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Our Favorite Black Olives

By Steve Dunn Published

Black olives can be meaty, juicy, briny, rich, snappy, salty, or funky—equally fit for making pungent tapenade as they are for snacking out of hand. But they don’t start out that way.

If you were to bite into a raw olive plucked right off the tree, you’d cringe at the profound bitterness that comes from a compound called oleuropein. Oleuropein exists in the fruit as a protective agent against predators. Only once olives are cured do they shed their bitterness (curing draws out the oleuropein and converts the olives’ natural sugars into lactic acid) and take on those aforementioned appealing olive-y qualities.

The particular curing agent—brine, dry salt, or lye—largely determines the flavor and texture of a cured olive; other factors include genetic makeup, climate, and degree of ripeness when harvested. (Ripeness, not variety, actually determines olive color, too; all olives start out green and darken as they ripen to shades ranging from dark purple to jet black.) Brine- and salt-cured (often misleadingly labeled “oil-cured”) olives are the most common, and in a well-stocked market you’ll find multiple varieties of both. Here are six of our favorites.

  • Kalamata

    Grown in: Greece

    Curing method: Brine

    Profile: Meaty, bright, earthy, floral

  • Alfonso

    Grown in: Peru

    Curing method: Brine, then steeped in either wine or red wine vinegar

    Profile: Plump, very soft, juicy, tangy, winey

  • Niçoise

    Grown in: France

    Curing method: Brine; often stored with herbs

    Profile: Soft, sweet, earthy, slightly smoky; low flesh-to-pit ratio

  • Gaeta

    Grown in: Italy

    Curing method: Dry salt or brine, then dipped in oil

    Profile: Bitter, buttery, fruity

  • Ligurian (Taggiasca)

    Grown in: Italy

    Curing method: Brine; often stored with herbs

    Profile: Meaty, smoky, lightly salty

  • Nyon

    Grown in: France

    Curing method: Dry salt, then soaked in olive oil or brine to rehydrate

    Profile: Leathery, earthy, salty; intense coffee-like bitterness

Recipe Black Olive Tapenade

After fine-tuning every element in this rich, lusty Provençal spread, we still hadn’t managed to tame its saltiness. Finally, we found inspiration across the border.

Recipe Bruschetta with Black Olive Pesto, Ricotta and Basil

There’s a whole lot more to bruschetta than chopped tomatoes and basil. We wanted smart flavor combinations that didn’t require a bib.

Recipe Sicilian Eggplant Relish (Caponata)

This sweet and sour eggplant relish from Sicily provides a great complement to meat or fish—but not if the vegetables are mushy and the flavors out of balance.

Recipe Summer Pasta Puttanesca

A bumper crop of sweet, ripe tomatoes can brighten the pungent flavors of this Italian classic—or leave the noodles drowning in a waterlogged sauce.

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