How to Serve Hors d’Oeuvres

Some people stay away from using the phrase “hors d’oeuvres” for fear of pronouncing it incorrectly and running the risk of sounding uncultured. But then there are also those that steer clear of serving them altogether for fear of doing it all wrong and flushing money down the drain instead of making the event extra memorable.

If you are about to host something and thinking about wowing everyone with hors d’oeuvres, read on.

Everything you will read in this post is all about these eye-catching finger foods — just what makes tiny portions of treats hors d’oeuvres, how to choose which ones to serve and how to offer them to the guests.

Hors d'Oeuvres

But before anything else, let’s answer this pressing question many feel too embarrassed to ask…

Hors d’Oeuvres vs. Appetizers: What’s the Difference?

Typically, hors d’oeuvres are served even before the meal commences. They can either be passed around on a tray or presented in a buffet-style arrangement. Meanwhile, appetizers are served on the table in order to signal the beginning of the meal. Appetizers complement the meal, while hors d’oeuvres may or may not.

A lot of people use d’oeuvres and appetizers interchangeably. If you’re one of them, that’s alright — no one’s judging as these small appetizing dishes are both served prior to a meal, making them seem one and the same.

However, upon further prodding, you will notice the key differences between the two.

Knowing the English translation of the French phrase “hors d’oeuvres” is the key to separating what they are from appetizers. Pronounced “or derves”, hors d’oeuvres literally means “out of work”. But in order for it to make more sense, it’s important to know the English interpretation: “outside the meal”.

And it’s exactly because of this why, as mentioned earlier, hors d’oeuvres are served before the meal even starts. They are meals themselves, albeit in small servings, and, in some instances, have no connection to the main meal.

On the other hand, appetizers are a part of the main meal — they are considered the first courses.

Appetizers, compared to hors d’oeuvres, generally come in slightly larger servings. And they are served at the table, often speaking volumes about the upcoming entree and dessert courses.

Simple Guidelines on Selecting Hors d’Oeuvres

Just because you want to amaze your guests with some hors d’oeuvres doesn’t mean you can serve just about any finger food that pops into your mind first at the event.

Fortunately, there are no hard and fast rules etched in stone about hors d’oeuvres — there are, however, general guidelines you may use in choosing or preparing them. Keeping the said guidelines in mind can, first and foremost, help you serve hors d’oeuvres that are actual hors d’oeuvres and not just appetizers pretending to be something else.

Here are some of the things to remember when considering serving hors d’oeuvres:

Think small

You can think of hors d’oeuvres as mingling foods. And you can also think of them as things that can whet the appetite. In either case, they should come in small servings — about 1 to 2 bites per serving.

As discussed earlier, hors d’oeuvres come in smaller servings than appetizers, which tend to be about 3 to 4 bites.

Count the guests

The number of hors d’oeuvres to prepare will depend on two important factors: the number of guests and the time the main meal starts. You will have to make the right number of hors d’oeuvres available at the right moment.

In order for that to make more sense, here’s a table demonstrating what I’ve just said:

2 to 430 to 60 minutes
5 to 61 hour and 30 minutes to 2 hours
8 to 102 to 4 hours
12 to 154 hours or longer

Create impact

They may be small in size but hors d’oeuvres should make a big impact on the eyes. This is so that everyone at the event will be enticed to give them a try, thus keeping them from getting bored or ravenous or both.

Sometimes they give a clue about the main meal. Sometimes they don’t.

May or may not be complimentary

And speaking of the main meal, generally speaking, hors d’oeuvres have nothing to do with it. Appetizers, on the other hand and as mentioned earlier, are connected to the main meal as they are a part of it.

However, you can choose to serve hors d’oeuvres that have something to do with the courses to come.

This is especially true if the party you are holding is the themed kind and you prefer to maintain consistency through and through. However, while they may complement the main meal, consider avoiding repeating flavors.

Serving time

Appetizers are not only a part of the main meal but also commence the main meal.

While hors d’oeuvres are often served before the entree and dessert courses are served, they can be served at any given time, too — before or after a meal or even when no main meals are expected.

On the other hand, appetizers are served in that they announce that a meal is about to arrive.

Flavor is key

It’s true that the hors d’oeuvres should not only be eye-catching but also mouth-watering. But keep in mind that, although they should be flavorful, they must not be overpowering.

The goal is to keep everybody at the venue occupied and not overwhelm their senses.

Cold Hors d'Oeuvres
Cold Hors d’Oeuvres

Choosing Between Hot and Cold Hors d’Oeuvres

While there are hundreds of hors d’oeuvres to choose from, you will have to start the oh-so-important selection process by establishing whether hot hors d’oeuvres or cold hors d’oeuvres you wish to serve.

The majority of savory and meaty hors d’oeuvres are served hot, requiring cooking just before being served.

Cooking hot hors d’oeuvres beforehand is not enough — they should also be kept warm at all times. That is why hot hors d’oeuvres are often found at buffet tables where there are pieces of heating equipment that can keep them at optimum temperature. The use of a chafing dish is a popular way to keep these appetizing treats warm.

