Olives Are Incredibly Misunderstood—Here's Everything You Need to Know About Your Favorite Briny Fruit

Olive oil is great and all, but here’s a brief primer on the whole fruit, including the seven main types of olives.

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Did you know that you can't eat olives raw? Actually, you could eat them right off the tree, but they'd be deeply bitter (think nearly unbearable). Did you know that there are more than 100 kinds of olives, and that their trees can live far more than 2,000 years?

Olives are common—but commonly misunderstood.

Though most often linked with a select few Mediterranean countries, olives are native to Europe, Africa, and Asia. Today, California has even become a major olive-growing region. Some three-quarters of the olives eaten in the U.S. are from the golden state.

Olives are versatile. You've seen them on salads and pizzas, in breads and tagines, stuffed and wrapped, on boards and in drinks, cooked into mains and served plain as a starter. They're packed with health benefits, too. Despite the ubiquity of the olive, we seem not to think much about the olive in its whole form. Here are a few things to know about the small-but-mighty olive.

Olive Growing and Harvesting

Olives are a seasonal crop that grows on deeply gnarled trees. Some 90 percent of cultivated olives go toward olive oil. The other 10 percent are eaten as table olives. Each olive varietal (or cultivar) has its own characteristics—meaning its own shape, size, bitterness, and even sweetness.

There are several ways to harvest olives. They can be hand-picked, detached with rakes (some motorized!), or shaken from trees with large mechanical harvesters. Some farms prefer the more analog methods, which tend to keep the fruit in better shape.

Olives are generally picked early, when they're still greenish. This helps them stay firmer.

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What Determines the Color of an Olive?

Whether your olives are green or black depends on their ripeness.

A green olive? This is an olive that has grown to full size but remains unripe—similar, in a way, to an unripe tomato or strawberry. With time, greater ripeness will bring not only new color but new texture and flavor. Following green, olives turn shades of red, purple, and brown before black. Olives can blacken, too, when treated in certain ways after harvesting.

Curing Olives

Fresh olives are sharply bitter. Curing fixes this. Just like curing changes other great foods, like salmon or pork, curing changes olives.

The main point of curing is to cut the compounds that give rise to bitterness. Curing can happen in several ways, varying across countries and cultures.

Olives can be cured in oil, meaning soaked in oil for an extended time. They can be cured in water, and rinsed repeatedly until bitterness softens. As you might guess, they can be left in a briny solution. They can be cured using lye, a potent chemical that produces a faster curing than the six-month period other methods may require. Olives can even be cured in air, like the Italian beef bresaola. Finally, they can also be cured by being packed in salt, a process that can result in beautifully craggy skins.

7 Types of Olives to Know and Keep on Your Radar

  1. Mission. This is the American olive, the one from the can. Mission accounts for half the olives grown in California (which grows 95 percent of U.S. olives).
  2. Niçoise. Egg-shaped and shades of purple, this mild French olive often finds a place in salads and tapenades.
  3. Cerignola. This olive from Italy's far south is large and bulbous with thick, meaty flesh. It comes in green, bright red, deep purple, and black.
  4. Moroccan-salt cured. Wrinkled and pure black, Moroccan salt-cured olives come with a long note of salt, nuanced flavor, and unexpected tenderness.
  5. Kalamata. Oval-shaped and dark purple, this olive has strong salinity. It famously appears in Greek salads.
  6. Arbequina. Pressed into some of the world's great olive oil, this round Spanish olive is also commonly eaten as a table olive.
  7. Castelvetrano. Usually a vibrant green, this Sicilian olive has thin-yielding flesh, minimal salt, and deep flavor—one of many perfect olives.
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