you should wash the fruit first.
How to Make Raw Olives Easier to Eat
In order to make olives edible, the compound oleuropein needs to be removed. This is accomplished through curing, which gets rid of the bitterness from that compound.
Curing an olive makes it possible to consume, and taste like an actual food. It doesn’t inherently add flavor or preserve the olives. This is a feature of brining, which is also a curing method.
Brining and curing are not the same thing as pickling, because they don’t involve heat or vinegar. Curing is a soaking process in various respective liquids.
Research shows that the first olive curing methods may have originated in Israel, at least 6,600 years ago. Archaeologists discovered a site near northern Israeli beaches containing two structures, made of stone and holding at least a thousand olive pits. Most of the pits were whole, indicating the olives were for consumption rather than olive oil.
The site’s beach location suggests that the olives were brined in a way similar to one we still use today: in saltwater.
Curing it First
There are a few different ways people today prepare olives for consumption and digestion. All of these methods remove the nasty taste, because they get rid of oleuropein. Here’s a step-by-step on each process.
Water curing is a gentle way to remove oleuropein and establish the desired taste in olives. The process begins with fresh-picked raw olives.
- Clean your olives by gentle scrubbing them under water.
- Inspect your olives for bruising or rot.
- Break the olives open with a small knife. Create a small slit to let in the moisture from the water soak.
- Find a container with a lid, and place the olives inside. Cover them completely with water and be sure that none poke out at the top. If needed, weigh them down with a plate or other heavy object to keep them submerged in the water. Place the lid on the container and move it to a cool, dry, dark place.
- Change out the water daily to make sure it stays fresh and cold. If the water grows old and room temperature, bacteria could build up. To change the water, strain the olives using a colander, replace the water, and add the olives back.
- After two weeks, taste an olive to measure the bitterness levels. They shouldn’t be putridly bitter at this point. If you’d prefer less bitterness, continue soaking the olives and changing the water for another two weeks, then check again.
- Create a finishing brine so the olives will be preserved, as well as extra tasty. A mixture of pickling salt, vinegar, and water will keep them fresh and provide the saltiness most people expect with store-bought olives. To brine the olives, simpy fill a container with a brining solution and add the olives until they’re covered.
Here is a recipe for 10lbs of olives:
- 1 gallon water
- 1 ½ cups salt
- 2 cups vinegar (white wine vinegar recommended)
This is an option similar to water curing, but uses salt immediately and can take longer. After the olives are harvested, they should be put in the brine solution within 24 hours.
- Mix 1 part salt to 10 parts water.
- Pour this saline mixture over your olives in a clean, dry container. It doesn’t have to have a lid.
- Weigh the olives down with a plate or bowl to make sure they stay submerged.
- After a week, drain the olives and replace with a different curing solution. Continue this for two months.
- After the months have finished, you can create a pickling solution like in the former step.
Lye, also known as sodium hydroxide, is a byproduct of woodash. You can use it for things from soap to unclogging drains. The high pH of lye makes it great for quickly breaking down oleuropein and softening olives, but it’s important to be careful as lye solutions can be toxic. Make sure to use either food-grade lye, or if you’re looking in the drain-cleaner section of the grocery store, that you purchase a product that only contains lye.
- Rinse olives and remove leaves and stems. Also inspect them for bruising and holes.
- Wear long sleeves, pants, and gloves for this curing process, because lye can burn your skin. Wear safety glasses to keep it out of your eyes.
- To make the lye solution, first pour cold distilled water into a container or stainless steel bowl. (Don’t use aluminum or any other metals.) Ue about 5 tbsp lye for 5 quarts of cold water.
- Pour the lye in second. Make sure to follow this order, because pouring water over lye can have potentially explosive effects.
- Stir with a plastic spoon until the lye has fully dissolved. You may use a wooden spoon, but lye can potentially alter or discolor the wood’s color.
- Add your cleaned olives to a glass jar. Leave them whole, because the lye works quickly and thoroughly.
- Pour the lye/water solution over your olives and leave for 6-24 hours.
- After 6 hours, check the olives by washing them and cutting to the pit. A golden-colored center will mean they’re fully cured.
- Remove the lye solution by soaking them in fresh water for several days, and changing the water twice a day. You’ll know the lye is gone when the water stays clear over the course of a few hours.
These are all methods for making olives edible and normal tasting.
As a follow-up to any of them, you can create a flavored brine using herbs and spices to give your olives more pizzazz. Alternatively, you can remove the olive pits and stuff them.
Each of these curing methods is, essentially, the bare minimum. The goal isn’t to make the tastiest, most unique olives. It’s to remove bitterness so they taste like an actual food.
How Does Curing Work?
Each of these curing methods breaks down the oleuropein in olives. The result is a not-so-bitter tasting fruit similar to the ones we’d find in the grocery store.
Brining olives also converts some of the sugar in olives to a lactic acid, which helps to preserve the olives. Brining is highly recommended as a follow-up step to any kind of olive curing.
The olives for sale in jars at grocery stores are actually not raw. Raw olives come fresh off the tree, and go through a curing process to become edible.
Raw olives aren’t toxic or poisonous, but with the intensity of their bitter flavor, they may as well be. Even microorganisms stay away from raw olives. This is because of the bitter-tasting compound oleuropein that lives in their skin.
The curing process, which can be through water, brine, or lye, removes oleuropein and makes olives edible. Brining also preserves olives and adds flavor, so sometimes olives go through multiple brines.
You can cure and brine olives at any stage of their life – green or black.
So, next time you’re strolling through a beautiful Mediterranean olive field, think twice about popping a fresh one into your mouth. Remember instead that you now know how to cure olives yourself!