The Olive is one of the earliest Cooking Ingredients and used in the Kitchen in many Forms.
Olive
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An Olive, is a small oval Fruit of the domesticated olive tree. They are a type of fruit called a Drupe. Drupes are an interestingly diverse family that includes Stone Fruits (Peaches, Cherries, Apricots and Plums), but also Almonds, Pistachios, Nutmeg, Lychees, Coconuts and Olives.

It may seem odd that Olives are a fruit. Like tomatoes, five out of ten people would call them a fruit, and the other half would say Vegetable. We split the difference and call them a fruit when we are pressed for proper details but also call them a "Culinary Vegetable," when precision is less important. Perhaps the most un-fruit like thing about olives is their flavor.

Olives are anything but sweet. In fact, straight off the tree, they taste pretty awful. Eating a raw olive has been likened to eating “an unplucked chicken or an uncooked potato.”  This is because they contain a phenolic substance called oleuropein, (also called glucoside oleuropein and glucoside), which is a medical powerhouse known for its antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties. Oleuropein also happens to be extremely bitter. The leaves of Olive trees and unripe Olives contain more oleuropein than fully ripened Olives, but even ripe Olives, if uncured, are unpalatable to humans. Luckily, Western man figured out ways to fix this problem very early on, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the case of the Olive, there’s plenty of history, in fact so much we can barely scratch the surface here so the Smart Kitchen Resource “The History of Olives” does a more thorough job.

Season

Olives are harvested from October to January. Many of the different colors of Olives are actually more of a sign of maturity than of Olive type. For example, Green Olives are harvested in the fall, at the earliest stages of maturity; "Pink" Olives are harvested in the late fall and are rose or brown colored; Back Olives are harvested in early winter; and “Wrinkled Black Olives” (not dry-cured olives) are picked in the middle of the winter.

Because Olives are cured and preserved, Olives are available year round.

Availability

Olives are available year round.

Cultivation

Olive trees can live for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years.  There are claims that of trees that have survived since before Christ was born, and scientific proof that Olive trees growing on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem are nearly 1,000 years old. 

Olive Trees are extremely hardy, can withstand droughts and excessive heat, and are fire-resistant.  Their root systems are very strong, and trees have been known to completely regenerate even if the entire above-ground tree has been destroyed.

The trees love dry heat, lots of sunlight, and good drainage. In the United States conditions in the East and South are too humid, the soil too rich, and the sunlight too sporadic for growing Olives.

Olive trees grow best from cuttings or by grafting rather than from seeds. Depending on the type of Olive, a tree can take anywhere between 3 and 12 years to bear fruit, and usually requires the presence of a pollinating tree of a different cultivar to get the process going. Once it begins producing fruit, however, the tree will probably continue to do so for the rest of its very long life. Older trees can produce large crops of Olives, but they may not bear fruit every year.

Production

Today, Olives are grown in many parts of the world, in Australia, Japan, California, Latin America, Pakistan and the Mediterranean countries.  Of the top ten producers of Olive in the world, Spain produces the most by far (about 30-35% of all table Olives and 45% of all Olive Oil), followed by Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, Italy and Argentina and Tunisia, and Italy.  Though 9 out of 10 Olives eaten in America comes from California, the total amount produced there is only between .5 and 1% of annual worldwide Olive production (this includes Olives used for making Olive Oil; California’s percentage of table Olives is much higher, around 11% of the worldwide total).  Table Olives, by the way, are those grown to be eaten, and they are a very small percent of the number of Olives produced.  About 93% of Olives grown annually are made into Olive Oil.

Olives are harvested and cured both when they are unripe and when they are fully ripened. For the most part, green Olives are unripe ones and black/purple/brown Olives are ripe ones. It can be confusing as there are some exceptions where Olives are black both when young and mature, as well as some cases where the Olives are remain green even when they have ripened. Olives destined for whole-fruit consumption (not for making olive oil) are hand harvested to prevent bruising and then classified according to their maturity:

There are various methods for curing Olives (also known as “fermenting”) to remove their bitterness. Olives can be Oil-Cured (soaked in oil for several months); Water-Cured (soaked in many changes of water for several months), the basic method developed by the Romans; Brine-Cured (soaked in a Salt-water solution for up to six months); Dry-Cured (packed in salt for several months); and Lye-Cured (soaked in a strong alkaline solution for a few days).

The Romans were actually lye-curing their Olives when they placed them in a solution containing wood ash (the ash makes the solution alkaline).  An alkaline solution breaks down the bitter-tasting oleuropeins and also dissolves part of the cell walls, making it easier for the Olives to absorb seasonings. 

After removing the bitterness, different flavorings are added to the Olives.  Olives can also be cracked before they are cured and have various Herbs and Spices added to their Vinegar, Salt or Oil-based holding solutions.

Perhaps one of the most familiar types of Olives are the canned “black ripe” Olives from California.  Calling these Olives “ripe” is actually a misnomer; the Olives are harvested while they are still green.  They are treated first with lye, and then a solution containing iron and oxygen to help them turn black.  These treatments give them a mild, almost bland flavor and a soft texture.

Olives can also be stuffed, and by far the most stuffed Olives are Spanish Manzanillos, stuffed with Pimientos. Stuffing Olives with Pimientos is the only Olive-stuffing process that has been successfully industrialized. Other popular Olive fillings are Garlic Cloves, Almonds, Cheeses, Jalapeño Peppers and Anchovies. Spain consumes about 40% of its huge yearly production of Olives at home.  Most of its home-consumed Olives are green, and a large percentage of them are stuffed with Anchovies.

