Spotlight Series: All About Olives (Everything You Need To Know)

Spotlight Series: All About Olives

(Everything You Need To Know)

Did you know that olives are one of the oldest fruit?

Yes, that’s right. Olives are a fruit. In the same family as peaches, cherries and plums, olives are considered a drupe fruit or stone fruit. Olives (botanical name: Olea europaea) are a beloved part of Mediterranean culture with a history that goes back before written language. Thanks to the hardiness and adaptability of the olive tree and its numerous benefits, this ancient gem has survived time and circumstance to continue on as one of the planet’s most treasured fruits.

Olives come in a wide range of varieties, colors, flavor profiles and curing styles. There is an olive (or 12) for nearly every palate with flavors ranging from tart and crisp to deeply complex and smoky. No matter which olive you choose, each brings an incredible burst of flavor for such a tiny package. For these reasons and more, olives are an exciting addition to antipasto spreads, cheese boards and charcuterie plates. More than a snacking or entertaining item, olives and their oils are indispensable ingredients showing up in everything from salads and pizzas and to pasta sauces and baked chicken recipes.

If you love olives or just want to learn about this remarkable fruit, this is a proper place to begin.

Uncured olives of various colors

Olives: Fast Facts

  • Olives are actually a stone fruit (like peaches or cherries).
  • Unlike most tree fruits, olives are inedible straight from the branch. Olives are cured in a variety of ways to remove bitter flavor compounds.
  • All olives start out as green olives. As they mature, olives can range from a purple to deep brown or black. Olives range in color depending on when they are harvested. As a rule, the greener they are, the less mature they are.
  • The taste of each olive differs from olive variety to olive variety. Those big, bold flavors vary for a few reasons: olive variety, olive ripeness or color (how soon or late they were harvested) and how they are cured
  • Olive trees are an ancient Mediterranean crop, grown and harvested for thousands of years. Most olive trees are hundreds of years old and still bear delicious fruit!

What Are Olives?

Olives are small, ovular fruits that grow on trees. While most might not think of olives as a fruit, they are classified as drupe fruits (or stone fruits)—like peaches, plums, cherries, etc. These are fleshy fruits with hard pits that contain a seed. There are hundreds of olive varieties and they can be processed and sold in varying stages of ripeness, from youthful green and crisp to a ripe black. Healthy and loaded with good fats and antioxidants, olives and their oil are a staple food in the Mediterranean and a large part of the famed Mediterranean diet. There is no such thing as fresh olives, as olives right from the tree are super bitter and inedible. Olives must be cured to eat. These ancient fruits are enjoyed all over the world as simple snacks, elaborate antipasto and cheese board features, as well as gourmet ingredients in everything from pasta salads to pizzas. Olives can be found in grocery stores canned on shelves, packaged in the deli department and on olive bars all across the United States.

The History Of Olives

Did you know that the olive tree, also known as the “tree of eternity,” is one of the oldest cultivated trees in the world? The olive tree originated in present-day Turkey and had an enormous impact on Mediterranean civilizations for thousands of years with its uses.

For centuries, olives and their oil have offered food, medicines, fuel and more. To this day, olives have many uses in our lives—from cosmetics to food items. The longevity of this glorious food is—no doubt—due to its hardiness and strength. The olive tree has an incredible ability to adapt to drought conditions and to soil changes and even low temperatures. Because of this, the olive tree (Olea europaea) is symbolic to many and its fruit has been enjoyed and celebrated throughout history. The olive tree—more specifically, its branch—is known as a symbol of peace that dates back to ancient Greece.

Olive Geography

Olive trees on a beautiful day.

There are many regions in the world where olives grow, not just in the Mediterranean. The main regions for growing olives include Spain, Italy, Morocco, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia and California (of The United States.) These regions are prime locations for olive cultivation because of their climate. Olive trees prefer warm summers with little rain and only a few days of freezing temperatures. Different regions produce different olives with unique flavor profiles. We love pairing up Italian olives, for example, with antipasti, specialty cheeses and cured meats of the same region.

