Pickling Olives - How To Make A Simple Process Difficult
Pickling olives is a task that can be as simple or as difficult as you choose to make it. There are a host of different "best” methods out there. If there is a challenge to pickling olives, it's settling on a method that produces the taste you want.
The best first time approach, assuming you intend to spend the time pickling olives in your kitchen, is to find a recipe that someone else has used in their kitchen, and has been pleased with the results. Then, if the taste isn't just right, and you haven't done anything wrong, you can do a little experimenting until you get it just right. You don't really need lots of fancy equipment. When you look at some of the examples that follow, you might be amazed at how little work pickling olives can really be. Canning peaches is probably every bit as difficult, if not more so. It's just that pickling olives takes a bit more time.
More Than One Way Of Pickling - There are a couple or three basic approaches. It's good to know about all three, since the flavor achieved would be expected to be a bit different for each of the different approaches. The first approach uses a vinegar or caustic soda solution, to remove the olive's natural bitterness, followed by curing in a salt brine. A second approach, dubbed a "green” approach, uses wood ash instead of caustic soda. Green doesn't refer to the color of the olive, but to the claim that using wood ash is more environmentally friendly than using a caustic soda compound. Also, there are those who are of the opinion that vinegar spoils the taste. But that's an opinion, and others disagree. The third approach uses a salt solution only. This approach may be termed the "peasant's method" since it dates back many generations, if not back into antiquity.
Green Or Black? - Before getting started, let's make the distinction between green olives and black olives in case you were wondering. A black olive is simply a ripe olive, whereas a green olive hasn't yet ripened. Most olives which are pickled are green olives. Black olives can be pickled as well but, (1) black olives are more bitter and it can be more difficult to get rid of the bitterness, and (2) being ripe, more things can go wrong in the pickling process, they are more easily apt to spoil. Presumably commercial pickling processes use enough chemicals such that black olives don't present any problems. Unless you're in favor of adding various chemicals, best to stick with green olives.
For all of the methods listed below, you should start with fresh olives. It is possible to work with olives that are slightly "wrinkled", but fresh is by far the best. You'll want a food grade container, 5 gallon or thereabouts, for the pickling process. A glass or stoneware container like amateur wine makers use, is ideal.
Cut Each Olive - Each olive needs to be either cut or pricked. This is probably the most lengthy step, but is done to aid in eliminating the bitterness. The olives are then placed in a salt solution. Use roughly 1 1/2 pounds of salt to each 1 1/2 gallons of water to make the brine, and add a half pint of cider or white wine vinegar. If you want to be a purist, use coarse sea salt and spring water. Some say rainwater, if you've a rain barrel handy, but the point is, for the best results use good water, and not tap water if your water supply is heavy on the chemicals. The olives are simply placed in the brine solution, covered, but not sealed, and left to sit for 4 to 6 weeks. They they're ready to eat. Before eating the brine should be rinsed off.
If You Live Near The Ocean - The Greeks, or at least some of the Greek peasants, have an even easier method. They simply dip a container of olives in sea water, and change the water out every day for a month or so.
A variation on the brine solution theme is to change out the brine solution every week, replacing it each time with a weaker solution. When the olives are ready to eat, they'll be less salty to the taste. This method for pickling olives, using progressively weaker solutions, may take several months to get the results you want. Use non iodized salt by the way, never iodized table salt.
Using Caustic Soda - Other methods use a caustic soda solution initially, about 3 oz. of soda to each gallon of water. The olives are kept in this solution for 2 days on the average, then rinsed and put in a brine solution for the remaining period. It may take several rinses, a day apart, to get rid of all of the soda solution, which you'll want to do before adding the brine mixture. In this method, a hot brine solution is poured over the olives, which have been put in canning jars, and the jars will then be sealed. The brine solution is more concentrated than noted above, about 3/4 cup of salt to each gallon of water.
No Place For Precision - One thing you'll note when looking at the various recipes for pickling olives, is the ratio of salt to water in making the brine isn't at all consistent, and you'll just have to pick one or average things out. In the extreme, one could just pack fresh olives in coarse salt. Some actually use that approach. As far as the wood ash is concerned, using fresh, fine ashes, make a paste in some water and cover the olives for several days instead of using the caustic soda solution. Sounds a little messy, but it supposedly works fine.
Some like to add aromatic herbs, lemon, or garlic to the brine solution. Others wait until a day or two before the olives are to be used before adding anything extra. Like so many things when it comes to pickling olives, there aren't too many hard and fast rules. Happy pickling.