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Olives and Olive Oil: Tasty and Good For You

Updated on June 25, 2012
Ripening olives on the tree.
Ripening olives on the tree. | Source

Olives and Olive Oil: Rich in Omega-3s and Anti-oxidents

Olives and olive oil are firmly at the heart of the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet because of their omega-3 fatty acids. Olives have been a central part of cuisine in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Southern Europe, where they have been carefully cultivated and tended for thousands of years. Olives are commercially grown all over the world, even in Australia and the U. S. now, especially in California, though Greece dominates the world in terms of olives, and olive oil production.

Olive oil is especially of interest because it is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, associated with "good" cholesterol, and a simple to use flavorful substitute for the less healthy fatty oils like butter or corn oil. Olives are also associated with numerous nutritional benefits; they are naturally high in iron and vitamin E, and well as good sources of fiber and copper, and monounsaturated fats, much like the oil derived from olives. Olives are also rich with polyphenols and flavonoids, both of which have positive anti-inflammatory effects.

Olives are not edible until they've been processed, but for much of our history the olive tree has been cultivated for olive oil as an ingredient in food, for cooking, for lamp oil, and for use in soaps and cosmetics. Olive oil is made by pressing olives, and then filtering the result. There are various grades of olive oil, including one grade that's used only for lamp oil. Olive wood is prized for it's beauty and durability, as indeed are olive trees themselves. There are many live and still fruitful ancient olive trees over a thousand years old, especially in Yemen, Greece, and Israel.

The olive tree is a member of the Olea europaea species, and part of the Oleaceae family, a very large family of relatively small trees common all over the mediterranean and middle east. Close counsins of the olive and fellow members of the Oleacea family include Jasmine, Lilacs, and Forsythia. There many, many kinds of olive cultivars, as well as several varieties of "wild" olive, since humans have cultivated olives, and carried their fruit and pits with us as we spread over the globe.

Some olives are harvested while they are still green; others are allowed ripen fully until they are very dark, almost black (not to be confused with olives whose post-harvest processing by lye or other treatments darkens them to a deep black). If you have a local source of fresh olives, you can always process your own olives, or even pickle your own olives. Of late, many residents in Southern California and parts of Australia are emulating their grandparents' generation, harvesting the olives from the trees in their back yard, and processing them themselves.

Olive Oil Enhances Flavor

Extra virgin olive oil a tasty and healthy substitute for corn oil and butter.
Extra virgin olive oil a tasty and healthy substitute for corn oil and butter. | Source

All About Olive Oil

Olive oil is produced and sold in several different grades from several countries, including the United States, Spain, Italy, and Greece. The various olive oil grades are determined by the amount of processing performed on the olive oil, and the amount of oleic acid (the source of oleuropein) in the oil. Extra-Virgin and Virgin olive oil contain more of the polyphenols that help make olive oil anti-oxidant (and heart-healthy). Virgin olive oil generally better for us in terms of health and nutrition.

These are the basic grades of olive oil:

  1. Extra-virgin: Oil from the very first pressing, unrefined beyond straining or filtering. It can't contain more than 0.8% of oleic acid.
  2. Virgin: Also from the first pressing, but virgin olive oil is slightly higher in natural acidity than Extra Virgin, fewer phytonutrients, and a slightly more robust flavor. The acidity is caused by more oleic acid. Virgin olive oil can contain up to 2% oleic acid.
  3. Pure: In very broad terms, this is generally a more affordable produced from subsequent pressings of the olives. This is perfectly edible, and for those of us who like olives and olive oil, the slightly more "olive" taste is a feature.

There are additional fine gradations in olive oil grading based on taste and clarity, as well as a crude formof olive oil used as lamp-oil (and marked as lamp-oil on the label). Do read the labels carefully; sometimes olive oil labeling is confusing, or even slightly deceptive. For instance, oil can be bottled in a country other than the one that produced the olives; look for the fine print. "Refined" usually means that the olive oil was subjected to additional post-pressing processing, often with chemicals, in an effort to control the taste of the olive oil. In general, watch for Virgin, Extra-Virgin, or Pure.

Though it requires careful watching to avoid over-heating, you can use olive oil for frying. You can also use quality olive oil as a substitute for butter or margarine, whether it's dipping bread into a little oil, or using olive oil to baste, oil or marinate foods as part of cooking. Extra-Virgin olive oil is generally better to use for recipes which usually call for corn oil, since it usually has less "olive" taste. You can easily make your own gently flavored herbed olive oil.

Olive salad a healthy and savory condiment for all sorts of dishes.
Olive salad a healthy and savory condiment for all sorts of dishes.

