With little to no cholesterol and a rich store of beneficial monounsaturated fat, this tree fruit—yes, the olive is a fruit—has a long history in healthy Mediterranean diets.
Olives also have a phytonutrient called hydroxytyrosol, which studies have shown to have a number of healthful properties. In addition, olives are low in calories and carbohydrates, and high in antioxidants, iron, fiber and vitamin E.
Most olive varieties share these overall nutritional characteristics, although some differ slightly due to ripeness or processing.
The nutritional downside to olives? High levels of sodium that comes from the salt-brining process, necessary to de-bitter and soften this otherwise bitter, hard fruit.
Green Versus Black Olives
Olives can be eaten after going through a curing process (or pressed into oil). Depending on the type of olive and the desired flavor profile, olives can stay in the brine from 24 hours to several months.
Whether an olive is green or black depends on when they are harvested from the tree. Green olives are picked when unripe while black olives remain on the tree until fully ripe.
Green olives tend to be fermented longer in a salt-and-lye brine, and the longer the fermentation process, the less bitter they are. Green olives are often pitted and stuffed with pimentos, anchovies or even blue cheese.
Black olives are also brined, but for shorter amounts of time, making them less salty. Black olives are rarely stuffed with other foods, instead, they are eaten as is as a snack, or added to salads and pizzas.
The Best 15 Types of Olives
Looking for the perfect olive for your family? Here are some of your choices.
1. Black Ripe/California Olive
- The black ripe olive is the most popular in the US and has the mildest flavor. “About 90% or more California-grown olives go into that style,” explains olive expert Bill Kruger, farm advisor emeritus at UC Cooperative Extension. The deep black color is set when the olives are pressure-cooked in the can, where they sit in mild salt brine.
- Flavor: The mildest olive with a slight buttery flavor, black ripe olives tend to be a favorite of kids. “You could call it a beginner's olive,” Kruger says.
2. Spanish-Style Manzanillo
- Typically made from the popular Manzanillo table olives imported from Spain, these are picked green before they are ripe enough to change color. Manzinillo olives are the ones you'll often find stored in mild brine and stuffed with pimento, which is said to add a complementary sweetness to the tart olive.
- Flavor: “These have a little sharper flavor,” Kruger says, “They aren't really bitter, but sharper than the black ripe olive.” Others describe it as tangy with hints of smoky and woody flavors.
- Popular in Sicilian cuisine for the salty flavors they add to dishes, Sicilian-style green olives are cured naturally. Sicilian olives are cured for up to a year and are still somewhat crisp when ready.
- Flavor: According to specialty olive processor Maurice Penna, Sicilian olives have a robust flavor, and a salty, residual bitterness. “I like to crack it and toss with olive oil, herbs and spices, and the Italians like Sicilian olives to add bitterness to their foods,” he says.
- Called a Kalamon olive in its native Greece, the Kalamata olive is named after a region of that country. Cured in a similar fashion to the Sicilians, some Kalamatas are simply salt-brined while others are brined and fermented with lactic acid. After brining, many processors let them sit out for up to two days to allow for oxidation of the skin, resulting in a purplish hue. They then go back into brine with red wine vinegar and a little olive oil.
- Flavor: “They have a nutty flavor, kind of salty, and a little bitter,” says Krueger. Penna describes them as having a winey flavor that comes from the wine vinegar added to the curing process.
- Named after the Sevilla region of Spain where they originated, Sevillano olives are often referred to as the Spanish Queen. Although they have meaty flesh, they also have a large pit that when removed makes them perfect for stuffing.
- Flavor: “Sevillanos have a distinct residual bitter flavor,” Penna says. “And when they're stuffed, the olive acts as a sponge and picks up the flavor.” They have also been described as being lighter and fruitier than their cousin, the Manzanillo.
6. Dried Olives
- With an appearance akin to a plump, shriveled raisin, the dry-cured olive goes through a salt cure that preserves the olive, taking anywhere from four to six weeks. “You're counting on the salt and drying process to act as a preservative,” Penna says. From here, the dried olives can be served plain or further flavored with herbs. They are typically used for snacking or in stews and salads.
