What's the Difference Between Green Ripe Olives and Black Ripe Olives?

Green ripe olives versus black ripe olives! Do you know the difference? Here's a peek at how California Ripe Olives are harvested and processed!

Green and black olives in a bowl on a cheese board
Emma Christensen

This post is produced in partnership with the California Olive Committee.

Ok, take a minute right now to sit back in your chair and imagine eating an olive.

First, imagine eating a black ripe olive -- you know, one of the ones from a can that you probably enjoy sprinkled over your pizza on Friday nights. Got it? Ok, now imagine eating a green ripe olive, also from a can and also great on pizza. Not a fancy olive from a salad bar or imported from another country; olives from a can, grown in California (which is where the vast majority of US canned olives are grown, by the way).

I'm going to take a wild guess here and assume that in your imagination, those two olives taste different. Right? I'm assuming this because that's also what I have always thought!

Brace yourself because this is going to be shocking: there is no difference between California Green Ripe Olives and California Black Ripe Olives. They are the same varieties, picked at the same time, and have a very similar flavor, both before and after processing. The difference is entirely cosmetic

Wait, what? No difference? Record scratch. I recently went on an olive harvest tour in Fresno, California where I learned all about it, so allow me to explain.

California ripe olives on the tree
Emma Christensen

How Are California Olives Grown and Harvested?

In California, farmers grow two main kinds of trees for table olives: Manzanillo and Sevillano. These trees are farmed in groves (which are quite beautiful to walk through, by the way!) and the olives are picked in the fall when they are a bright lime green color.

In the photo above, you'll see a mix of these bright green olives with some darker, purple-colored olives. Those darker olives are actually just over-ripe. They'd still be harvested, but ideally, the olives would be picked before they get this color.

California Ripe Olives (meaning, olives meant for eating, not for olive oil) are harvested by hand. It can take one worker a whole day to pick just one tree!

Also, a word to the wise, ripe olives right off the tree are insanely bitter. It's only through the curing process that they become tasty enough for us to eat.

Olive grove
Emma Christensen

Fun Facts About Olive Trees!

  • Olive trees can live to be hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. You can tell an old tree by the thickness and knobbiness of its trunk.
  • Olive trees are "alternate bearing," meaning that they usually produce a large crop only every other year.
  • Olive trees are drought-tolerant, needing about 25% less water than other fruit trees.

How the First California Ripe Olives Were Processed

Ok, now let's talk about how all those lovely California Ripe Olives are processed, and why some turn black and some stay green.

The process for curing olives in the US was actually developed by a woman named Freda Ehmann toward the late 1800s. Ehmann was a recent widower and desperate to earn an income, so she turned to the olive trees growing around her house. She didn't have any fancy equipment and ended up curing her olives in old wine barrels on her back porch.

The olives were delicious, but the fact that she cured them in wooden wine barrels, which are aren't airtight, meant that the olives were exposed to oxygen and turned black. Thus, the California Black Ripe Olive was born.

California Olive Harvest Tour - Bins of olives
Emma Christensen

How the Olives Are Processed Today

Amazingly, the process is pretty much the same today as it was back then!

After harvesting, the olives are soaked in a lye solution, which helps pull the strong bitter flavors from the olives and softens their skins for curing. They are then washed several times in cold water to remove all trace of the lye, followed by a soak in salty brine to finish them off before being canned.

When making black ripe olives, oxygen is constantly bubbled through the tanks and around the olives during the whole curing process. This turns them a deep, uniform black color.

The process for making green ripe olives is exactly the same , except that no oxygen is introduced to the tanks during curing. Their color stays bright and lime green.

The oxygen affects the color of the olives, but not their flavor or their texture. Try them in a blind taste test and see for yourself!

Green and black olives in a bowl on a cheese board
Emma Christensen

What Do They Actually Taste Like?

This process for making California Ripe Olives is very different than the process used to cure Spanish olives or most other kinds of olives from around the world. It results in an olive -- black or green! -- that is very mild, sweet, and buttery with a firm, meaty texture.

What Can You Make With California Ripe Olives?

California Ripe Olives are great on their own, but also soak up the flavors of any dish you put them in. They're great on pizza (of course!), but also in salads, with pasta, or party dips. Here are a few ideas!