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Types of Olives

Types of Olives

Whether you use them to adorn your pizza or add a pop of salty flavor to a classic martini, olives are a great addition to a whole host of foods and beverages. With flavor palates ranging from sweet and buttery to tart and salty, there's an olive variety that's perfect for nearly every occasion! Learn more about where olives come from and what distinguishes the different varieties to pick the perfect olives for your establishment.

What are Olives?

Though you might not guess it from their savory flavor, olives are technically fruits. Olives belong to a family of fruits called drupes, which are often referred to as "stone fruits" thanks to the hard, stone-like pits found at their centers. This means that olives are actually related to sweet fruits like peaches, apricots, and mangos!

The pits found inside of olives are seeds of the Olea europaea tree, which is native to the Mediterranean region. Olives are an important ingredient in traditional Mediterranean cuisines, though today they're grown and eaten all over the world. An estimated 90% of the olives grown worldwide are used to produce olive oil, while just 10% are destined to become table olives.

Olives are known for their richly savory, complex, often salty flavor. In addition to great taste, olives are also packed with health benefits! They're high in healthy monounsaturated fats, which help to fight inflammation and support heart health. Olives are also full of Vitamin E and other healthy antioxidants, making them a great way to get your daily nutrients.

What's the Difference Between a Green Olive and a Black Olive?


It might seem like green and black olives are different varieties of fruit, but actually, an olive's color is an indication of its ripeness. Young, unripe olives have a green to straw-yellow color but as they mature, they will turn from green to red, purple, or brown, before eventually becoming black when they are fully ripe. In short, the darker the olive, the more ripe it was when it was picked.

Olive age and color over time

Young, green olives typically have dense, firm flesh, and their flavor can be somewhat bitter. Fully mature black olives have a softer texture and a smoother flavor with less bitterness. Black olives also have a higher oil content than their green counterparts.

How to Cure Olives

If you were to pick an olive off a tree and pop it into your mouth, you would be met with a very unpleasant surprise. Olives contain high amounts of the chemical oleuropein, a compound that gives raw olives an intensely bitter flavor. In order to make olives palatable, this compound needs to be fully or partially removed in a process called curing.

Curing breaks down the bonds between oleuropein and the sugars in olives. Most curing methods involve fermentation, a process that converts the olives' natural sugars into lactic acid. In addition to removing their bitterness, fermenting alters olives' flavor and texture, making them softer and adding complexity and saltiness to their flavor profiles. There are a number of ways to cure olives; the most common methods involve the use of brine, water, salt, or lye.

    Brine Curing

    Brine curing method:

    • Soaking olives in brine, a concentrated salt solution, gives the fruits a unique flavor and leaches away their bitter compounds.
    • Brine-cured olives are typically sweet and complex because the salt intensifies the fruit's natural flavors.
    • Brine curing is a time-intensive process, typically requiring between 3 and 6 months, depending on the concentration of the salt solution and the olive variety being cured.

    Water Curing

    Water curing method:

    • This method mimics the traditional Mediterranean technique of allowing olives to soak in temperate sea water in order to remove their bitter oleuropein.
    • Water-cured olives are typically sliced or "cracked" (pounded with a mallet or rolling pin to break the skin) in order to expose the flesh before being submerged in cool, fresh water.
    • The water is changed daily for 7 to 10 days - or longer if a less bitter end result is desired - until the olives are palatable.
    • The olives are then transferred to a "finish brine" made of water, salt, vinegar, and sometimes fresh herbs, where they are left to continue curing for at least a month and up to a year.

    Salt Curing

    Dry salt curing method:

    • This curing technique involves packing olives with salt in wooden boxes or wicker baskets in order to leach out their bitter compounds.
    • The olives cure for 5 to 6 weeks, then the salt is removed.
    • Salt-cured olives are typically soft and shriveled - somewhat similar in appearance to raisins - because the salt absorbs their moisture. Some prefer to bathe the olives in olive oil in order to restore some of their juiciness and flavor.
    • This method removes less oleuropein than other curing processes, so the final olives will be somewhat bitter.

    Lye Curing

    Lye curing method:

    • Soaking olives in a lye solution is the fastest way to remove the compounds that cause bitterness. Lye-cured olives soak in an alkaline lye solution for 8 to 12 hours before being thoroughly rinsed to remove any trace of lye.
    • This method, often referred to as a "Spanish cure," is favored by large commercial manufacturers because it's very time- and cost-effective.
    • The harsh lye can remove some of the olives' color and flavor, resulting in mild, buttery-tasting olives. An optional fermentation step after lye curing can help to restore some flavor.

