13 April, 2007

Cos Its The Season To Make Olives

Want to make your own but not sure how? Seeing as it's the season when the olive trees are bearing loads of plump little darlings, here's the lowdown:

GREEN OLIVES: Avoid them, the flavour is nice but the lye solution processing is hardly worth it. Well, okay - if you must, here are some other people's methods. Personally, I will leave green olives to the experts. Here's another page of olive recipes.

BLACK OLIVES: Two ways to prepare them that are quick and easy, the first way is more trouble and results in olives with less of the very compounds we want for a Body Friendly diet, and involves spreading the olives on a fine mesh and sun-drying them until they get wrinkled and then proceeding as for normal black olives.

To make olives that you can eat without a serious stomach-ache or worse, you need to soak the bitter compounds out for a while. For fresh ripe olives, (yep they will be the ones that have turned black) you need to soak them in plenty of brine for about 10 to 12 days, and a bit shorter for the sundried ones. Up to 14 days is acceptable but remember you're also leaching out the good compounds along with the bitter ones so only as long as necessary.

I tend to put about half a litre's worth of olives with a litre of brine, or even more brine if I have a big container. If using lots of brine like that it's okay to change the brine every second day, if you use barely enough brine to cover the olives you will have to make and change to new brine daily. Your call. I set up Google Calendar to send me an SMS on the afternoons I need a brine change, makes it too easy. Also, I tend only to use a few kilos of olives and process them in multiple small batches like that because that way if I stuff one up I still have the others. Again, your call.

Okay making the brine. People will give you "x" "blah"spoons of salt per litre/cup/ewer whatever of water but that leads to some weird brines and uneven results. The idea isn't to make the olives adjust to a different salinity level each time you change the water, as that stresses the membranes and results in olives that feel like they're soft-boiled. Once you know the measurements that make YOUR brine, stick to them for that batch.

Popular Arab and Greek wisdom says that the most useful brine of all is just barely strong enough that a raw egg will float in it. And it's easy to get to that stage. Here's what you need:
  • 1 fresh raw egg (The fresher the better as gas formation will make eggs float lighter as they age.)
  • Several litres (depending on your situation - I will give the quantities that are relevant, and once you've made your brine once, you will know your measurements) of fresh and preferably filtered water.
  • 2 kilos of rock salt (Don't use iodised salt it will taste horrible and discolour the olives.)
  • Small saucepan and large jug/bowl to mix and test in.
Okay this is the easy bit. Put about half a litre to a litre of water into the saucepan and bring to boil. Take note of how much water you used. When it's close to boiling add about six to twelve tablespoons of rock salt to the water, again take note how many spoonfuls you put in.

If all the salt dissolves, add another tablespoonful of rock salt, keep doing this until the salt can't dissolve in the water any more. There you have what is known as saturated brine solution, it can't hold any more salt no matter what.

Let it cool until you can comfortably dip a finger in it. Now measure a litre of water into the mixing vessel, or whatever amount you've decided is enough to do your batch of olives. I tend to go a bit more than I need. Carefully put the egg into it. It will sink, which is what you want.

Start adding brine and stirring it in carefully, until the egg floats up. Add just enough fresh water to just cause the egg to sink again, very slowly it will descend. That's the brine you want. Take the egg out, rinse the brine off it, and put it back where you got it from...

If you noted that you used about half a litre of saturated brine to about a litre and a bit of fresh water, that's about the right strength, and all you have to do is reproduce that again for the next batch. I.e. if you used 12 tablespoons of salt in a litre of boiling water and then added only half of that to make the egg float, you know that from now on you only need six tablespoons of salt in half a litre of boiling water per batch.

Allow that brine to cool (as water that's too hot will also fade the colour and make the olives too soft) and add it to whatever container you used to brine the olives, and make sure the olives are all submerged. The brine will make them float like crazy, and you need to make sure they are all under brine.

It's for that reason that I use a washed-out plastic cordial or milk bottle to brine the olives, and make sure it's brimful of brine, as the narrow neck stops the olives rising up out of the brine. Also, it's a waterproof seal so once or twice a day I can turn the bottle upside down and back the right way again to make sure that if a stray olive did float out of the brine, it will end up somewhere lower in the pack afterwards.

For storing the olives once they've been leached, use a clean preferably sterilised jar with a good lid and big enough to fit the olives with a bit of space left over, then make a brine as for normal, then mixing that half and half with a vinegar you like, and bring enough salt/vinegar brine to boil as you'll need for the final jar. I add two cracked garlic cloves to the brine while boiling it, and make sure they end up in the jar. Make sure the salt/vinegar brine is cooled properly before putting into the jar, and if you like you can put a thin layer of olive oil over the water. But that just ends up looking bad if you're storing the olives in the fridge, so I tend not to do it.

In the fridge these should last until the next year's crop, but if anything develops that looks nasty - stop and throw them out... Otherwise, take out the olives you want to use, rinse in fresh water, and depending if you like the pickle or not, you may want to stand the olives you're about to use in fresh water for an hour and up to a day beforehand to take the strong salt and vinegar taste off.

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