Holly A. Heyser
Lye. Isn't that the stuff the Mafia uses to dissolve the bodies of those who make an unfortunate choice to use another waste disposal or vending machine company? Isn't it drain cleaner, a deadly poison? So how on God's Green Acre can lye be useful in the kitchen?
Relax. I am here to tell you that lye can be your friend, especially when it comes to curing green olives. A good lye-cured olive, I have discovered, is uniquely smooth and luscious in a way that brine or water-cured olives can never be. Done right, they can be
Let me start by admitting that I was as terrified about using drain cleaner to cure olives as you are. Intellectually I knew it would work, and I knew I'd eaten lye-cured olives before, as have most of us: They are those nasty black canned things also known as Lindsay olives. That knowledge, however, did not bolster my desire to do any lye curing anytime soon.
Holly A. Heyser
Note: If you are looking for those instructions on how to brine-cure or water-cure olives, click here. I've settled on a process I am happy with, and it gives me great results. Brine curing is easy, and I am doing it again this year—but it takes many months. Water curing takes about a month, and the resulting olives are good, but not fabulous. So this year, when my friend Elise said a neighbor had olives he wanted us to pick, I decided to do the lye cure.
Before we headed out, I did some research. Actually, I did a lot of research. I'd seen all sorts of references to how the lye cure—actually a cure in water that had percolated through wood ashes, which are a source of lye—has been used "since Roman times."
Okay, show me the proof. Many hours of searching later, I couldn't get any closer than a generic "Romans." Grrrr.... Then a colleague on a food history über-geek listserv I belong to saved the day. Apparently the Roman agricultural writer Rutilius Taurus Aemilianus Palladius is the source of this, in his De Re Rustica, written in the 300s:
Mix together a setier of passum, two handfuls of well-sifted cinders, a trickle of old wine and some cypress leaves. Pile all the olives in this mixture, saturate them with this paste in garnishing them with several layers, until you see it reach the edges of the containers.
Holly A. Heyser
Passum is freshly extracted grape juice, so the lye in the ash-water interacting with this would make an interesting brew. There would be so much sugar going on in there that you could get both a lye cure and fermentation going at the same time. Freaky. Might have to try that next year....
More recently, the Spanish have been masters of the lye cure. Most Spanish table olives are cured at least in part with lye, but their process is far different than that used in to make the hideous Lindsay olive. I am modifying a method I found in an agricultural book written in 1817.
Incidentally, other popular modern olives that use a lye cure include the French Lucques, Italian Cerignola, and Spanish Manzanilla.
First thing you need to know about curing olives with lye is that you must use fresh green olives. Not black ones, not half-ripe ones. The lye process softens the meat of the olive, so you want it as hard as possible (insert "that's what she said" joke here).
Lemme tell you, the quality of the olives Elise and I picked was the best I've ever seen. Normally I pick in public parks, which in our hot Sacramento summers can skimp on watering, stressing the trees. Stressed trees mean the olives will be more susceptible to that scourge of olivedom, the olive fly. The larva of this nasty little bug burrows into an olive and eats it from within. Thankfully, infested olives are easy to spot: They will ripen faster than healthy olives, and there is a tell-tale scar on the olive that looks like the photo to the left.
Toss that olive. While the worm is not poisonous, I prefer my olives sans extra protein, thank you.
Green olives in hand, I headed out to the hardware store in search of lye. The traditional brand to use is the classic Red Devil Lye, which is an old brand of drain cleaner. But all the science I've seen says anything that is 100-percent sodium hydroxide works, so scan your drain cleaner well to make sure it is nothing but lye—Drano used to be this way, but apparently it has additives now. Don't use it.
But Hank, shouldn't you use "food grade" lye? Well, after much research, I can find no hard evidence—none—that says there is any difference between so-called "food grade" lye and non-food grade lye. So, you can order the food grade stuff through that link above, or go to the hardware store and use a 100-percent sodium hydroxide drain cleaner. Both will work.
Isn't lye a deadly poison? Sorta. Sodium hydroxide is one of the nastiest bases we know of; a base is the opposite of an acid. On the pH scale, distilled water is the median, at 7. Your stomach acid's pH is about 1.5—enough to burn a hole through a rug. Lye's pH is 13.
Bottom line: Raw, pure lye will burn the hell out of you, but it is not a systemic poison. That means that even if you eat an olive that still has a lot of lye in it—as I did—all you will taste is a nasty soapy flavor. If you eat a bunch of them, the alkaline pH in the olives will counteract your stomach acid and it might give you indigestion. That's all, and that's a worst-case scenario. That said, you need to be damn careful at that one moment you are moving raw, pure lye from the container to the crock you are curing into.
NEXT: A step-by-step method for lye-cured olives