    Air Curing

    Air / sun curing method:

    • In rare instances, olives are allowed to cure on the branch or cure in the sunshine after they have been picked.
    • Since fully ripe olives are naturally lower in bitter compounds, this air curing method produces fruits that aren't bitter, though the olives tend to be rather shriveled.

Varieties of Olives

Olive trees are one of the world's oldest cultivated trees. Historians estimate that humans have been growing olive trees for over 5,000 years! With such a long history, it's no wonder that so many varieties of olives exist today. By some estimates, there are more than 500 varieties of olives grown across the world. Learn more about some of the world's most popular types of olives below.

Green manzanilla olives in a bowl of pasta salad

Manzanilla

  • Origin: Spain
  • Also Known As: Manzanillo, Spanish Olive
  • Curing Method: Brine or lye
  • Characteristics: Often cured green. Varied in size. Plump, firm texture, and briny, slightly bitter flavor.
  • Common Applications: Pitted and stuffed with nuts, peppers, or cheese. Served in martinis. Used to produce canned black olives; the green Manzanilla olives are turned black through oxidation in the curing process.

Picholine olives in a bowl

Picholine

  • Origin: France
  • Curing Method: Brine or lye
  • Characteristics: Cured green. Small size, characteristic torpedo shape. Frim, crisp texture. Lemony, briny, buttery flavor.
  • Common Applications: Used to produce Moroccan olive oil. Pairs well with fish. Served in martinis or alongside charcuterie boards. 

Green cerignola olives in a bowl surrounded by other snacks

Cerignola

  • Origin: Italy
  • Also Known As: Bella di Cerignola
  • Curing Method: Lye
  • Characteristics: Cured green, red, and black. Large size. Mild, sweet, buttery flavor. Immature green olives have a firm texture; mature black olives are softer.
  • Common Applications: Popular olive for stuffing with peppers, nuts, or cheese. Great ingredient for salads and pasta dishes. Pairs well with chicken and fish.

Two queen olives garnishing a martini

Queen

  • Origin: Spain
  • Also Known As: Sevillano, Gordal
  • Curing Method: Lye, brine, or water
  • Characteristics: Cured green. Large size and firm, meaty texture. Briny, nutty flavor.
  • Common Applications: One of the most popular martini olives, often stuffed with peppers, nuts, or cheese. 

Round, green castelvetrano olives in a bowl surrounded by charcuterie

Castelvetrano

  • Origin: Italy
  • Also Known As: Nocellara del Belice
  • Curing Method: Brine or lye
  • Characteristics: Cured green. Large size, tender skin, and firm bite. Mild, nutty, buttery flavor that is favored by those with sensitive palates.
  • Common Applications: Delicious complement to chicken or fish. Great table olive for snacking or serving with charcuterie. 

Kalamata olives and herbs topping a bowl of hummus

Kalamata

  • Origin: Greece
  • Also Known As: Calamata, Kalamon, Calamon
  • Curing Method: Water or brine
  • Characteristics: Cured black. Dark purple skin. Medium size and soft texture. Rich, meaty flavor.
  • Common Applications: Used to produce olive oil and table olives. Tasty topping for salads or pizzas. Flavorful addition to pasta dishes. Essential ingredient in classic tapenade. 

Nicoise olives in a blue bowl

Nicoise

  • Origin: France
  • Also Known As: Cailletier, Cayet, Taggiasca
  • Curing Method: Brine
  • Characteristics: Cured black. Small size and intensely sour, briny, pleasantly bitter flavor.
  • Common Applications: Essential ingredient in Salade Nicoise, where it’s served with tomatoes, eggs, and anchovies or tuna. Pairs well with sheep and goat cheeses. Used to make mild, sweet olive oil.

Brown gaeta olives in a bowl

Gaeta

  • Origin: Italy
  • Also Known As: Gyeta, Itrana
  • Curing Method: Salt or brine
  • Characteristics: Cured black. Dark purple skin. Small size, soft texture, and tart, salty flavor.
  • Common Applications: Great for making Puttanesca sauce. Often used to make tapenade. Can be used as a substitute for Kalamata olives.

Pizza topped with sliced black mission olives

Mission

  • Origin: United States
  • Curing Method: Lye, brine, or salt
  • Characteristics: Cured black. Small size and mild yet peppery flavor.
  • Common Applications: Ubiquitous black olive in the United States. Used for topping pizzas, sandwiches, or salads. Also used to produce olive oil. 

How to Pit Olives

While some olive lovers prefer to chew the flesh directly off the pit, there are many applications for olives where it's beneficial to remove the hard stone. If you plan to slice olives to use as a topping for salad or pizza, chop them to make a tapenade, stuff them with specialty ingredients, or use them as an ingredient in pasta dishes, it's important to remove their pits. Pits can present a choking hazard, so removing them is also an important food safety consideration.

