Admit it, have you ever really thought about why you don’t usually find fresh olives on store shelves? Typically, Olives go from being grown on a tree to getting picked and then to the jars you see in the supermarket. That makes sense, right? But, why are they always found in a jar, soaking in a salty brine?
Sorry to disappoint all of the olive lovers out there, but the fresh fruit actually tastes really horrible—so horrible that grocery stores won’t sell it. The compound in the fruit that makes it taste so disgusting and bitter is oleuropein. Fresh olives contain up to 14 percent of it.
To make olives edible, professional olive processors and bold home cooks use three different methods to remove the oleuropein. The first two methods are soaking them in water or fermenting them in a salt brine. The downside to those methods is that they take weeks. The third method is a chemical shortcut, and it can get olives onto supermarket shelves much faster after being picked. It involves soaking the olives in Lye, or sodium hydroxide. Also known as NaOH, sodium hydroxide speeds up the chemical breakdown between oleuropein and sugar to less bitter (and tastier) compounds. This whole process takes about one week. After being thoroughly rinsed of any chemicals, the olives are packed in salt brine to help preserve them when being shipped.