Monday, September 14, 2009

Lye Cured Olives

After a five year hiatus from processing olives, this year we finally got back to it.

Olives must first be cured before eating, because eating a raw olive will be guaranteeing a nasty taste in your mouth with a distinct possibility of getting a stomach ache as well. There are many different ways to cure olives. The only way we've tried to date is using lye.

Yes, lye, that caustic chemical probably better known for its toilet bowl cleaning properties. There was a time when you could buy lye straight off the shelf of the local grocery or hardware store. When we first started curing olives we would buy a couple cans of Red Devil lye. It came in small cans (about 16 ounces), was pure lye with nothing added, and therefore was perfect for our intended use.

Unfortunately lye is/was a chemical used in the manufacturing of crank and was eventually removed from the shelves. You may remember the same thing happened when the enterprising makers of illicit drugs discovered how to use over the counter pseudoephedrine drugs to make their wares. Now those medicines are only available behind the counter and they are limited to how much can be bought by one person.

So with a sick olive tree (we think it has developed a case of verticillium wilt) and the inability to find small quantities of pure lye we put our olive curing on hold. Over the last five years we have been cutting the sick parts of our olive tree out, which is the recommended treatment, and it has been showing signs of a minor recovery. Formerly the fruit would all ripen at various stages, and now they are ripening at the same time. (A total recovery is not likely though. We've probably just prolonged its life a little.) Also, with more homesteading type blogs on the internet I've been able to find the smaller quantities more suitable for our needs. Thank you home soap makers!

Here is the food grade lye we found on-line (

Our olives are usually ready to be picked around the first week of September. Good help for picking is a plus!

Most of the olives we processed came from our tree. Unfortunately I can't tell you what variety we have. We did manage to find another tree somewhere and supplemented what we picked at home. All together we picked about 9 gallons.

After having done this for several years before and keeping (fairly) good notes on what we did each year we think we now have a good recipe. We mix 36 ounces of lye in 19 gallons of water. The olives are put in this mixture for 12 hours. We use a rubber/plastic garbage can. Metal should be avoided at all costs because of the possibility of a chemical reaction that would cause discoloration and/or taint the taste.We use a piece of wood cut into a circle to fit the inside of the garbage can. This helps hold the olives down.

Also, once again, because the lye is caustic, it is important that proper safety precautions are taken. Make sure to wear safety goggles/glasses, long sleeved shirt and pants, rubber gloves, and waterproof boots. Even if this means the boot must be duct-taped to seal any holes!

We have a five gallon bucket with lots of holes in the bottom, like a bucket sieve. After 12 hours curing in the lye solution the olives are removed. Then they are placed in plain water to leach the lye out. The water should be changed 2 to 3 times a day for about 3 days. There will be a noticeable difference in the color of the water as it is changed. It will start out dark brown and by the end of the third day it will be quite a bit lighter.

Here you can see the difference between a totally raw olive and one that has been lyed. The raw olive is on the left. Notice the sharp difference in color from the outside to the pit. Compare that to the processed olive on the right with the color basically the same throughout.

After the lye treatment, and after the leaching in the water, it is time for the brine. We mix 3 pounds of salt with 12 gallons of water. The olives are left in the brine for 3 days.

Now it's time to can the olives. I got all my equipment ready: the jars, lids and rings, the olives, of course, and the flavoring. Here I'm using garlic.

The canning brine consists of one cup of salt to 10 quarts of water. I like to make several layers of garlic and olives. You can never have too much garlic! The jars are then filled with the canning brine to about 1/4 inch from the top.

The jars are sealed and placed in a 180º to 200º water bath for 20 minutes.

I even did 6 of the Weck jars with the rubber seals. I can't help it but they make me nervous. (Change is hard for me!)

I also did a few jalapeno flavored olives and some habanero flavored olives.

All told I canned 63 1/2 pints, about 7.9 gallons! My final tally was 37 pints of garlic; 6 pints of habanero; and 11 1/2 pints of jalapeno olives (6 sliced in rounds, 5 1/2 sliced lengthwise with seeds removed).

