Lye Curing, Step by Step
Follow these instructions and you will be fine:
• Wear glasses if you have them. Wear long sleeves and pants and closed shoes. You will probably not get lye on you, but better to be safe.
• Pour one gallon of cold—not tepid, not hot, but cold—water into a stoneware crock, a glass container, a stainless-steel pot, or a food-grade plastic pail. Under no circumstances should you use aluminum, which will react with the lye and make your olives poisonous.
• Using a measuring device that is not aluminum, add three tablespoons of lye to the water. Always add lye to water, not water to lye. A splash of unmixed lye can burn you. Stir well with a wooden spoon.
You're done. You use cold water because the reaction between lye and water generates heat, and the hotter the lye-water solution, the softer the olives will become. Now that it is mixed, the lye solution can't really hurt you, so go ahead and add your olives.
Stir them in with that wooden spoon and put something over all the olives so they do not float. This is vital. Olives exposed to air while curing turn black. Don't worry, they will absorb the water and sink in a few hours, but to start you need to submerge them.
Let this sit at room temperature for 12 hours. The alkaline solution will be seeping into the olives, breaking the bonds of the bitter oleuropein molecules, which then exit the olive and go into the water. After 12 hours, pour off the solution into the sink. It should be pretty dark in color.
Quickly resubmerge your olives in cold water. You want to minimize the exposure to air. You now have cured olives. I know, I know, a lot of recipes say to repeat the lye process another time—sometimes three more times—but that will destroy a lot of flavor; there are a ton of water-soluble flavor compounds in an olive that the lye solution washes away. Trust me. Your olives, unless they are gigantic, will not be overly bitter even after just a light, 12-hour lye soak.
Now you need to cleanse your olives. They will have a fair bit of lye solution in them now. Keep changing the water two to four times a day for three to six days, depending on the size of the olives. After two days, taste one: It should be a little soapy, but not too bitter. It'll be bland, and a little soft. Once the water runs clear you should lose that soapy taste.
Time to brine. If you have large olives, make a brine of 3/4 cup salt to one gallon of water. And use good salt if you can. You will taste the difference. Kosher salt is okay, but ideally use a quality salt like Trapani, which is from Sicily. It's not that expensive, but it is worlds better than regular salt.
Let the olives brine in this for one week. Keep them submerged, or they will darken. After a while they will sink. After one week, pour off the brine and make a new one, only this time, use one cup of salt per gallon.
Now you can play. The traditional Spanish cure would add some vinegar to the mix, as well as bay leaf and other spices. I've played with adding a touch of smoked salt, chiles, black pepper, coriander, mustard seed, garlic—think Mediterranean flavors.
But before you do this, taste your freshly brined olives. It will be a revelation. They will remain beautifully green, unlike brined olives. Salty, olive-y, and very, very buttery. This is the Lay's Potato Chips of olives. I dare you to eat just one.