Restaurant Equipment

How to Pit Olives with a Pitter

The fastest and most efficient method for removing olive pits is to use a pitter (also referred to as a pit remover). These simple machines use a spring-loaded plunger to pierce the flesh of the olive and push the pit out while leaving the fruit mostly intact. Pitters are best for applications where the appearance of your olives matters; if you will be serving your olives alongside an elegant charcuterie board or stuffing them with nuts or cheeses, a pitter is the best option for removing pits.

 

Restaurant Equipment

How to Pit Olives by Hand

If you don't own a pitter, you can still remove olive pits quickly and easily with tools you already have in your kitchen. Using the flat edge of a knife, a meat pounder, or any other hard, flat surface, gently but firmly smash the olive by applying downwards pressure to break the skin and expose the flesh. Once the olive is smashed, the pit will easily pop right out of the fruit. Olives that are pitted by hand rather than with a pitter will be less intact and have a less "perfect" appearance, though with practice, this technique can be refined to result in minimal damage to the flesh of the olive.

What are Stuffed Olives?

Olives are delicious when paired with foods like peppers, nuts, cheeses, herbs, or spices - why not combine them to create one tasty, bite-sized snack? Stuffed olives are pitted olive fruits that have their interiors filled with specialty ingredients. Olives stuffed with pimento peppers are one of the most popular and widely-available options, but there are many stuffings for you to choose from!

Popular Olive Stuffings

A square bowl full of pimento stuffed olives

Pimento Stuffed Olives

Crunchy red pimento peppers provide visual and textural contrast to the olives they're stuffed in. This is the most popular stuffing for olives.

A bowl full of blue cheese stuffed almonds

Blue Cheese Stuffed Olives

The funky, tangy flavor of blue cheese is a great complement to briny, savory olives. Blue cheese stuffed olives are a popular martini garnish.

A bowl full of almond stuffed almonds

Almond Stuffed Olives

Crunchy, buttery almonds add texture and volume to olives, making them a great choice for hors d'oeuvres or snacks.

A bowl full of garlic stuffed almonds

Garlic Stuffed Olives

Adventurous eaters love the combination of pungent garlic and salty olives. Garlic stuffed olives make a great addition to charcuterie boards.

Beyond these common favorites, there's a stuffed olive variety to suit practically any taste! From hot peppers and crunchy pickles to flavorful vegetables and varieties of cheese, there are dozens of fillings for you to select from.

How to Stuff your Own Olives

While there are many types of pre-stuffed olives available for you to purchase, you can also stuff your own olives in order to fully customize the flavor and texture of the final product.

  • Select your olives. Start with pitted olives - any large variety of olive will do, though green olives are most commonly used.
  • For creamy stuffings like blue cheese, cream cheese, or goat cheese, add the filling to a pastry bag fitted with a small round tip and pipe the mixture directly into the center of the olives.
  • For firmer stuffings like almonds, pickles, or cocktail onions, cut the stuffing to size if necessary, then insert directly into the olive.

Stuffing your own olives gives you full control over their flavor profile and allows you to precisely control the amount of stuffing used, though it is a time-consuming process. Pre-stuffed olives offer convenience and consistency, making them perfect for busy establishments. Whether you choose to buy them or make your own, stuffed olives are a great ingredient to keep on hand in the kitchen or behind the bar.

Frequently Asked Questions about Olives

Are olives a fruit?

  • Yes, olives are the fruit of the Olea europaea tree. They are a member of the stone fruit family, meaning that they are related to peaches and plums.

What are olives good for?

  • Olives have a wide variety of culinary uses. They can be eaten whole with or without pits and are sometimes stuffed with specialty ingredients. Olives are delicious toppings for pizzas, salads, or pasta dishes. They can be pureed to create a tapenade and included in other flavorful dips. Olives are also commonly used as a garnish for martinis and other savory cocktails.

How do olives grow?

  • Olive trees grow best in coastal areas with long, warm summers and mild, wet winters. It takes about 5 years for an olive tree to bear fruit. Olive fruits grow on the branches of the Olea europaea tree. Young fruits are green, but turn to red, purple, and brown, before finally turning black when they're ripe.

How long do olives last?

  • Unopened jarred olives stored in brine typically have a shelf life of 3 years; unopened canned olives are typically shelf-stable for 4 years. Once opened, it's best to store olives under refrigeration and consume within 3 weeks of opening. If you have doubts about the freshness of your olives, consult the "best by" date on the packaging.

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