December 19, 2021

Need a Recipe for Olive Tapenade? Nope!

Learn the concepts to make olive tapenade without a recipe.

Hey everyone! I wrote this newsletter in collaboration with Jillian Pfennig. She is a freelance writer, artist, and photographer who you can follow on Instagram @jillianpfennig.

And forewarning here...Olive the puns will be intentional! 😉


This briny yet fruity spread might be found on a platter near you this holiday season. Or if you’re in charge of the cooking, it should be!

But if you’re limiting it just to a dip, you’re missing out. Olive tapenade is a versatile flavor bomb that can elevate dishes. It can be your secret ingredient to add brightness and depth to sandwiches, vinaigrettes, braised veggies, and more.

And the best part, you don’t need a recipe. With a few simple concepts in mind, you can let your imagination, and taste buds, guide you.

Tapenade, a History 🧐

Okay, first let's address the 5-ton elephant—and by 5-ton elephant, we mean 5-gram olive—in the room.

Olive tapenade.

How redundant! It’s like calling coleslaw, “cabbage coleslaw”.

Actually, not. Tapenade originated from the Provençal region of France and was invented in the late 1800s. What is it? Classically, it’s a paste of olives, capers, anchovies/tuna, and olive oil.

But here’s the kicker. Tapenade comes from the word “tapeno”. Which actually means caper! So tapenades are notsupposed to be about olives. They’re supposed to be about capers! 🤯

Do you feel like the cooking universe is unraveling before your very eyes right now? No? Okay, maybe it’s just an us thing.

While even back then olives were in this paste, they weren’t the star. They played second fiddle. But olives have come to dominate modern tapenades. And in our opinion, it’s a great change on the classic.

Pick Whatever Ingredients You Want for Olive Tapenade

The beauty of tapenade is that it’s easy to freestyle. The makeup is often something like the following:

  • 8 part pitted olives—learn more below
  • 1 part capers
  • 1 part anchovies or tuna—not sure about anchovies? Maybe this can convince you. Vegan? Try miso instead! Or just skip them.
  • 1 part garlic—you can tame the raw garlic by soaking it in a bit of acid first
  • 1 part herb
  • 1 part acid—lemon juice is a favorite since it adds a subtle tang but any acid will do
  • Salt to taste—it depends on the saltiness of other ingredients
  • Olive oil, as needed—the exact amount depends on (1) the olives you use, (2) what else you add, (3) and what consistency you want!

But of course, that ratio isn’t a rule! It’s just a starting point.

So, Which Olives Should You Use?

There really isn’t a right answer! It’s all about the flavor you want. Plus, it’s fun to experiment with different types of olives.

Alton Brown recommends using a mix of soft olives like Kalamata and harder ones like Cerignola. The contrast creates an appealing texture.

You can also choose based on flavor. Cook’s Illustrated recommends an olive mix of 3 parts bright, fruity olives (typically brined) to 1 part earthy ones (typically salt-cured).

And remember olives not only differ in flavor but also salt and oil levels. So taste them before you use them! Remember if the olives are super salty, you can rinse and soak them to remove as much of the brine as possible.

Still not sure? Try going to an olive bar. They serve olives marinated in gin and vermouth.🍸 Just kidding. Not that kind of bar. Lots of grocery stores have a bar where you can sample different types of olives so you can find your favorite.

Lastly, buying pitted olives will save you a ton of time and effort! Pitting olives is a pain. Just make sure they’re high quality. Pitted olives are sometimes dried out.

Elevate The Flavor with Other Fruit?

Yes, olives are fruit! While they’re salty and briny, they’re also bright and fruity! You can enhance their natural brightness by adding less-sweet fruits like figs or sun-dried tomatoes.

How much do you use? We recommend starting with a 3-to-1 olive to fruit ratio.

If you’re using dried fruit, you may need to soak it in hot water first to make it easier to grind up.

Processing Olive Tapenade: Human or Machine?

Once you’ve got your ingredients, the basic idea is to chop and/or grind it together until it forms a paste! Do you use a mortar and pestle? Food processor? Knife? They all work! But here are some things to know about each.

Mortar and Pestle: While it’s old school and definitely time-consuming, using a mortar and pestle is wonderful. It gives you more control over the final texture. You’ll get a true paste. Plus, crushing aromatics—instead of chopping them—releases more of their flavor!

Food Processor: Chopping everything up in a processor gets you a good result without the arm workout! But there is a chance it turns more liquidy than you want. Here are a few tips to prevent that:

  • Don’t hold down the button. Use sharp pulses. Then stop every few to push the ingredients down the sides so they chop evenly without the need to over-process.
  • Do a rough chop before you add everything to the food processor so it's easier for things to chop up evenly.
  • Stir in the acid and olive oil at the very end. The less liquid in there while you process, the lower chance it turns saucy.

Knife: If all else fails, you can rough it! Simply chop everything with a knife. It will obviously be coarser. But tasty! You can even use the side of your knife to drag along the mix to crush it into a paste as well. Unsure? Watch Jamie Oliver do it!

And don’t forget this: Let the paste rest for at least a couple of hours. This allows the flavors to blend together beautifully!

How to Use Olive Tapenade

You’ll most likely find tapenade served as a dip or a spread. But you can do better! Use tapenades in other recipes to enhance a dish:

  • 🍞 Try olive tapenade on ricotta or avocado toast. You’ll have an elegant appetizer!
  • 🥪 Tapenade is famously used on a Muffuletta, an Italian sandwich originating in New Orleans. But you can use it as a spread for just about any sandwich.
  • 🍕Replace your pizza sauce with tapenade and then top the dough with all your Mediterranean favorites, such as artichokes, prosciutto, and feta.
  • 🍆 Grilled eggplants are a typical Mediterranean side and pair well with tapenade.
  • 🥔 Make a sauce by thinning the tapenade with some water. Add in cheese—feta if you are sticking to Mediterranean flavors—and mix it with boiled potatoes.
  • 🥗 Turn it into a vinaigrette by adding more olive oil and acid. And maybe a touch of water to help thin it out.
  • 🐟 Use it as a sauce for fish or meats!
  • 🧀 Balance out sweet cheese like baked brie by pairing it with the salty, briny tapenade!
Where we learned this: This article by Daniel Gritzer, Jamie Oliver’s video, and recipes from both Cooks Illustrated and Milk Street.

I hope you enjoyed this collaboration piece. A big thanks to Jillian for helping me write it!