Ingredients

Our Favorite Black Olives

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.
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Published May 29, 2019.

Shopping Note

We’ve found that pitted olives are inferior to unpitted ones. After pitting, the olives are returned to the brine for packing. The brine can penetrate the inside of the olive and turn it mushy as well as increase the absorption of salt. That saltier taste can mask subtler flavors. If you have the time, buy unpitted olives and pit them yourself.

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

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.
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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.
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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.
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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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