How to: pickle olives Milkwood style

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Rightio. Making your own pickled olives is not only fun and quite easy, it’s also very satisfying on some sub-conscious level. We’ve been pickling olives since around the Copper Age (4,000 BC), so it is truly a basic human foodstuff, and one which has stood the test of time. When olives come off the tree, they are pretty inedible (although not poisonous) due to the presence of oleuropein, a glycoside which protects the olive fruit from the unwanted advances of various animals. It’s worth trying just the one untreated olive sometime… a memorable experience. You won’t be lining up for a second bite, though.

Once they’re off the tree, olives are usually pickled or fermented to be eaten whole, or pressed to make olive oil. Let’s just leave the making of olive oil for another day, but suffice to say that you squish the olives, thereby removing the oil from the flesh of the fruit. And that you need rather a lot of olives. Pickling and fermenting, on the other hand, is easy to do on a small, domestic scale –  you can get very creative with marinades and stuffings once you’ve gone through the basic fermentation process, or you can just eat them out of the jar. Yum.

olive branchThere are many, many ways to go about preparing olives for consumption in their whole form, but all the methods are working off a few common principles. And Nick’s made a video covering the basics of how to convert your freshly picked/bought olives from weird green berry things into the food of the gods…

So below is the basic data to do with how to pickle your own olives. Olives pickled in this way should keep indefinitely if stored somewhere out of the light. If at any point after fermenting your olives things seem not quite right, or the container smells evil (unlikely but possible), do what you would do for any food that doesn’t smell right: don’t eat it. Pour off the brine and stick the offending olives in your compost or worm farm or bokashi or whatever. They will then go back through the system, and the only stop they will be bypassing, really, is your stomach. So no great loss. However it is much more likely that you will eat them all and be very full of olivey goodness year after year.

Pickling olives Milkwood style

You will need:

  • Olives (as many as you like)
  • Water (preferably rain or spring water, if you can)
  • Salt (can be coarse grained – whatever you have)
  • A big bowl
  • a strainer or colander
  • A clean jar with a good lid (of a size that will fit all your olives in)
  • A piece of stiff plasticy stuff to hold olives underwater (see video – anything stiff with holes in it can substitute, as long as it won’t taint the water)
  • one fresh egg
  • Somewhere to store your jar for 6 months
  • Patience


  1. pick, purchase or otherwise procure your olives. Perhaps you have gleaned them, using your Feral Fruit Map as a reference. Try to be as gentle with the olives as you can. They may seem hard, but they will bruise if not handled carefully.
  2. wash your olives in a big bowl full of water. Tap water is fine for this part. Give em a good scrubbing by rubbing the olives against each other.
  3. dump your olives in a strainer and set them aside
  4. measure out how much pickling water you will need. One way to do this is to fill up the jar with water, and then transfer that amount to the bowl.
  5. add your salt. As explained in the video, you need a ratio of 1 part salt to 9 parts water, or 10% salt. You can do this with scales, if you like, or you can use the salty egg method – which is much more fun. A fresh egg will float in a 10% salt/water solution. So basically you add your salt, stirring it in well to dissolve, and you check the salt content by gently dropping your egg into the solution periodically. If the egg sinks, more salt is needed. When the egg floats, you shout hooray and watch it float about for a bit. Then you move on to the next step.
  6. gently transfer the washed olives to your big clean jar. The jar can be any vessel suitable for food preserving.. ie anything that won’t leach nasties into the brine, or rust (remember we’re talking salty water here). Fill the jar with olives, and leave about 10% space at the top. Do not fill all the way up.
  7. cut your plasticy olive-submerger to size so that it fits snugly over the olives and extends to the sides of the jar. If you think it might float up, put a weight on it (a rock from the beach or river is a good one).
  8. satisfied that your olive-submerger is in place, pour in your well-dissolved brine solution (salty water). Fill to the top. The olives should remain submerged, and have some space above them, below the surface. If this is not the case, probably best to pour off some of the water and correct things, then pour it back in.
  9. place the lid on your jar tightly, and put it away somewhere safe and preferably dark. Lay plans for how you will eat your olives in 5 months.
  10. lastly, mark on your calendar to check your olive jar once a month for 5 months. Each time you check it, take the lid off and have a peek. During the fermentation process the olives may release some gasses, so you want those to be able to get out. Just taking the lid off once a month and checking it out should be fine for this. If you want to speed things up a bit, replace the brine solution each time you check them. The more you change the solution the quicker they will be ready.
  11. When you think your olives are ready, taste one! If it’s still a bit bitter, just put them back into storage for another month or so.

Once your olives are pickled you can really start to go crazy. If they are too salty for your liking, just swap the brine in your jar for fresh water – this will leach out some of the salt in the olives. Make sure you refrigerate them if you are storing them without the brine, otherwise they will go off.

If you like them salty, just go ahead and eat them. If you want to marinate them in whatever oil and spices tickles your fancy, pour off the brine and get into it. I like a mix of water, white wine vinegar and a little salt. If you want to stuff them, I highly recommend getting an olive de-seeder – a nifty little device which is cheap and easy to use.

And that is really the basics of olive pickling. This applies to both black and green olives. Further down the track (when our olives are ready), I’ll get into some specific recipes for tapenades, olive breads, marinades and the like, but for the meantime, happy pickling!

By the way; this is the way our family pickles olives and we know there are lots of other methods out there. We’d love to hear from you if you have a secret family method or recipe that you’d like to share?

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2 responses to “How to: pickle olives Milkwood style

  1. Just a question. Can I use clean sea water as basis and add salt to it to finally end up to 10% salt? Sea water has 5-6 % salt.

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