The only thing I have left to do is make some labels.

I'm thinking we've got our Christmas presents covered this year! What flavor do you want?


~M~ said...

Wow! What a wonderful post! I found it incredibly interesting and brought up a ton of questions.

Where on earth do you dump the lye solution? Is it safe to dump outside?

What is a Weck method/type and why does it make you nervous?

What kind of stove do you have? I heard that you can't can on a glass top for some reason. Do you know if that is true?

Sorry for all the questions, but I've been thinking them all through and when you wrote about it, I thought "A-ha! Someone I can ask all my canning questions to!"

I am in awe at your hard work!


Anonymous said...

~M~, Isn't T such a talented and interesting person? I love her blogs, too. I also wondered about where to dump the lye.

T, they look wonderful. Um...wondering if the Oildale plaid repels the lye as the other precautions do?

Your little helper is precious.

I'll sign up for Jalapeno, please.

Anonymous said...

A SUPER blog post!

Thank you for making all those jars of olives with such a variety of flavors to savor - for me! I'll be enjoying Christmas for sure this year!
Okay, okay - I'll share my Christmas present with others, and look forward in anticipation to receiving one jar with garlic, please. Yahoo - Christmas is already being celebrated, THANK YOU! : )

tina f. said...

Since we are not doing this commercially we just dump the lye on the ground, either in the flower bed or by the olive tree. It hasn't seemed to bother either of the plants (the olive tree is afflicted with verticillium wilt, which is a soil born fungus--if anything you'd think the lye would be helpful!).
Weck is a brand of jars. If you go back and look at the pictures you'll notice they use the rubber rings an glass tops rather than the Ball/Kerr metal tops that "pop" when they seal. (That popping sound is very satisfying!) the only reason they make me a little nervous is because this is the first year I've ever used them. They seem to have sealed right but with the metal lids you know for sure! I guess as long as nothing is leaking. My aunt in Germany used the rubber ring type exclusively. (I miss her special plum jam.)
Regarding the glass stove top I've read that the reason you shouldn't can on a glass or ceramic top is because there are sensors that regulate the heat. The sensors fluctuate too much so the heat isn't consistent enough to kill the bacteria. Also the canner on a glass top would probably stick out over the burner section by more than one inch, thus causing the heat to reflect back to the top. This would create an excess of heat (which is what the heat sensors are for in the ring area) and the stove top would be in danger of cracking. Our stove is a Viking with with a glass top but it has metal burner rings.
I hope that helps.

Anonymous said...

WOW what a blog, what questions/answers! How about this one, gorilla or monkey toy??
You 3 really worked hard, and I hope you know how much you are appreciated for all your hard work!
Do you know how many "hits" your blog gets? This is a step by step one and should be seen by all!!!
Patti (and its garlic for us!!)

tina f. said...

I do have a hit counter but I rarely go to the site to check. I think I average about 12 hits a day, probably most of those are from me checking if anybody's left a comment! :-)

~M~ said...

Yes, she is a very interesting and talented person (and very nice too). I have been following her blog for quite a few months now and we've kind of become "blogging buddies"!

Thanks for the info Tina! I am really looking forward to doing some canning in my future, but will have to solve the stove issue since we currently have a glass top. We will be moving if everything falls together sometime this late fall/winter and may be in the market for a new stove, so there is a possibility of it happening sooner than once thought.

Keep up the good work both on the blog and your "projects"!


~M~ said...

p.s. What kind of blog counter do you use? I have been searching for one that simply counts hits rather than tracks visitors.



tina f. said...

I use Blog Patrol, at . It does track visitors but it also counts hits. The best thing is it's free. Have you tried googling "blog hit counter"? All kinds pop up and you could check them out to see if any of them fit the bill for you.

~M~ said...

Yeah, I have tried googling it, but it came up with a lot. I figured I'd see if you had a better one.