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What is in green olive brine?

Green olives are a popular pizza topping, salad ingredient, and appetizer. But what exactly is in the brine that keeps these olives fresh? The salty, tangy liquid is an important part of the olive curing process. Understanding the ingredients in olive brine can help you pick the best quality olives and even make your own brine at home.

The Curing Process

After being harvested, green olives are extremely bitter due to a compound called oleuropein. To make them palatable, they undergo a curing process. Curing involves repeatedly washing the olives in a solution known as brine. The brine helps remove the bitterness and also preserves the olives.

There are many different types of olive brines, using various ingredients and curing methods. Here is an overview of the most common types of green olive brines and how they work:

Brine Type Main Ingredients Curing Process
Salt-Water Water, Salt Repeatedly washing olives in salt water draws out oleuropein via osmosis
Lye Water, Sodium Hydroxide The lye helps break down oleuropein faster than salt-water alone
Greek-Style Water, Salt, Vinegar The vinegar acidity helps balance lye’s alkalinity for a smooth flavor
Brined Water, Salt, Preservatives After initial curing, olives are stored long-term in a salt brine with preservatives

The ingredients in olive brine have a big impact on the final flavor and texture of the olives. Next, let’s take a closer look at the main components.


The main liquid component of olive brine is water. The water helps draw out the bitter oleuropein compounds from the olive flesh via osmosis. Soft water is often used to help ensure proper curing.

Some producers use seawater in their brine for a more intense flavor. The appropriate water to salt ratio in the brine also impacts the final product. Too much water can lead to fermentation, while too little salinity can cause diminished flavor and poor preservation.


Salt is another fundamental ingredient in olive brines. Salt helps:

  • Draw moisture from the olives to cure them
  • Firm up the olive flesh
  • Enhance the flavor
  • Act as a preservative

The concentration of salt in the brine determines the speed of the curing process. Higher salinity brines cure olives faster. Table salt, sea salt, rock salt, and other varieties are used. The type of salt affects factors like minerality, saltiness, and texture.


Some large-scale olive producers use lye in their brines. Lye is caustic sodium hydroxide. It helps:

  • Break down oleuropein faster than brine alone
  • Reduce overall curing time
  • Yield tender olive flesh

Too much lye can make olives mushy and soapy tasting. Lye-cured olives require additional steps to remove excess lye and halt the chemical reaction. Small artisan olive producers often avoid lye in favor of traditional salt-water curing.


For balanced flavor, some brined olive recipes include vinegar. Vinegar helps neutralize excess alkalinity left over from lye-curing. Wine vinegar, champagne vinegar, sherry vinegar, and apple cider vinegar are commonly used. The vinegar’s acidity brightens the briny taste.


Once sufficiently cured, green olives are transferred to long-term storage brines. To prevent spoilage and fermentation during storage, these brines contain preservatives. Common preservatives used include:

  • Sorbic acid
  • Sodium benzoate
  • Calcium chloride
  • Ascorbic acid

The exact preservatives and quantities used depend on regulations in the producing country. Processed table olives may have more synthetic preservative ingredients than gourmet olives.

Other Ingredients

Some olive brines include additional ingredients to enhance flavor, texture, or shelf life. For example:

  • Citric acid – brightens flavor and acts as preservative
  • Calcium hydroxide – firms flesh when combined with lye
  • Ferric gluconate – darkens olives from green to black
  • Olive leaf extract – contributes polyphenols and antioxidants
  • Chili pepper – infuses spicy heat
  • Herbs and spices – lend unique seasonal flavors

Now that we’ve reviewed the main components in olive brine, let’s examine some standards for top-quality brine.

Standards for Quality

When purchasing brined olives, here are some tips for evaluating the brine quality:

  • Clarity – Brine should be clear, not cloudy from yeasts or bacteria
  • Color – Can range from pale yellow to golden brown depending on ingredients
  • Aroma – Should smell fresh, without sulfur or ammonia odors
  • Firmness – Olives should be firm yet tender, not mushy from excess lye

You can also look for olives certified by the International Olive Council (IOC). The IOC holds olive producers to standards around optimal brine ingredients, methods, and chemistry. High-end olives are often packaged in brines featuring just a few simple, natural ingredients.

Homemade Olive Brine

With some basic ingredients and supplies, you can cure your own olives at home. Here is one olive brine recipe to try:


  • 1 lb fresh, unpickled green olives
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/4 cup salt
  • 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • Spices: 2 cloves garlic, 1 dried chili, 1 bay leaf (optional)


  1. Wash olives with water to remove surface dirt.
  2. Place olives in a glass jar or crock. Add water to cover.
  3. Season with salt and spices. Add vinegar and olive oil.
  4. Cover and store at room temperature, shaking daily for 2 weeks.
  5. Taste periodically until desired texture and saltiness is reached.
  6. Transfer fully cured olives to a storage container, topped with fresh brine.
  7. Refrigerate for up to 6 months.

You can adjust this basic brine recipe with different salts, vinegars, spices, and olive varieties. Part of the fun is experimenting to create your signature olive brine flavor.

Safety Tips

When making homemade olive brine, keep these safety guidelines in mind:

  • Use fresh olives, wash thoroughly, and keep all equipment clean
  • Weigh ingredients carefully to get proper salt ratios
  • Always use food-grade ingredients like salts and vinegars
  • Only use non-reactive containers like glass or food-safe plastic
  • Check brine daily and remove any olives with mold
  • Discard brine if any unusual changes in odor, color, fizzing occur

As long as the right methods and ratios are followed, olive brine is highly shelf stable and safe to enjoy in homemade recipes.

Storing Olives in Brine

For the best quality and food safety, follow these olive storage guidelines:

  • Curing – Keep at room temp out of sunlight during initial brining
  • After curing – Transfer olives to fresh brine and refrigerate
  • Refrigeration – Store in airtight container for up to 6 months
  • Freezing – Drain brine, freeze olives up to 1 year
  • Reusing brine – Avoid reusing brine after storing cured olives
  • Canning – Home canning fully cured olives is safe using proper technique

With a little care, you can keep brined olives on hand for convenient snacking and cooking.

Uses for Olive Brine

Don’t let that leftover olive brine go to waste after snacking on the olives. You can take advantage of the salty, tangy flavors in many ways:

  • Marinate vegetables, chicken, fish, or pork
  • Deglaze pans for an instant sauce
  • Add to vinaigrettes, hummus, tapenades
  • Use in a dirty martini cocktail
  • Simmer beans, lentils, or grains in brine
  • Combine with olive oil for roasted potatoes
  • Whisk into mayo or aioli

Olive brine adds a welcome zing and savory depth to many dishes. Get creative with leftover brine to cut down on food waste and get the most out of your olives.


Whether you are buying olives or curing them yourself, understanding what is in olive brine can help you select and produce the best quality olives. Seek out olives cured in simple, natural brines for optimal flavor. Or capture that flavor yourself with homemade brine. From salty preservative to tasty cooking ingredient, olive brine makes a versatile addition to any pantry.