Olive Salad

Olive Salad is less an actual salad than a condiment. It is principally known as one of the archetypal, mandatory ingredients of that New Orleans delicacy, the muffuletta sandwich. The traditional place to get a muffuletta is at the deli counter at Central Grocery on Decatur.

Olive salad is great on a muffuletta, but try it on a burger, on a baked potato instead of butter or sour cream, on all sorts of sandwiches, or spooned over a salad instead of dressing, or as a garnish on a caprese salad.


1 1/2 cups green olives

1/2 cups kalamata olives

1 tablespoon capers

3 fresh garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 tablespoon fresh finely chopped Italian parsley

1 tablespoon fresh finely chopped oregano (alternatively, 2 tablespoons dried)

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup pimentos (unless the green olives are stuffed with pimentos)

1 tablespoon finely chopped green onion

freshly ground black pepper to taste

kosher salt if needed (do taste first)

About 1 1/2 cups Extra Virgin olive oil


  1. Pit the olives if necessary.
  2. Finely chop the olives.
  3. Mix all the ingredients.
  4. Add enough olive oil to cover the all the other ingredients.
  5. Stir, and put in a covered container in the refrigerator for about a week, stirring it occasionally.

Note: If you absolutely can't find kalamata olives, you can in a pinch substitute black olives. The addition of finely chopped celery is often a lovely touch. Feel free to adjust the various ingredients to taste; every olive salad is different.Some people like to add thinly sliced or chopped pepperoncini. Taste the olive oil before you use it; you want to know that it's olive oil, but you also want it to be fresh olive oil.

Olive oil delicately flavored with herbs is simple to make, and absolutely delicious.
Olive oil delicately flavored with herbs is simple to make, and absolutely delicious. | Source

Make Your Own Herbed Olive Oils

An easy way to introduce more olive oil into your every day meals is to make your own herbed olive oils. They're super as a healthy, flavorful base for salad dressing or marinades, or to use for dipping fresh crusty artisan bread instead of using butter.

Summer is the perfect time you make your own herbed olive oils, and bottle them for later use or as a hostess gift or holiday present. You can easily find fresh local herbs your local grocery or farmer's market, or even in your own garden. You can use dried herbs of course, but the appearance and the freshness of the taste really is better with fresh herbs. Note that I'm using "herb" somewhat loosely, since I include garlic, chives, dried peppers or chilis, or even citrus peels.You can use a single attractive sprig, say of rosemary, or even combine one or two herbs; I'm fond of rosemary combine with thyme or garlic.

What You Need

Clean, sterile bottles. Many cooks re-use wine bottles (green glass works best) or use mason jars, or purchase decorative bottles meant for herb infused oils. Be sure you use fresh corks or seals, to avoid contamination.

Sufficient olive oil to almost fill the bottles. The quality of the olive oil is important; use either virgin or extra virgin. I like to use extra virgin simply because it's lighter in flavor which means the herbs are more noticeable.

Sprigs of fresh herbs. Use the freshest herbs possible, and plan on two or three sprigs per bottle. Each sprig should be about four to six inches long, depending on the size of the bottles. You want the herbs to be completely covered by the oil.


  1. Remove any discolored or dead leaves. Rinse the herbs and gently pat them dry. It's very important that the herbs or other ingredients are not damp, or have drops of water clinging to the leaves and stems.
  2. Heat the oil in a small pan. The oil needs to be warm, not hot. Do not heat it over 160 F.
  3. While you wait for the oil to heat, use the back of a spoon or a knift to press the herbs just enough to release their fragrance.
  4. Insert two or three sprigs of herbs or other flavor ingredient into the bottles. Make sure that there's enough space to completely cover the sprigs with oil.
  5. Pour the warm oil into the bottles, making sure to leave about 1. 5 inches of air at the top.
  6. Cap the bottles tightly. Wipe them off to remove any spilled oil.
  7. Store the bottles in a cool dark place for three days to a week, then refrigerate the oil.
  8. If you intend to keep the oil for some time, you may want to strain the oil to remove the herbs.

Note: Garlic flavored oil is fabulous, but fresh uncooked, unpreserved garlic can spoil, ruining the oil. Be careful about consuming it very soon after making it, and refrigerating the oil if you are not going to use it in very short order.

Buy Your Own Bottles for Herbed Olive Oil


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    • Medievalist profile image

      Lisa L Spangenberg 5 years ago from Greater Seattle

      Thanks! It's much appreciated. I've been working on a series on the Mediterranean diet (

    • mecheshier profile image

      mecheshier 5 years ago

      Great Hub. Well researched and informative. Thank you. Voted up for useful