Olives are a bitter fruit that grows on trees, which you can harvest to brine for eating, or press to make olive oil. There are also many health benefits to olives, depending on the ripeness. But before all that, when is the right time to pick olives?
When to pick olives off the tree will depend on how you want to use them. For brining olives, pick your fruit in late summer to early fall between August and October. By November, it will change to a reddish-brown color, and by December, they become black, which are best for producing olive oil.
You have to pick your olives during the right season to get the best quality of products. Picking olives also requires the proper technique to prevent damaging the delicate fruit so read on to find out more.
Harvest Season of Olives
Olives are a bitter fruit that ranges from light green to dark black in color. The color of your olives is due to ripeness, not the variety of olive plants. These fruits start as light green and ripen to a reddish-brown before finally turning black.
What you want to use your picked olives for will determine when you should pick your olives. The earlier you harvest your olives, the more bitter they will taste.
Harvesting generally occurs between late August through December. The exact timing will depend on factors such as your region, the variety of olive, and the desired ripeness of your olives.
The weather can play a significant role in when you harvest, as a cold fall could cause the fruit not to ripen as you want. In contrast, hot autumn can cause your fruit to mature quicker than expected.
The amount of sunlight your plants get can also affect your olives’ ripeness, as can the type of irrigation and the nutrient contents of the soil.
August to September: Green Olives
In late August to early September, olives reach the “green ripe stage.” The olives will have a light green coloring and a strong bitter flavor.
Once the juice becomes cloudy, the olives are ready for harvest. They will have an oval shape but a firm feel. Green olives are considered immature and are high in polyphenols, which are a type of antioxidant.
Many people prefer green olives due to their beneficial properties, such as being antioxidant-rich. Green olives don’t produce as much oil because they contain vacuoles within the cells that don’t easily rupture.
Green olives have a longer shelf life but a more pungent bitter taste that takes several months to mellow. Green olives are usually cured to remove some of the bitter flavorings, but it does take a long process and time before the flavor mellows.
November: Reddish-Brown Olives (Veraison)
If not picked, the olives will turn from green to yellow-green and then to a reddish-brown color by November, with a softer feel. This stage is veraison. The olives will retain a high polyphenol content at this stage.
In the veraison stage, Olives have the maximum amount of oil, making them the best olives to use for oil production. The produced oil will have an intense, bitter flavor.
For Greek-style curing, your olives should mature to a dark red or purple color instead of green. After curing, the olives will turn the signature black color.
December: Black Olives
Come December, the olives will reach the naturally “black ripe stage” where they have an entirely black color. However, some varieties may retain a purple color instead of black. The flesh of the olives will darken to the pit.
Olives that have reached the black stage lose the polyphenol and chlorophyll contents, so they aren’t rich in antioxidants like the green or purple olives. But black olives do have a higher carotenoid content.
Oils made with black olives are golden in color, with a less pungent, bitter flavor but a shorter shelf life than other olives. These oils are often referred to as sweet oils.
Black olives have a higher oil concentration. But care must be taken when picking olives in the “black ripe stage,” as they easily bruise, disrupting the curing process. The bruising is due to the olives having a spongier texture than green olives.
Techniques on Picking Olives
Picking olives off the tree can be done with multiple techniques. You want to use care when removing olives, as they can bruise easily. Damaged olives cannot withstand the curing process.
The best way to pick olives is by hand. But this process can be time-consuming, especially if you have to move a ladder to each tree for picking.
Make sure you have on a pair of gardening gloves and pick the ripe olives hanging on the lower branches first.
You can also pick up loose olives that have fallen off the tree and are now on the ground. Ground olives are best for making olive oil but not to cure for eating.
Once you’ve gotten all the olives from the lower branches and the ground, you can pull your ladder to the trees to get the higher fruits.
Another method of picking olives is to use a rake to knock off the higher fruit rather than using a ladder to climb to the top. Before harvesting your olives, place a tarp, bed sheet, or a long plastic piece on the ground under your trees.
Use the rake to brush along the limbs, removing any hanging fruit. Continue to move around the tree, knocking all the fruit loose.
The issue with using a rake to pick your olives is that you won’t have control over knocking off only the ripe ones as you can with handpicking. If you want to use the rake method, wait until all of the fruit is ripe.
Some people use vibrations to pick olives off the trees. You can purchase vibrating tongs that will shake the limbs, making the olives fall from the branches. You can also use a long stick to shake the trees.
You’ll want to layer the ground with cloth, bags, or some other material to keep the olives from hitting the hard ground for this technique.
