You see olives lining the grocery shelves in glass jars, cans, and often several varieties arranged beautifully in the salad bar. But raw, unprocessed olives seem to be missing from the produce section. This seems to beg the question, can you eat a raw olive straight from the tree?
You can eat an olive straight from the tree, but raw olives are extremely bitter. This is because they contain the compounds oleuropein and ligstroside, which curing removes. Raw olives also have a different texture and contain pits, different from preserved olives.
In this article, we will discuss the regal olive and five reasons you should not eat olives straight off the tree. Let’s get to it!
Raw Olives Are Very Bitter
Let’s say you are walking among a grove of olive trees, enjoying the weather, you look all around you at the beautiful olives gracing the branches and you pluck one off to pop into your mouth. That wonderful moment of whimsy would be ruined as soon as you bite into the olive.
Your mouth would not be greeted with the pleasant briny saltiness of a green olive from the jar. Nor would you get the soft, earthy, almost sweet taste of the ripe black olives from the cans.
Instead, an intense bitterness would assault your tastebuds, and your first instinct would be to spit the fruit out immediately. If you tried to muscle your way through the bitterness, you might gag on it.
The Texas AgriLife Extension speaks about the bitterness of raw olives. Olives are a drupe, or stone fruit, like peaches. They are not palatable fresh because of the presence of glucoside, a bitter compound.
Therefore, olives must be processed to be served as food. They are pressed for oil or processed with lye and salt.
If you decide you want to process your own olives, you will need a source of the raw fruit. Luckily, olive trees can even be grown in rocky soil. You can learn more about it in this article, 7 Best Fruit Trees for Rocky Soil (And How to Plant Them).
Olives Have To Be Treated To Remove The Bitterness
When olives are harvested, they have to be cured or treated to remove the compounds oleuropein and ligstroside, which cause intense bitterness. These compounds protect the plant from insects and other predators who would normally consume the fruits.
There are different methods to remove the bitterness from olives such as brining, dry salt curing, lye treatment, and water curing.
Each of the above methods of curing either removes the bitter compounds from the olives or reduces them enough to make the olive much more palatable. Each method of curing takes weeks or months to leech out enough of the oleuropein and ligstroside compounds to create the delicious olives we are used to consuming.
Raw Olive Texture Differs From Prepared Olives
Another reason not to eat raw olives is the texture. Straight off the tree, raw olives do not have the soft texture and pleasing juiciness to them. They are actually hard and almost crunchy. Also, the less ripe they are, the stronger the flesh clings to the pit inside.
Olives start off green and slowly change color as they ripen. Green olives are the most immature and most bitter and crunchy of raw olives, whereas dark purple, brown, or black olives are more ripened. In this stage, the fruit has become softer and separated more from the pit, but they still have a very bitter taste unless cured.
Raw Olives Have Pits
Like cherries, peaches, and plums, olives are stone fruits or drupes. Stone fruits have a fleshy outer fruity area surrounding a stone, or pit, which protects the seed inside.
Most of the olives you purchase at the grocery store have already had the pit removed, so you can consume them easily or prepare them in your recipes. You can buy raw olives with the pits in them, but you will have to cure them to remove the awful bitterness, as well as having to remove the inedible pits.
Olives Should Be Washed After Being Picked Off The Tree
Alright, you ignore the warning about how bitter olives are, or how they are rather crunchy, and you still want to put it into your mouth. Before you do, though, consider the environment.
You are outside; the wind is blowing, birds are singing in the trees and the olive could be crawling with dust, bacteria, and even bird droppings. Do you still have the desire to eat the raw olive?
You should always wash your produce before consuming it at home, but out in the olive grove, there are probably few places you can scrub all the unseen contaminants off. This is just another reason you should not eat a raw olive fresh from the tree.
Olives From The Tree Need To Be Cured Before Consuming
Another reason you should not eat olives straight off the tree is they have to be cured first. The bitter compounds have to be removed by a curing or fermenting process to make the fruit palatable. Let’s look at a few different curing methods.