- Flavor: The salt cure tends to concentrate the natural bitter flavors of the olive. “You can chop it up and use it in cooking; it's like adding salt to a dish,” Kruger adds.
- Grown mostly in the region of Languedoc in southern France, where they are commonly known as “green diamonds,” this bright green olive is named after the Italian province of Lucca where it originated. These medium-sized, fleshy olives have a distinct shape, like a crescent with a pointed tip. In France, they are typically lye-cured or fermented and then placed in storage brine with citric acid or simple water brine.
- Flavor: “It's a great eating olive,” says Penna. Lucques have been celebrated for their sweet, buttery and nutty flavors.
- A very large-fleshed, light green olive from the Marche region of Italy and widely grown throughout California, the Ascolano has a more delicate flavor than many other green olives. Ascolanos are typically brine-cured, which adds saltiness to the mild-mannered flavor. They do well in stews and cooked sauces, and also make delicious pastes and tapenades.
- Flavor: “They have a nutty, fruity flavor,” says Landis. They've also been described as sweet with a slightly peppery finish.
- This olive comes from Castelvetrano, Sicily, and is a highly desirable snack olive. They are made from a variety noted for their sweet flavor, nocerella del belice. Castelvetrano olives are cured in water and a light brine for a short amount of time to retain their freshness and crispness.
- Flavor: Castelvetrano olives have a sweet, butter, nutty flavor and their flesh is meaty. They go well with fresh cheeses and crisp white wine.
- Cerignola olives, from the town of Cerignola in Apulia, Italy, are a popular olive and one of the largest varieties of olives grown worldwide. Green Cerignola olives are lightly brined for only a few weeks, and are enjoyed as snacks, in salads or stuffed.
- Flavor: With a mild, earthy flavor that has a touch of saltiness, sweetness and bitterness, these olives are favored for antipasto plates served with salty meats and cheeses.
- From the south of France, Nyon olives are small black olives dry-cured and then brined in salt and lye. They have large pits and wrinkly skins that are ideal to serve on an antipasto plate or chopped into salads.
- Flavor: Slightly bitter, earthy, and sweet, these meaty olives have a slightly smokey essence to them as well.
- Brine-cured Niçoise olives from France are best known as an ingredient in many of the classic French dishes such as salads Nicoise and olive tapenades.
- Flavor: Niçoise olives have an aromatic, almost herbal flavor profile with a touch of licorice on the back of the palate.
- From a small area of northern Italy, comes the Gaeta olive. Cured in salt and a special brine, these firm black olives are used as a snack as well as for garnishes on pizza and in sauces.
- Flavor: Many people experience a tart, citrus flavor when eating Gaeta olives. They have salty and slightly bitter flavor profile.
- Picholine olives are green torpedo-shaped olives grown in Southern France. They are cured in a lye bath and fermented for nearly 12 months in a salty brine.
- Flavor: These crisp, crunchy olives have a tart, nutty taste with a slight anise flavor. Eat as is, or add to stews and risottos.
- Gordal olives are plump and meaty, and the word gordalmeans “fat one” in Spanish. These luscious olives come from Andalucia, Spain, and are briefly cured in a light salt brine for a short amount of time. These are great olives to pit and stuff due to their large size.
- Flavor: Nutty, mild and slightly salty, Gordal olives are good in martinis and will take on the flavor profiles of the foods that are stuffed into them.
Enjoy adding a variety of olives to your diet. They are tasty and nutritious and add zest to your meals.
How to Store Olives
Even though most olives are cured with a salty brine to help with their shelf-life, the consensus seems to be that once a jar or can of olives are opened, it's best to store them in the refrigerator.
Heavily cured olives like Kalamatas and cured dried olives can be stored in a jar or a closed container in a cool, dark place like a pantry. When storing olives outside of the refrigerator, be sure to keep them covered and submerged in the brine.
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