Olives play an important role in cuisines across the Mediterranean and Middle East. But for those new to olives, the question remains — what do olives taste like exactly?
While all contain bitterness and brininess, olives vary widely in flavor depending on how they are cured and prepared. Their textures span from crunchy to chewy to buttery. Hundreds of types exist.
In this article, we’ll break down what gives olives their signature taste. We’ll look at the differences between popular varieties from Kalamata to Manzanilla, as well as olive curing methods that impact flavor. Read on to become an olive connoisseur!
Table of Contents
Overview of Olive Flavor Basics
Here’s a quick look at some factors influencing olive taste:
- Olives are fruit that grow on evergreen olive trees, cultivated for over 6,000 years around the Mediterranean.
- Hundreds of cultivars exist, and even the same varieties can taste different based on curing techniques.
- Green unripe olives are tart and bitter, while ripe black and purple olives are milder and fruity.
- Table olives are cured in brine, water, or lye to remove bitterness and develop complex flavors.
- Curing methods significantly affect the olive’s final flavor.
So olive taste depends first on ripeness, then curing process. But the variety and where they’re grown also impacts flavor. Let’s explore further!
Taste and Flavor Characteristics of Olives
While olive flavors range widely, here are some of their universal characteristics:
- Briny – Most olives have a salty, marine-like brininess from curing in salt water brine.
- Bitter – Olives contain oleuropein and other bitter compounds that must be lowered through curing.
- Tart – Unripe green olives have an inherent tartness that decreases with ripening.
- Grassy – Grassy, vegetal, herbal notes come from their growth on the tree.
- Nutty – Fermentation can bring out subtle nutty undertones.
- Peppery – Some olives have a biting peppery spiciness on the finish.
So most olives share a base of brine, bitterness, tartness and grassiness that’s then layered with other flavor nuances depending on the type.
Olive Texture Range
In addition to flavor, olives offer a wide spectrum of textures:
- Crunchy – Olives can retain a crisp, crunchy snap when fresh or under-brined.
- Meaty – With a firm but tender texture, quality olives have a satisfying “meaty” bite.
- Buttery – Fully ripe olives become soft and buttery in texture when perfectly cured.
- Juicy – At their best, olives have a juicy pop when you bite into them.
- Dry or mealy – Poor curing can make olives dry or mealy rather than juicy.
- Rubbery – Over brining can make olives unpalatably rubbery.
Masterful curing is key to achieving that ideal meaty, juicy olive texture without becoming mushy.
Flavor and Texture Variation by Olive Type
There are endless varieties, but here’s how some major types differ:
- Purplish-black ripe olive
- Mildly fruity flavor
- Smooth, buttery texture
- Almond and fruit undertones
- Bright green olive from Italy
- Mildly sweet and nutty
- Crisp, crunchy bite
- Subtle salad or grassy taste
- Elongated light green French olive
- Delicate, nutty, slight bitter edge
- Firm, snappy texture
- Refined flavor
- Spanish green olive, often pitted
- Sharp, tangy, salty taste
- Crunchy crisp texture
- Briny finish
- Small black olive from Italy
- Wrinkly, dried texture
- Intensely salty, briny flavor
- Robust marine notes
There’s incredible diversity among olive types, which makes tasting flights fun!
How Curing Methods Affect Olive Flavor
The curing techniques significantly impact the final flavor:
- Submerged in water until bitterness removed
- Mildest flavor
- Crisp, firm texture
- Soaked in salt water brine
- Saltiest flavor and firmer texture
- Treated with food-safe lye solution
- Remains very crunchy
- Can have subtle soapy flavor if improperly cured
- Layered with salt then rinsed repeatedly
- Maintains crisp texture
- Saltiness varies based on curing
- Preserved directly in oil without brining
- Oil permeates flavor and texture
- Fruitier, fuller taste
The curing technique greatly affects olive density, saltiness, and retention of fruity flavors.
How to Eat Olives
Olives make a great snack or ingredient used in many ways:
- On their own as an appetizer
- In tapenades, spreads, salsas
- On salads or flatbreads
- In pasta, risotto, grilled meats
- As a pizza topping
- In marinades and dressings
- In cocktails like martinis
Their unique briny, tangy flavor pairs perfectly in Mediterranean, Greek, and Middle Eastern cuisine. Add them to anything!
Selecting High Quality Olives
Look for olives that:
- Have a sheen and appear plump, not shriveled
- Feel firm with a little give when squeezed
- Smell fresh and fruity, free of funky odors
- Taste briny, flavorful, and juicy
- Aren’t mushy, mealy, or bland
Seeking out high grade olives helps ensure you’ll experience their signature flavor and addictive taste.
Store olives properly to maintain freshness:
- Keep unopened jars refrigerated.
- Once opened, store in the fridge immersed in olive liquid.
- Finish within a month or two for best quality and taste.
- Discard if mold appears or if olives smell or taste off.
Proper storage keeps olives packing their unique, mouthwatering flavor punch.
Key Takeaways – What Do Olives Taste Like
- Olives offer a range of flavors from briny, bitter, and tart to nutty, fruity, and peppery.
- Texture varies from firm and crunchy to tender, buttery, and juicy depending on curing.
- Hundreds of olive cultivars exist, each with distinctive size, flavor, color, and texture.
- Curing method substantially impacts the olive’s final flavor and saltiness.
- Olives pair wonderfully in Mediterranean cuisine and appetizer spreads.
- Selecting high quality olives helps ensure the signature olive eating experience.
Next time you’re at an Italian deli, don’t miss the olive bar! Sampling different olive types is an excellent way to experience their diversity of flavors and textures.