Please note, the below curing tips are for informational purposes only. Consult a curing expert for more info 🙂
After harvesting fresh olives, they get soaked in a saltwater solution anywhere from 2 to 6 months. The saltwater solution needs to be replaced several times during this process to remove the bitter compounds.
This process takes much longer if you leave the olives whole because the water has a harder time penetrating the smooth skin of the olives. If you pit the olives before the saltwater bath or cut slits into the fruits, then the brining process is shorter.
Lye, also known as caustic soda or sodium hydroxide, is used in many processes. However, when used for curing olives, the lye has to be completely removed and the olives washed well before you can consume them.
Lye works to break down the chemical bonds between oleuropein and the sugars present in the olives. This also changes the texture of the olives from hard and crunchy to soft and tender.
Once the process is done, the olives need to be washed several times to remove all traces of lye. The treated olives usually get packed in a brine solution for storage.
Fresh olives can be split or cut and soaked in water to remove the bitter compounds. This process takes the shortest amount of time, but water curing removes the least amount of oleuropein, so olives treated this way will still retain some of their bitterness.
Water-cured olives get soaked in a bath, changing the water daily for a week or two depending on the desired level of bitterness. Afterward, pack the olives in a vinegar, brine solution for storage.
Dry Salt Curing
Smaller, ripened olives are used for the dry salt cure method, which shrinks the olives a bit, leaving them soft and wrinkly. Dry salt curing is another method that does not remove all the bitter compounds, leaving a slightly bitter taste in the finished product.
Dry salt curing takes 5 to 6 weeks to finish.
Frequently Asked Questions About Raw Olives
Can You Eat Raw Fresh Olives?
Yes, you can eat raw olives, but most people will not want to after the first bite. There may be some people who have built up a tolerance to the bitterness in raw olives, but these people are the ones growing and harvesting them. They need to taste them to make sure they are growing a good crop.
How Do You Prepare Olives Off The Tree?
There are several factors involved when preparing olives from the tree. What flavors you are looking for, how ripe the olives are, how much time you will spend on preparing the olives, and what variety of olive you will use are all questions you need to be taken into consideration when preparing fresh raw olives.
Some olives benefit from brine or lye curing, whereas if you are looking to keep some of the bitterness for extra flavor, you could think about water or dry salt curing. It all depends on what end product you are looking for.
When Can You Eat Olives Off The Tree?
Since there is such an intense bitterness in olives on the tree, you cannot eat them until they are cured to remove those bitter compounds. Unless you are attempting to win a bet, or you like to torture yourself, it’s best to leave the olives on the tree alone.
That’s A Wrap!
There it is, 5 reasons you should not eat olives straight from the tree. They are extremely bitter, the texture is not what we are used to with olives, and they have pits in them. Fresh olives are not clean, and raw olives have to be cured first to be edible.
Olives have been processed and eaten for thousands of years, and even our earliest ancestors knew they needed to be cured one way or another. All to become the delicious fruit we now put on pizzas, consume as appetizers, or add to our salads.
If you find yourself meandering among a grove of olive trees in a fairytale Mediterranean setting, resist the urge to pluck an olive from the tree. Whatever you do, do not put it in your mouth.
The resulting shock of crunchy, hard, and breathtaking bitterness will leave a foul taste in your mouth. Stick to the jarred, prepared varieties instead, you’ll be glad you did.
Barbaro, B., Toietta, G., Maggio, R., Arciello, M., Tarocchi, M., Galli, A., & Balsano, C. (2014). Effects of the Olive-Derived Polyphenol Oleuropein on Human Health. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 15(10), 18508–18524.
Rebecca L. Johnson, Alyson E. Mitchell, “Reducing Phenolics Related to Bitterness in Table Olives”, Journal of Food Quality, vol. 2018, Article ID 3193185, 12 pages, 2018.
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