Olive Propagation (Growth), Harvesting And Seasonality

Olives come in a wide range of colors, from straw-green to purples and black …even pink! The precise moment an olive is harvested can determine its flavor and texture. Just as you might imagine, the greener an olive, the younger it is. These youthful fruits are typically picked from the tree in September and October—early in the harvest season. Green olives are often tart in flavor with a crisp, firm flesh. Dark-hued olives (the deep purple, brown and black) are allowed to ripen longer on the tree before they are plucked—typically in January—creating a more tender and more complex olive with deeper, richer notes.

Younger Olives

Illustration of a young green olive

Younger olives are green and tend to be firmer and crisper in texture with a more bright, tart flavor.

Mature Olives

Illustration of a mature brown olive

Dark olives are more mature, boasting richer and more intense flavors with a tender bite. Ripe olives can vary in color: from purple to brown to black.

Olive Fermentation And Curing

Illustration showing the curing process for olives

Natural Brine Fermentation

Illustration of table salt and a water bottle

Natural brine fermentation is an all-natural process where ripened olives are fermented in salt water. While this method takes longer (months and months and months), the results are a superbly flavorful olive. Our preferred cure for most olives, it is a natural way to emphasize an olives full, bold flavor.

Salt Curing

Illustration of table salt and a pile of sodium chloride

Salt curing, otherwise known as dry curing, creates olives that are super intense in flavor. This curing process consists of packing olives in layers with salt to remove bitterness and moisture, leaving behind a wrinkled raisin-looking olive with a deep, concentrated flavor. Salt-cured olives are often packed in oil, giving them a plump, juicy bite.

Lye Curing

Illustration of a bottle of lye

Lye curing is a method of olive curing that utilizes lye, also known as caustic soda. This curing agent is used to expedite the curing process to days or weeks, where typically olives can take months to cure. This process is followed by a thorough rinsing. While olives often keep their texture, the downside of a lye cure is loss of flavor. A good example of lye-cured olives is canned black olives.

Types Of Olives

Variety - There are over a hundred mainstream olive varietals from all over the world that are used in table olive and olive oil production—from the buttery green Sicilian olives known as Castelvetrano to the prized purple-hued Greek Kalamata (branded Calamata Olives at DeLallo). Each olive varies in size, color, texture and flavor.

Color - The color of your favorite table olives depends on when they were harvested. Olives begin as green olives—the same way tomatoes and peppers all start out green. In general, the greener an olive is, the less mature it is. As they ripen, olives change colors from purple to deep brown or black. This color shift depends on the olive variety. Some olives are best enjoyed green, like the Spanish Manzanilla. While others, like the Greek Calamata are best eaten when they are ripe, which is a stunning purple eggplant color. But most other olives turn dark brown to black when they are ripened.

Cure - An olive’s variety is only one factor that determines the flavor and texture of a table olive. Because “fresh olives,” or olives straight from the tree, cannot be eaten as they are, these small stone fruits must be processed to remove their natural bitter compounds. This processing is called curing. Whether an olive is soft and mild or crisp and tangy really depends on an olive’s curing process. Some methods are quicker, some curing takes more time. Learn more about specific curing styles under the heading Olive Fermentation and Curing.

Olive Sizing

International olive sizes are dictated by the number of olives per kilo, while American sizes are classified by the number of olives per pound. Because of this, you might see olive sizes as 160/180, for example. (These sizes refer to the whole olive fruit with pit.) In the United States, olives also adopted size descriptors like Medium, Jumbo and Mammoth that have been tied to these per-kilo sizes, which you may see in grocery stores in the names of the olives themselves.

Graphic showing the various sizes of olives

Olives In Brine Vs Oil

Olives packed in oil are considered superior, by most. Oil-packed olives are better coated and so slower to degrade. Keeping them refrigerated will slow the process of degradation even more. Olives that are kept in brine (salt water) will continue to cure and can become acrid and overly salty. This all depends on the olive, of course. Whether your olives are packed in oil or brine solution, the key is to keep them covered in that liquid. This will enhance the longevity of your olives.

