Black olives are olives that have been allowed to fully ripen on the tree before harvesting. There are many different varieties based in part on geographic origin and tree species, but also influenced through storage and curing techniques. Nearly any ripe olive is considered “black,” even if its true color is more reddish or purple.
In most cases, the term “black olive” has more to do with an olive’s appearance than its taste or growing profile. Any sort of olive tree is capable of producing black varieties, which makes for quite a few different possibilities.
Olive trees grow abundantly throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and have been transplanted with some success into similar warm, dry climes around the world, particularly in California and the Southwestern United States. California, alongside Greece, Spain, and the southern coasts of Italy and France, are some of the world’s largest producers of black olives.
Greek-grown Kalamata olives are some of the most commonly sold, alongside California Mission olives. The French Nicoise and Nyons, as well as the Spanish Aleppo and Alfonso, are also quite popular on international markets.
Curing and Storage Techniques
Even when fully ripe, olives are inedible when raw. Their flesh is often bitter and tough, and their taste is frequently quite astringent. Most of the time, farmers will pack their olives in oil or salted water to “cure” them before consuming.
There are as many different ways to cure an olive as there are olive varieties. Some people store the fruits for long periods of time in seasoned oil, often with herbs added in for extra flavor. A vinegar soak is also effective, as are lye treatments of varying lengths. Much depends on the olives’ ultimate use, as well as the desired taste profile. Black olives can be acidic, tangy, or even sweet depending both on their variety and on how they were stored.
Cured black olives are frequently served whole, often as an appetizer. They can also be crushed and blended with other ingredients to make a tapenade, an olive spread frequently served on bread or used as a seasoning for roasted meats.
Sliced or halved olives are common in a range on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean foods, including pastas, pizzas, and stews. They are also frequently baked into breads, and make a tangy, salty addition to many different dishes, from dips and spreads to meat preparations and salads.
Difference Between Black and Green Olives
Most of the olives sold commercially are either black or green, and the main difference between the two is little more than growing time. If left longer on the tree, all green olives will ultimately turn black or deep purple. Although immature, green olives do have a unique flavor, and are considered by many to be a delicacy, most green olives also must be stored and cured, which can alter or customize their taste.
Health and Nutrition Information
Black olives are usually considered somewhat health-neutral, though they are believed by many in the health community to be a source of “good” fats. They are high in iron, but do not contain significant amounts of any other nutrients or vitamins. Depending on how they are prepared, black olives often contain very high levels of sodium, which many consider something of a negative.
On the plus side, most black olive varieties contain a number of what are known as “monosaturated fatty acids” — fat compounds that are complex and challenging for the body to break down. A number of health experts consider these fats “good” because of their ability to lower total cholesterol levels and possibly strengthen the hearts of those who consume them. Olive oil, which is made from pressed black olives, is often touted as a good alternative to other fattier oils. As with all things, however, moderation is key; a fat is still a fat, healthy or not, and overindulgence is never recommended.