With all the health benefits associated with olive oil, it’s easy to overlook olives themselves. But they, too, serve up antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds plus add zest to any dish. 

Among the important nutrients in ­olives are oleic acid, a monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid that helps raise HDL “good” cholesterol and helps eliminate plaque in the arteries, and strong disease fighters called phenols. Oleuropein, its main phenol, is extremely bitter, so most olives are processed, or cured, in one of several ways to “de-bitter” them. 

Curing Determines Taste

Olive labels generally do not indicate the curing method, but the approach used definitely affects the flavor. 

Lye-cured. Most canned black ­olives on supermarket shelves are made using a diluted lye bath followed by washing or soaking in water. Lye removes more phenols than other methods and so produces the mildest flavor. You may hear “lye” and think “toxic,” but it is thoroughly washed out and poses no danger. Lye-cured olive to try: The Italian Castelvetrano, which has more taste than most lye-cured olives. 

Brine-cured. Sometimes called ­Sicilian style, brined olives are fermented in a salt-and-­water solution, similar to sauerkraut and pickles. With some olives, such as the Greek ­Kalamata, this often is followed with a red-wine vinegar brine for deeper flavor. “Spanish-style” curing uses lye and then brine, as with the Italian
Cerignola. 

Salt-cured. Olives dry-cured in salt, such as Throuba Thassos from Greece and Beldi from Morocco, retain the greatest amount of phenol compounds and have the most intense flavor.

 Finding New Favorites

Sample both mild and pungent olives by buying small amounts of different varieties from the olive bar at a local supermarket or gourmet shop. You also can find many jarred choices online.

Imported olives come primarily from Mediterranean countries, but a number of varieties are grown in ­California—farms including McEvoy Ranch and Penna Olives sell direct. Penna and Chaffin Family Orchards even sell fresh raw olives online in the fall that you can cure yourself. The UC Davis Olive Center has an online olive guide at ANRCatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8267.pdf

Experiment with olives in cooking. Add chopped olives to tuna, egg, ­pasta and grain-based salads and whole olives to any green salad. The secrets to a true Greek salad are using Kalamata olives and chunks from a fresh slab of feta cheese (not packaged crumbles) and assembling it just as you’re ready to eat.

For a tasty accompaniment for grilled fish or chicken, make olive tapenade, a purée easily done in a food processor.

Chunky olive salad, used in the classic Muffaletta sandwich, is a rough chop of olives, pickled vegetables and spices, and on its own makes a great alternative to salsa.

As an ingredient in recipes, olives add complex flavor to Mediterranean dishes, from Moroccan tagines to Italian sauces such as puttanesca.