Storing Olives - Olives, like other pickled food items, have a longer shelf-life than fresh foods. While they are typically well-preserved, that doesn’t mean they won’t go bad. There are some obvious indicators that your olives have gone bad. Olives that are too soft, super mushy and breaking apart or bruised are a sign your olives have degraded. If combined with a bad smell, get rid of those olives! To store olives properly and to keep them looking and tasting their best, be sure the olives are completely submerged in the oil or brine that they come in. Keep the container in a cool space or refrigerator, depending on the label instructions.

In the Kitchen - Olives aren’t just a charcuterie board decoration or an antipasto feature. Olives are at the heart of some incredible Mediterranean-inspired recipes. When it comes to cooking olives, these ancient fruits are delicious ingredients that can fit so much flavor into a tiny package. Briny, bold, piquant, buttery, grassy, tangy, sweet, smoky… just one olive can add some serious flavor to your Mediterranean-inspired dishes—from Puttanesca Pasta Sauce to Baked Chicken and Olives and even the popular Dirty Martini. Have you ever tried our cheesy fried Stuffed Olives recipe? What about the iconic Olive Tapenade spread? Sliced, smashed, puréed, chopped, pitted, whole… olives are an invitation to get creative!

Health Benefits Of Olives

Olives are absolutely good for you! Olives and olive oil are part of the famous Mediterranean diet, an eating style based on those living along or near to the Mediterranean Sea—in the countries of Italy, Greece, Spain and France, to be exact. High in antioxidants such as Vitamin E, olives have been proven to be beneficial for prevention of bone disease, heart disease, and certain cancers. Olives contain mono-unsaturated fat, a healthy fat which can help to regulate cholesterol. Don’t forget that olives are considered a fermented food, which brings along its own health benefits for gut health.

The Best Olives: The Delallo Difference

Olives are absolutely good for you! Olives and olive oil are part of the famous Mediterranean diet, an eating style based on those living along or near to the Mediterranean Sea—in the countries of Italy, Greece, Spain and France, to be exact. High in antioxidants such as Vitamin E, olives have been proven to be beneficial for prevention of bone disease, heart disease, and certain cancers. Olives contain mono-unsaturated fat, a healthy fat which can help to regulate cholesterol. Don’t forget that olives are considered a fermented food, which brings along its own health benefits for gut health.

DeLallo Olives: FAQ

Are Olives A Fruit Or Nut?

Most people think “sweet” when they think of fruit. It may surprise you to know that olives are classified as a drupe fruit (or stone fruit) like peaches, plums and cherries. Drupes are fleshy fruits with a central stone that contains a seed.

Can I Eat Olives If I Have A Nut Allergy?

Olives are classified as a fruit, not a nut or tree nut. Someone with a nut allergy should be safe to consume olives and olive oil. Still, it is always a good idea to check labels and to make sure a food item does not contain any extraneous ingredients—like other oils, for example. Authentic olive oils, like DeLallo Olive Oils, will never contain anything but olives, but there are certainly scammers out there claiming to be true olive oil yet pumping their products full of cheaper oils like soybean or peanut oils. For those with severe food allergies, we always recommend seeking the advice of a healthcare professional.

How Many Olives A Day Is Ok?

Some experts recommend 15-20 olives per day depending on their size. This translates to about 2-3 ounces of olives. Of course, this recommendation does not take into account specific health conditions and dietary restrictions, so it is always advised to consult with a dietician or health professional before altering your diet.

Why Do Olives Have Distinct Flavors?

Olives get their distinct flavors from a few factors. First, the flavor profile of an olive is dependent, in part, on the variety of olive. Olives are grown all over the world and while there are hundreds of olive varieties, only about 150 are used for table olive and olive oil production. Each olive offers its own set of unique characteristics. The second factor that determines an olive’s flavor is its level of maturity. Depending on when the olive fruit is picked, an olive can be green and crisp with brighter, sweeter flavors or darker and ripe with more bold and complex flavors. How an olive is cured is yet another factor in determining its flavor profile. As an example, the Sicilian Castelvetrano is a popular green olive that is harvested when it is young, and then, cured using lye. This is a quicker curing method that removes the bitterness of the raw olive, but will allow the olive to keep its crisp, youthful texture.