Other people prefer to hang nets from the lower branches, so the fruit doesn’t get damaged when it falls onto the ground.
For people who are harvesting a whole grove of olives, the picking methods we’ve already mentioned can be too time-consuming.
There are attachments you can purchase to pull along behind a tractor to help pick olives. These types of equipment shake the trees, making the olives fall off.
You can also use tools designed for harvesting grapes. But be aware that this method is more expensive. If you’re only picking one or two trees, you wouldn’t need to break out the big hardware like these tools to pick olives.
Curing Olives After Picking
Once you pick your olives, most people use a curing process that helps remove the olives’ bitterness and preserve them, so they last longer.
Without curing, olives only last for three days after picking. Once picked, olives start to undergo oxidation, causing them to sour and spoil.
Curing removes the oleuropein from the olives. This component is non-toxic, so it won’t hurt you if you consume it. But it is incredibly bitter.
Different curing methods result in different tastes and textures of the olives. The easiest way is to cure your olives with water. The most common type of water-cured olives is Kalamata, which has a more bitter taste.
Water Cured Olives
The easiest way to cure olives is to use water. To cure olives using water:
- Slice or crack freshly picked olives so that the fruit’s interior is exposed.
- Then put them in a container of water to soak. Change the water once a day for five to eight days.
- On the last day, soak the olives in a finishing brine that consists of salt and vinegar.
Another easy method to cure olives is to use brine curing. This process does take longer since you have to let the olives soak for several months to remove the oleuropein. To brine olives:
- Soak the fruit in a mixture of water and pickling salt. This solution causes a fermentation process, which changes the overall flavor of the olives.
- Combine a salt and water mixture to pour over your olives. Keep your olives in the brine for three to six weeks, being sure to change the brine once a week. You should also stir or shake the mixture at least once a day.
- Once this step is done, you will need to make another salt and water mixture. Pour this solution over the top of your olives. Cover the fruit with a plate to keep them weighed down and leave them for one week.
- Drain the solution and then repeat the brining process for the next three to six weeks, changing the brine each week.
Dry salting is a great process that results in shriveled olives that have a slightly bitter, salty flavor. Many people use dried olives for toppings, such as for salads. To cure olives with the dry salting method:
- Start with clean, fully ripe fruit. Poke one or two holes in the flesh with a sharp paring knife.
- Pour a ¼ inch (0.64 cm) thick layer of salt into a jar or crockpot. Add a layer of olives, no more than two olives deep. Top the olives with a layer of salt and let them sit at room temperature.
- Once a day, stir or mix the olives. You may have to add more salt as the olives turn the salt into a paste. If the paste becomes a full liquid, you need to drain the mixture and start over.
- Dry salt brining can take at least three weeks. Use a taste test to check the salt content of your brined fruit. If it’s still bitter, continue the brining process, tasting once a week.
- Dry salted olives will have a mild, bitter but yummy taste and a shriveled up appearance. After curing, remove all traces of salt and use one tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil.
- You can store cured olives at room temperature for one month, in the refrigerator for up to six months, or in a freezer up to a year.
Lye curing is the last option for curing olives. This process is complicated, but it results in an almost buttery flavored olive that has been stripped of all the oleuropein. To perform a lye cure:
- You will need lye and cold water, plus sea salt for the brine, which comes after the curing process. Always use gloves when working with lye as it can burn your skin.
- The lye has to be mixed with cold water using a long-handled wooden spoon or stick. Then you can combine the lye mixture and the olives, ensuring they are entirely covered with the solution.
- Your olives should soak in the lye solution at room temperature for twenty-four hours. Make sure you keep them covered. Then drain the old mixture and add in a fresh batch of lye solution. Let the olives soak for another twelve hours.
- After the second mixture, drain and rinse your olives—test one of the largest olives by cutting it in half. If the lye reaches the pit of the olive, the curing process is complete.
- Thoroughly rinse the fruit and soak in cold water. Change the water at least three times a day for a total of three days. Taste test at the end of the third day to see if the lye flavor is gone.
- To brine your lye-cured olives, you will need to make a brine consisting of cold water and sea salt. Add the olives and let them soak for a full day or longer. Once cured and brined, these olives can be stored in jars in the refrigerator for up to a year.
Olives are a bitter fruit that requires special care when picking. Depending on whether you want to store your olives as a whole fruit or use them to make oil, it will play a part in when to pick olives off the trees.
For fruit you will preserve, you should pick olives while they are green during late August. For a more Greek taste, you’ll want to wait until November when the olives turn reddish-brown. But oil is best made with olives picked closer to December.