Super Easy Lye-Cured Olives

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I can’t believe I waited this long to try lye curing olives. I don’t know if it’s the skull and crossbones on the bottle, or the fact that lye is a DRAIN CLEANER that made me afraid to use it to make food. I thought lye was an unnatural chemical that had no place in a traditional kitchen. Turns out I was wrong. Ancient Romans used lye to cure olives thousands of years ago. Central Americans have used masa harina, which is made from dried corn soaked in lye water, as far back as 1500 B.C. It turns out that lye is made from hardwood ash that rain water has percolated through over time. It is something we can even make at home. Armed with this knowledge and some other instructions, I felt pretty good about trying to make my own lye cured olives. I’m so glad I did!

Morbi vitae purus dictum, ultrices tellus in, gravida lectus.





Harvest Your Olives

In Phoenix you can harvest olives anytime from the end July through October. The later olives will be bigger but may begin turning purple. The early to medium age olives have perfectly firm flesh. I haven’t tried the older olives with this method yet, but I can imagine they will be softer. Look for olive trees everywhere you go, and don’t be afraid to knock on a door or two to ask if you can pick them. Most people have no idea what to do with olives and assume they are useless and just messy.

Morbi vitae purus dictum, ultrices tellus in, gravida lectus.

Where to Purchase Lye

Lye is not that hard to find. The first canister of lye that I used was some that a friend had used for soapmaking several years ago. there was a little left in the container so I figured I’d use it. I soaked the olives overnight in the solution and nothing had changed. That lead me to do a little research, and I discovered that lye can react with moisture in the air over time and become inert. Bummer! Now I had to find my own. Of course I went straight to Amazon to look for FOOD GRADE Lye. Yep, I found it. However, after more research I realized that labeling lye as Food Grade is not really necessary. All you need to look for is 100% lye, and that can be found in the plumbing section of Walmart for under $6. It is called Crystal Lye Drain Opener, and it’s 100% lye. I did more reading just to make sure that was ok, and as long as it is 100% lye it’s good. FYI, you won’t find this next to Drano in the cleaner section. It is way back by the tools and toilet seats. There are probably other brands, but this is the one I used.

Morbi vitae purus dictum, ultrices tellus in, gravida lectus.

How to Handle Lye

There are a few cautions to be aware of when using lye. You can use gloves or eye protection if you like. Since I’m making most of my batches in quart jars and using only a tablespoon of lye, it’s a little less threatening. Always err on the side of caution and use good judgement. The great thing is that once lye is dissolved in water it’s no longer harmful to touch. In fact, it feels like slippery, soapy water. Still, don’t drink it.

Please read through these cautions before opening your bottle of lye:

  1. Lye kind of looks like salt or sugar, so just don’t get it confused, just keep it in the container it came in and you won’t.
  2. Keep lye where kids can’t get to it just like you would Drano.
  3. Lye reacts with water and heats up very quickly. Make sure to use ice cold water.
  4. ALWAYS add lye to water, not the other way around.
  5. NEVER use aluminum anything with lye because its chemical reaction is toxic.
  6. Don’t allow lye to touch your body or you will get a nasty chemical burn.
Morbi vitae purus dictum, ultrices tellus in, gravida lectus.

Basic Instructions for Lye Cured Olives

Use this formula as a base for measurement.

  1. For every quart of ice water, use 3/4-1 tablespoon (not heaping) of lye.
  2. 1 quart of lye solution will be enough to cover 2 quarts of tightly packed olives. If you only have one quart of olives you can halve the recipe or keep the solution for another soaking if necessary or for another batch.

Just follow these easy instructions.
Most of what I know came from Hunt Gather Cook  and Oh The Things We’ll Cook.

  1. Rinse olives to remove any dust or debris.
  2. Remove any olives with holes or decay present.
  3. Pack olives into the jar as tightly as possible without bruising them.
  4. Pour lye solution over olives, making sure all olives are submerged.
  5. Use a rock, weight, or THIS to keep olives under water. Note: I wholeheartedly recommend the Ball Fermentation Lids and Springs. I use them for making fermented pickles, sauerkraut, and more.
  6. Allow the olives to soak for 6-12 hours. The water will turn a dark golden color, that’s how you know it’s working.
  7. Remove an olive and slice a piece of the olive to the pit. You will be able to tell if the lye has penetrated completely if the olive is a uniform color that is a golden green color. If there is a noticeable layer of green as you get to the pit then let it soak longer.
  8. Once the lye has penetrated the olives Hold your hand over the jar and drain the solution. Rinse the olives several times and then allow them to soak in plain water for 1-2 days, draining and rinsing several times a day.
  9. After the first day, take a bite of an olive. If it is soapy tasting, keep soaking and draining another day.
  10. By the second day the olives should be ready for brine. If not, keep soaking and draining one more day.

For the Brine and Flavoring

  1. Make a 10% brine (weigh the amount of water in the jar, a 1/2 quart in this case, and decide what 10% of that is. Weigh your salt and add it to the water). I can’t give you a number because different salt grains are different sizes and take up more or less space. The weight of 1/2 quart of water is 460 grams, so 10% is 46 grams.
  2. Once the salt is dissolved you can add it to the olive jar.

For Flavoring the Olives

  1. Layer the olives in the jar with whatever flavorings you like (or none at all). Garlic, bay leaves, hot pepper flakes, orange peels…whatever. I like to go to an olive bar and try different olives to get some ideas. You can also add a splash of vinegar if you like. I did. Flavors will develop over time.
  2. Pour the brine over the olives, making sure to cover them completely.
  3. Add olive oil to cover in a 1/8-1/4 inch layer.
  4. Place a tight lid on the olives and store in a cool place or refrigerator. Olives will become more firm in the fridge.
  5. Olives can be stored for about a year, but will become softer over time.
Morbi vitae purus dictum, ultrices tellus in, gravida lectus.

Celebrate and Enjoy the Fruit of Your Labor!

You’ll be so proud of yourself when you first taste these olives. I know I was! To think that I was afraid to use lye makes me laugh. One more skill put in my pocket. Dang that feels good!

Morbi vitae purus dictum, ultrices tellus in, gravida lectus.

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