What Determines The Color Of An Olive?

All olives start out as green olives. As they mature, olives can range from a purple to deep brown or black. Olives range in color depending on their variety as well as when they are harvested. As a rule, the greener they are, the less mature they are.

Are Green Or Black Olives Healthier?

Neither olive is healthier, as an olive’s nutritional facts are more based on how an olive is processed (or cured) than its raw, inedible state. Both black and green olives are packed with nutrients and “good fats” that have been proven to keep the heart healthy and prevent certain cancers. Nutritional items—such as their sodium content, for example—is dependent on what is used in the curing process and how long olives are cured.

Are Olives A Fat Or Protein?

Olives are full of nutrients and though they contain more fat than protein, the fat in olives is mono-unsaturated. This is a “good fat” that studies show can help to regulate cholesterol levels, and in turn, may prevent heart disease. Olives are not a significant source of protein.

Are Olives Edible Off The Branch?

No, you cannot eat olives raw, or right after harvesting. Olives naturally contain bitter compounds known as oleuropein and phenolic. For olives to become edible, they must be cured. There are a few different ways to cure olives—some faster, some slower—that will remove this compound to create a tasty table olive.

What Are Table Olives?

Table olives are olives that have been specially cultivated, harvested and then selected to be consumed specifically as a table olive. After harvest, olives must go through a curing process to make them edible. This process softens the olives and removes the bitter compounds that render them inedible. The olives that are chosen for table olives boast certain characteristics that make them great for eating: flesh-to-pit ratio, taste, firmness, volume, shape, how easily their pits can be removed… etc.

Why Are Table Olives Different Colors?

The color variations of table olives are due to their variety and their maturity. The exact moment an olive is harvested makes all the difference—on a scale from green (young) to black (ripened). Not only does an olive’s ripeness affect its color, but also its texture and flavor profile.

Why Do Some Olives Have Slices In Their Skin?

When an olive has been intentionally sliced it is referred to as a “cracked olive.” This process is typically done mechanically, allowing the brine to penetrate the olive’s flesh quickly and the fruit to take on its flavors immediately. While this can be done as a usual practice, as with a particular cure of California Sevillano olives, it can also be done for necessity, as performed on some Calamata olives to achieve the proper cure.

What Are Natural Olives?

In most cases, olives are a natural product. To further define this, DeLallo considers an olive natural when it does not contain any artificial additives, preservatives or colors. In the case of the lye processing as a means of olive production, it is solely used for processing. The lye solution is thoroughly washed from the olives; therefore, the lye itself is not an ingredient in the fruit or the substance in which it is contained. In fact, many olives are treated with lye in their process and are certified organic by NOP standards.

All DeLallo Olives are natural with the exception of two: the Black Bella di Cerignola Olive, which contains ferrous gluconate to give it its black color, and the Red Bella di Cerignola Olive, which is colored with erythrosine.

Why Are Some Olives Pasteurized?

Some olives are pasteurized to control the pH level. This can also be achieved by keeping the product refrigerated, but refrigeration is the more costly of the two options. The negative effects of pasteurization are a dulled color and flesh that often becomes too soft from the extreme heat of pasteurization. DeLallo offers only one variety of pasteurized olive, the Bella di Cerignola, because it is too sensitive to keep refrigerated for extended periods. All other DeLallo olives are shipped and held in refrigeration before production.

What Olives Are Used To Make Olive Oil?

While there are most likely thousands of olive varieties out there, only about 150 varieties are used to make table olives and olive oil. There are several factors that go into choosing an olive to press for oil: its flavor profile, how hardy their trees are, how easily they are harvested, how high of a yield that olive produces when pressed, etc. Some of the most popular olive oil olives are the Picual (Spain), the Arbequina (Spain) and the Leccino (Italy).

Where To Buy DeLallo Olives

Order from us directly or visit your favorite olive bar.