How is olive brine made?

Olive brine is a salty solution that results from the brining or curing process of olives. It plays an important role in producing edible table olives and olive oil. The brining process removes bitterness from raw olives and prepares them for safe consumption. Understanding how olive brine is made provides insights into olive cultivation and production.

Overview of Olive Brining

Olives fresh off the tree are inedibly bitter due to a compound called oleuropein. To remove the bitterness, olives are soaked in a salt brine solution. This process is called brining or curing. Brining serves several functions:

  • Removes oleuropein bitterness from olives
  • Preserves olives by creating an unfavorable environment for microorganisms
  • Alters texture and gives olives a firm, crunchy consistency
  • Enhances olive flavor

The brining process typically takes several weeks to months depending on the olive variety. Green unripe olives require longer brining times than black ripe olives. The brine solution is changed periodically to control factors like pH, salt concentration, and microbial growth. After brining, olives may undergo further processing before being packaged.

Making the Olive Brine

Olive brine starts with two main components – water and salt. The type and amount of salt, and additives like acids or alkalis, can vary in recipes. Here is an overview of how basic olive brine is prepared:


The brine starts with clean water, free of contaminants. Well water or bottled spring water is often used. Chlorinated tap water can affect brine chemistry and is not recommended. The minerals in hard water can also cause precipitation of salts during brining.


Table salt (NaCl) is typically used to make olive brine. Salt concentrations vary but are generally 5-10%. Kosher salt or pickling salt works well as they do not contain iodine or anti-caking agents. The salt helps:

  • Draw water out of olives to firm up texture
  • Create a harsh environment to select against microbial growth
  • Reduces bitterness by breaking down oleuropein

Too much salt can make olives overly salty. Too little may not adequately cure olives.


Acids like vinegar, lemon juice, or citric acid help stabilize olive brines. Acids keep pH low, inhibiting microbial growth and assisting in oleuropein breakdown. A starting brine may have a pH around 3-4.

Here are common acids used:

  • White vinegar
  • Red wine vinegar
  • Lemon juice
  • Citric acid


Alkalis can help improve brine penetration into olives. Common alkalis include:

  • Baking soda
  • Sodium hydroxide
  • Potassium hydroxide (lye)

These are often added in small quantities and help raise pH levels closer to neutral. However, too much alkali can make olives slippery and mushy. Proper balance is key.

Other Ingredients

Some olive brines include additional ingredients like:

  • Sugar – Helps counterbalance salt
  • Olive leaf – Natural source of oleuropein
  • Herbs and spices – Enhance flavor
  • Calcium salts – Firm olives by promoting pectin cross-linking

Unique regional olive brines often use local ingredients that impart distinct flavors.

Brine Concentration and Chemistry

The concentration and chemical composition of olive brines can vary significantly based on type of olive, desired characteristics, and local traditions. Here are some ranges for basic brine chemistry parameters:

Parameter Typical Ranges
Salt (% w/v) 5-10%
pH 3.5-6.5
Acidity (lactic acid % w/v) 0.3-1.2%
Calcium (mg/L) 400-1200 mg/L

Monitoring brine chemistry helps ensure adequate curing and safety. Factors like salt concentration, acidity, and calcium affect olive firmness, bitterness, and shelf life. Brine concentration may be adjusted by adding water, salt, or acids to achieve target levels.

Traditional Open Vessel Brining

Olives have been brined for thousands of years in diverse regions around the Mediterranean. Traditional small-scale olive brining often uses open vessels like amphorae, wooden barrels, or food-grade plastic tubs. Here is an overview of the general open vessel brining process:

Harvesting Olives

Olives are harvested in autumn at optimal ripeness. Olives may be harvested green-unripe or dark-ripe depending on type. Early harvest olives tend to be more bitter.


Olives are washed to remove debris and rinsed in fresh water. Washing olives helps remove excess surface bitterness and yeasts/molds.

Soaking in Alkali

Soaking olives briefly in an alkali solution helps remove bitterness. The alkali raises the pH to break down oleuropein. Dilute solutions of lye, baking soda or quicklime may be used.


Washed olives are placed in open vessels and covered with olive brine. Weights may be used to keep olives submerged. The vessels are covered to prevent contamination but allow air exchange. Olives are brined for weeks to months with periodic brine changes.


After brining to completion, olives are removed from the brine and rinsed with fresh water. This helps remove excess surface salt.


The finished table olives are packed into containers with fresh brine, oils, or marinades. They are then ready for consumption.

Modern Mechanized Brining

While traditional open brining is still used, large modern olive processors use mechanized closed brining systems. These systems offer benefits like:

  • Automated control of brine concentration
  • Reduced risk of contamination
  • Shorter brining times
  • Increased production capacity

Here is an overview of industrial scale olive brining:

Processing Green Olives

Green unripe olives are often brined as follows:

  1. Alkali treatment – Soaking in dilute sodium hydroxide to hydrolyze oleuropein
  2. Washing – Rinsing olives with water spray jets
  3. Brining – Submerging olives in pre-prepared brine solution in closed tanks
  4. Acidification – Lowering brine pH with citric or lactic acid
  5. Packaging – Removing brine and packing olives in new acidic brine

Controlling pH and salt concentation accelerates green olive processing.

Processing Ripe Olives

Ripe black olives are brined as follows:

  1. Washing – Spraying fresh water to remove debris
  2. Brining – Placing olives directly into salted, acidic brine
  3. Lactic acid fermentation – Microbes produce lactic acid, lowering pH
  4. Packaging – Removal from fermented brine and packing

The natural fermentation acidifies brine while enhancing flavor.

Disposal and Reuse of Olive Brines

The large volumes of brine produced during olive processing poses challenges for waste management and disposal. However, olive brine can be recycled in useful ways:

  • Composting – Nutrient content makes olive brine suitable for compost
  • Irrigation – Brine can be diluted and used to fertilize orchards
  • Extracting byproducts – Useful compounds like polyphenols can be isolated from brine
  • Sodium chloride recovery – Salt can be recovered by evaporation or electrodialysis
  • Hydrogen production – Fermenting brine with bacteria yields biohydrogen

Proper olive brine disposal prevents environmental issues. Reusing brine adds value and sustainability.


Olive brine is a simple salt solution made complex by intricate chemistry and microbiology. Unique regional brines reflect localized traditions perfected over generations. Both ancient and modern brining techniques require balancing multiple variables to produce delicious properly cured olives. Taking time to understand the principles behind crafting excellent olive brine provides insight into an age-old culinary craft.

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