What Are Black Olives?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Olive branch with black olives.
Olive branch with black olives.

Basic Characteristics

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.

Black olives.
Black olives.

Common Varieties

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.

An olive grove.
An olive grove.

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.

Different types of olives, including black olives.
Different types of olives, including black olives.

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.

Black olives made into tapenade and served with a slice of bread.
Black olives made into tapenade and served with a slice of bread.

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.

Rustic French chicken stew with potatoes and black olives.
Rustic French chicken stew with potatoes and black olives.

Culinary Uses

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.

Black olives may be used in salads.
Black olives may be used in salads.

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.

Olives are highly popular around the Mediterranean, and feature prominently in that region's cuisine.
Olives are highly popular around the Mediterranean, and feature prominently in that region's cuisine.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Black olives are sold in cans because if they were in a jar, you would not get enough black olives for your money. Green olives are small enough that if they were put in a can, then you would get too much pricewise, so that is why the olives are set up like that for the price.


You mention Californian olives, Greek olives, Italian olives and French olives, but fail to mention Spain, the world's biggest producer of olives.


@jeancastle00, I would have to urge you to reconsider your choices of using green or black olives on the dishes you describe.

One very unorthodox but absolutely tasty way of creating a spaghetti dish with green olives is to use sour cream in the sauce. Now while most people would think that adding sour cream to a tomato based sauce would be very unpleasing it actually compliments it quite well.

There is something about the cream that is able to break down the acidic qualities of the tomato sauce. What ends up happening is a very pleasant and mild tomato cream flavored pasta dish. When you add this sour cream element all of the sudden the flavor of green olives work very well with the mixture.

I have also found that green olives can be very tasty on pizza as long as they are used in less a fashion then one might use black olives. Thin slices are key as the heavy salt and vinegar flavor can overcome the tasty pizza sauce and complimenting toppings.


@summertime, I can almost agree with you completely on your choice of how you consume olives and the better tasting options. I too prefer green olives with my snacks of crackers, cheese and wine.

There are a few circumstances however that I think black olives are more appropriate for consumption. A big example is when using olives for spaghetti sauce.

Now some people don't like olives along with their spaghetti sauce but for me and my family the ingredient is a necessity. If we are making the sauce and we realize there is no black olives in the house then we automatically make a special trip.

Some would think this is silly but this is how serious we are about our black olives in our pasta sauce.

The only other times I can think about when black olives are a must is when they are used to cook in Mexican style food as well. Enchiladas are one of my favorite south-of-the-border dishes and the addition of sliced black olives to the internal mix as well as the top with melted cheese adds just that special touch to incite a riot on your tongue.

Finally I think that pizza is the only other dinner food entree that I would insist on using black olives with. In fact, the thought of eating green olives on my pizza kind of grosses me out.


There is absolutely no question about it, green olives beat black olives in a taste test any day. The sharp and pungent pickled flavor with pimento stuffed goodness is the kind of thing that helps salt the palate with a good cracker snack.

One of my favorite pastimes with olives is to create a party snack tray on the day of the super bowl every year. I will of course always have a selection of goodies including black olives and green olives. Apparently in my family I am out of the ordinary and have a different taste for the great tree fruit of the gods as the black olives always disappear before the green ones.

This is of course just fine with me as that means that there are more green olives left my tongue to taste.


Why are green olives sold in glass jars and black olives sold in cans?

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