How (not) to Cure Olives with Lye

I have wanted to try curing olives for a long time.  Moving back to California where olives are planted all over the place as landscape trees and finding actual clear instructions for curing them (not a lot of information could be found 12 years ago) meant it was time to forage for olives and play with lye.  If you want to play with olives too – always use a source who has lots of personal experience SUCCESSFULLY curing olives.  I recommend Hank Shaw’s instructions for Curing Olives with Lye.  I am writing this post merely to illustrate what NOT to do.

  • The first thing you need to do is pick through your olives and remove any bruised or bitten ones.  What likes to bite into a tongue-numbingly bitter fruit?  Olive fly.  Also remove any blushed olives.  You only want really hard green ones.

I removed all olives with olive fly holes in them and all the bruised ones but I couldn’t bear to remove all the blushed ones.  Which are now an unbecoming shade of grey.

  • Put very cold water in a non-aluminum container.  Put on gloves and safety glasses.  Measure your lye with a non-aluminum measuring device and add it to the cold water.  Stir it up with a non-aluminum spoon.  Now weight the olives down because if the olives are exposed to air while curing they will darken.

This, my friends, is the trickiest part of the whole process: keeping those suckers submerged.  I suggest figuring out what works BEFORE you mix up your lye and mess up your olives.  Even if you think you have a system that works – it might not.  Do not weigh your olives down with anything aluminum.  By now you may have noticed that aluminum should have nothing to do with your lye curing project.  Lye + contact with aluminum = poison.

I had two batches of olives to cure.  So I had two stainless steel pots.  Pickling crocks would work way better.  I haven’t got any pickling crocks because they are so flippin’ expensive.  What’s up with that?!  One of my pots worked pretty well because a smaller lid fit perfectly inside it without letting any of the loose olives float to the top.  But the other pot?  Nothing fit well in it.  I finally found a ceramic pie weight that almost fit.  I got it so the olives weren’t quite able to float up around it to the top.  I walked away for one hour.  ONE hour.

And all of the olives had managed to get around the small space at the sides of the weight like crafty little bastards and were floating at the top.  I think “dicolored” is so gentle sounding.  They were RUDELY discolored.  Check it out:

Angry orange-ish red.

And blackened.  Needless to say I had to throw half of this batch out.  Even if the discoloration wouldn’t have rendered them technically inedible – would you eat that?

Hank has a solution mentioned in his instructions and if I had been smart I would have tried this to begin with.  Tie the olives up in cheese cloth (but make sure the olives are pretty loose inside so liquid can flow freely between them).  Then your weight doesn’t have to match the circumference of your container precisely.  Worked like a charm.  So if you don’t have the perfect container and plate or lid situation: listen to Hank.

USE CHEESE CLOTH.

  • Let the olives soak in the lye for 12 hours.  No need for more.  This is the perfect amount of time to leach out the bitterness and preserve flavor.

I left mine in for 21 hours.  Because to take them out at 12 hours would have required me to be showered and dressed by 8am with a clean enough kitchen to be dealing with lye and olives.  I think I might have gotten dressed around 11am but then I had to clean the kitchen and then some other random bullshit came up and I didn’t get the olives out of the lye until 1pm.

This is what you’ll see at 21 hours.  The water/lye solution will be a reddish color.  Kind of like deadly punch.

  • Drain the lye solution out and then rinse the olives.  Next you fill your container with water, covering them, and weigh them down again, they can still discolor. You want to rinse the olives and replace the water 3-4 times a day for 2 to 4 days (until the lye is completely rinsed out).

Or if you’re me: 2 times a day for the first 2 days and then once a day for the next 9 days.  Because I am lazy.  And I forget about them.  If you did it like you were supposed to then in 2-4 days your olives will be ready for the next step.  How do you know they’re ready?  The water will look clean when the lye is completely rinsed out of the olives.  How do you make sure the lye is all out?  You  bite into an olive, if it’s soapy tasting then they need more soaking and rinsing.  And no, you won’t get sickened or die if there’s a little lye in your olive at this point.  There’s very little and it’s no longer caustic.  Trust me, I did it.

Lye is in traditional soap.  So the olives will be foamy and slippery like you’ve just slathered them up with some soap.  Because that’s essentially what you’ve done.  See the discoloration of the water in that picture above?

Now there is no discoloration.

The next step after all the soaking and rinsing in plain water is brining the olives.  I just did that last night with my first two batches while putting a whole new crop of olives in lye with a much better container this time.  But as per my usual way of doing things – I picked some olives 9 days ago that only got into the lye last night along with some olives I picked fresh yesterday*.  So I’ll be able to report to you if curing olives that have been off the tree languishing on a warm sunny project table are worth bothering with.

Next up: brining and flavoring the olives Angelina-style.

*I tied up the old ones and new ones separately in cheese cloth so they don’t mix together.  I am very scientific.

3 thoughts on “How (not) to Cure Olives with Lye

  1. Elise

    Congratulations to you for going for it with the olives! I have yet to actually do the lye cure myself, though Hank has brought some of the finished beauties from the olives we picked, and they are absolutely delicious. I tried salt water curing them 2 years ago and that didn’t work out so well. Way too much work and the olives didn’t taste good.

    Reply
  2. angelina Post author

    Thank you Elise! I read about all the different methods of curing and especially appreciated Hank’s review of what he thought of the various results he got. The lye curing sounded like it gets the best results so I really wanted to try that one first. I’m just glad I’ve been able to find so many olives to play with because there is clearly a learning curve with curing olives. This weekend I get to change the brine and flavor the first batch – that’s going to be fun.

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