Varieties

There are thousands of varieties of Olives. Morocco, Italy and France all count their types in the hundreds. There are various naming methods.  Many Olives are named for the area or town in which they originated (Gaeta and Niçoise), some for the type of Olive (Picholine and Salona), and some for the way they are cured (Greek and Sicilian styles). 

Because there are so many types, we will confine ourselves to listing the kinds you are most likely to find available.  For more information on Olive varieties, Delallo’s Olive Variety Page is pretty good (the link goes off-site), as is the listing on Wikipedia’s Olive Page, which briefly describes 25 different kinds in the section entitled Cultivars. The Wikipedia Link also goes off-site to Wikipedia.

The main types of Olives from California can be classified as Dry-Cured, which are salt-cured and then rubbed with Olive Oil; Greek style, which are large purple/black olives that have been cured and are packed in vinegar; and Sicilian style, which are very large green Olives that are brine-cured and then kept in lactic acid solution.  The main varieties raised in California are Barouni Olives, Ascolano Olives, Manzanilla Olives, Mission Olives and Sevillano Olives.

French Olives include Nicoise Olives, Nyons Olives, Picholine Olives and Lucques Olives.  Some Greek Olive varieties are Amfissa Olives, Atalanta Olives, Ionian Olives, Kalamata Olives (or Calamata) and Salona.  Israel and Lebanon raise Souri Olives, and some types from Italy include Ascolano Olives, Gaeta Olives, Liguria Olives, Lugano Olives, Castelvetrano Olives and Cerignola Olives. The two main varieties of Olives grown in Morocco (they have hundreds of varieties) are Picholine Marocaine (aka Morocco Baldi Picholine) and Dry-Cured Moroccan Olives.

Purchasing

The naming system for Olives can be confusing. If possible it is best to sample the Olives you are considering before buying them. Many better stores are happy to let you try one (or two), which can save you from discovering you have made a bad pick when you get home.

Storage

Olives should be stored in Brine or Oil. If you purchase them dry, Brine or Oil should be added to help them last longer. If purchased in unopened cans or jars, Olives can be stored at room temperature for as long as two years. 

Once opened, they can be kept either at room temperature or refrigerated for a number of weeks, as long as they are totally submerged in their holding solution. A harmless mold sometimes forms on top of them; just spoon it off before using the Olives. If you add anything perishable to the Olives, such as Herbs, Cheese, etc., they should be refrigerated, and will last as long as the perishable ingredient’s shelf life.

Culinary Uses

Depending on the type, Olives are composed of between 15 and 30% Oil. Olive Oil is a major culinary use for Olives.

Whole Olives are extremely flexible and we can only begin to list the ways that the versatile Olive is used in cooking today. They are a pivotal ingredient in all the cuisines of the Mediterranean, most notably Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Morocco, Israel, Egypt, and southern France (Provence).  They are used in every course of a meal (though less often for breakfast and dessert). 

Olives can be served plain or marinated as part of an Italian Antipasta or a Spanish Tapas.  Chopped Olives are a flavorful addition to a loaf of homemade Bread, and they can enliven many a bland Rice or Potato dish. They can be the central ingredient in a Salad, or one of twenty elements. Sliced, ChoppedPureed to a paste in a Tapenade spread on Bread or Crackers, made into a Relish, used in Omelets, on Pizzas, in Pasta Sauces and Pasta Salads, or an essential element in many Meat, Game, Fish, Seafood and Poultry dishes—Olives are at home almost anywhere in the kitchen.   

Olives are often paired with other Mediterranean ingredients such as Feta or Ricotta Cheese, Garlic, Capers and Tomatoes, spices like Oregano, Marjoram and Thyme, but are definitely not confined to those combinations. They are compatible with a nearly limitless variety of ingredients, from Octopus to Oranges

A few classic examples: they are essential in Pasta Puttanesca, Greek Salad, a Moroccan Tagine, Salade Nicoise, Sicilian Orange Salad and perhaps its most popular use of all, in a Dry Martini.

Portion Size

Allow 3-5 Olives per person.

Nutritional Value USDA
OLIVES,RIPE,CND (SMALL-EXTRA LRG)
Amount Per 100g
Calories 115
%Daily Value*
 
15%
Total Fat 10g
0%
Saturated Fat 1g
Polyunsaturated Fat 0g
Monounsaturated Fat 7g
0%
Cholesterol 0mg
31%
Sodium 735mg
0%
Potassium 8mg
2%
Total Carbohydrate 6g
12%
Dietary Fiber 3g
Sugars 0g
Protein 0g
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your Daily Values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
Nutrition

Olives and Olive Oil are an essential part of the Mediterranean Diet, the benefits of which are well documented, and have recently been reaffirmed by the results of a long-term study and reported in a front-page article in the New York Times on February 26, 2013.

In the case of Olives’ value health-wise, good things definitely come in small packages.  Their combination of helpful nutrients includes large amounts of vitamin E, polyphenols (the bitter-tasting oleuropein is one, which helps protect us against microbes, and contains anti-aging compounds as well), phytonutrients (including hydroxytyrosol, an olive phytonutrient that is helpful in cancer prevention), Calcium, Potassium, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Iodine, Iron (supports immune system function), Vitamin A (important for eye health and night vision), Dietary Fiber (one cup of black Olives contain 17% of our recommended daily fiber intake) and Monounsaturated Fats, the good kind of fat that lowers the risk of atherosclerosis and raises good cholesterol. 

Olives are effective against many major health problems, including heart disease and cancers (notably skin and colon cancer), arthritis, allergies, preventing bone loss and cell damage, and protecting the skin against ultraviolet rays.

Gluten Free

Yes

Low Fat

Varies

Low Calorie

Varies