Although considered finger foods, it’s not unlikely for most hot hors d’oeuvres to be served with a fork or spoon or skewered, which makes eating them easier and cleaner.

There are many different hot hors d’oeuvres to choose from. Some common examples are:


Also sometimes referred to as small skewers, brochettes are small pieces of meat or fish on skewers. Some brochettes include vegetables, too, or are completely vegetarian.

Brochettes are commonly grilled, broiled or baked. They are usually served with dipping sauces on the side.


Beef, veal, pork, poultry, chicken — there are many things from which meatball hors d’oeuvres can be made. There are also various recipes to choose from, ranging from sliders, cheesy, Swedish to spicy Thai.

Typically, meatballs are served speared with toothpicks and dripping in a thick and rich sauce.


Pieces of savory meat or vegetables may be roasted or grilled and then wrapped in something and then served.

The wraps can be anything from slices of fruit or vegetables to thin slices of meat — bacon is a widely popular choice! The wrap can either complement or contrast that which it conceals from view.

Filled pastry shells

Puff pastry shells can be stuffed with a wide variety of filling to make for some of the most interesting and delicious hot hors d’oeuvres. They can be filled with anything from meat, cheese to fruits or vegetables. It’s also possible to make a filling out of a combination of the said options.

Serving these filled hot hors d’oeuvres can be a time-saving choice as frozen puff pastry shells are available.

While there are hot hors d’oeuvres, there are also cold hors d’oeuvres. What’s really nice about cold hors d’oeuvres is that they don’t have to be kept warm, which makes them not as finicky to offer to the guests. Because of this, they make for some of the best passed or handed-out hors d’oeuvres.

We will discuss this matter in a few when it’s time for us to talk about how best to serve hors d’oeuvres — so don’t stop reading now to know your options.

Some of the most common examples of cold hors d’oeuvres include:


Simply put, canapés are tiny and open-faced sandwiches whose base is either a small piece of bread or pastry. Modern ones use other bases such as crackers and small pancakes or even pastry shells.

Canapés can have an assortment of spreads and toppings, from meat to vegetables.


It’s not uncommon for crudités to be the cold hors d’oeuvres at events or occasions where much or all of the menu options are vegetarian. That’s because they are vegetables, either raw or slightly blanched or steamed, served as finger foods. Some popular options when making crudités are broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery and radishes.

Most of the vegetable options are served with a creamy sauce into which they may be dipped.

Sushi and sashimi

There is no denying that some of the most well-liked international hors d’oeuvres are sushi and sashimi.

Wondering what’s the difference between sushi and sashimi? Well, sushi is rice that’s mixed with other ingredients, which may or may not include fish. On the other hand, sashimi is a thin slice of meat, usually fish, without any rice.

Devilled eggs

Don’t be intimidated by devilled eggs because of the name. To devil a food means to combine it with an assortment of hot or spicy seasonings and condiments, whose hotness is associated with the depths of hell.

These cold hors d’oeuvres have nothing to do with the devil. You can call them “angel eggs” or “stuffed eggs”.

Pizza bites

When it comes to serving bite-size pizzas as cold hors d’oeuvres, you have a couple of options. First, pizza snack rolls or pizza poppers that you can make from scratch or buy frozen and ready for the oven. Second, miniature pizzas that can make a lot of heads turn toward their direction no matter where they are made available.

One of the nicest things about pizza bites is that they appeal to both kids and adults.

Serving Style

After deciding which hors d’oeuvres to serve, it’s time to decide how to serve them. Two of the most popular methods include the buffet style and the hand-out style.

Each one comes with its own set of pros and cons and can meet specific needs or preferences.

But before we discuss the differences between the two popular ways to serve hors d’oeuvres, let’s first talk about some of the factors you will have to consider during the decision-making process. Knowing what they are is important, most especially if the goal is to have a successful event — all hosts want theirs to be a smashing success!

  • Venue. The size of the venue is an important consideration. The way you choose to serve hors d’oeuvres can decide just how accessible they are to the guests.
  • Guests. It’s also a must to consider the number of people who are expected to show up. Certain ways of serving hors d’oeuvres are more appropriate for a long guest list.
  • Arrangement. Whether the guests are seated or mingling must be taken into account when determining the best way to offer hors d’oeuvres to them.
  • Budget. Some styles of serving hors d’oeuvres can cost more money, especially the kind that requires additional manpower or equipment in serving these finger foods.
  • Hors d’oeuvres. Earlier, we talked about hot and cold hors d’oeuvres — the ones you are planning on serving can help determine the right serving method.

And now, let’s briefly talk about two of the most common and preferred ways to serve hors d’oeuvres at most types of events or occasions: buffet and hand-out.

Buffet style

When it comes to serving hors d’oeuvres buffet style, you can choose between having one large buffet table and installing several small stations throughout the venue. The choice will depend on certain factors such as the size of the venue, the budget at your disposal and the number and types of hors d’oeuvres to serve.

Spread across a long table or several small ones, the guests can drop by and grab what they like.

However, it can cause bottlenecks especially if there are not a lot of stations to accommodate all the guests at once. And this is why this method of serving hors d’oeuvres is commonly avoided when there are tons of guests to serve.

But what’s so nice about the buffet style is that it can add to the appeal of the venue, particularly if the table is visually stunning and goes well with the overall theme of the event. It’s also the smarter choice if the ones being served are hot hors d’oeuvres that require the use of heating equipment to keep them at optimal temperature.

In most instances, serving hors d’oeuvres in a buffet fashion makes sense if the guests are seated, allowing them to approach the table, reach for the stuff they like and bring them back to their tables.

Hand-out style

Also sometimes referred to as “passed hors d’oeuvres”, the hand-out style is pretty much explained by its name — trained individuals, usually waiters and waitresses, walk through the crowd carrying trays of hors d’oeuvres.

Their trays also have utensils, if necessary, for the kind of hors d’oeuvres they’re offering.

More often than not, the hand-out approach of serving hors d’oeuvres is preferred if the venue is large and the guests may not find it that enticing to have to walk across the room to get to the table across which the choices are spread. It’s also commonly employed when there are lots of guests and may have to fall in line at the hors d’oeuvres station.

Unlike the buffet style, this is more appropriate if the guests are mingling with one another and do not have to stick to a prescribed seating arrangement. By taking hors d’oeuvres to where they are chatting or taking selfies instead of them having to head to the buffet table, it’s easier to keep the guests happy.


The hand-out approach to serving finger foods is also usually a good option if cold hors d’oeuvres are the ones being served, which do not require being placed on cumbersome heating equipment.

Procedure for Preparing Canapés from Toast

Method 1

1. You may use ready-sliced bread (after trimming the crusts), but it is usually most efficient to use long, unsliced pullman loaves. Cut the crusts from all sides (save for bread crumbs). Cut the bread horizontally into slices 1/4 inch (6 mm) thick, as shown in Figure 1.

2. Toast the slices in the oven or in a large toaster.

3. Let the toasts cool.

4. Cover with a thin, even layer of the chosen spread and cut into desired shapes with a knife (see Figure 2). Make the cuts neat and uniform.

Alternatively, cut the toasts into desired shapes with small cutters and reserve the trim for bread crumbs.

Spread each cutout with desired topping. (This method is more time-consuming, but it may be used with round or odd-shaped cutters if you want to save food cost by not losing spread on unused trimmings.)

Figure 2 Bread slices for canapés can be cut into several basic shapes with no waste.

5. Garnish the cutouts as desired.

Method 2

1. Cut bread slices as in step 1 above.

2. Cut into desired shapes. Brush both sides of each cutout with melted butter and arrange on sheet pans. Place in a hot oven (450 degrees F/230 degrees C) until golden brown and very crisp, 6 to 8 minutes.

3. Let the bases cool.

4. Assemble the canapés.

This method is more costly but gives a crisper base that holds up better with a moist spread.

Guidelines for Assembling Canapés

1. Good mise en place is essential. Preparing thousands of canapés for large functions can be tedious work, so it is essential that all bases, spreads, and garnishes be prepared ahead of time in order that final assembly may go quickly and smoothly.

2. Assemble as close as possible to serving time. Bases quickly become soggy, and spreads and garnishes dry out easily. As trays are completed, they may be covered lightly with plastic and held for a short time under refrigeration.

3. Select harmonious flavor combinations in spreads and garnish. For example, caviar and chutney or anchovy and ham are not appealing combinations, but these combinations are:

  • Mustard butter and ham
  • Lemon butter and caviar
  • Pimiento cream cheese and sardine
  • Horseradish butter and smoked salmon or smoked tongue
  • Tuna salad and capers
  • Anchovy butter, hard-cooked egg slice, and olive

4. Be sure that at least one of the ingredients is spicy or pronounced in flavor. A bland canapé has little value as an appetizer.

5. Use high-quality ingredients. Canapés can be a good way to utilize leftovers, but only if the leftovers have been carefully handled and stored to retain freshness.

6. Keep it simple. Simple, neat arrangements are more attractive than elaborate, overworked designs. Besides, you don’t have time to get too fancy. Be sure the canapés hold together and do not fall apart in the customers’ hands.

7. Arrange the canapés carefully and attractively on trays. Much of the attraction of canapés is eye appeal, and the customer never sees just one at a time, but a full tray. Each tray should carry an assortment of flavors and textures, so there is something for every taste.

Just Before You Decide on Hors d’Oeuvres to Serve

There are simply so many decisions to make as the host of an event. And one of them is deciding which hors d’oeuvres to make available at the venue — or if you have to offer them at all.

One of the nicest things about hors d’oeuvres is that they come in all shapes and sizes, which means that there’s surely something that will go well with the event, theme or menu. It’s best to choose a handful of types of hors d’oeuvres, each one of them offering something different in terms of appearance, taste and texture.

Above, we talked about a number of very important things you need to know about hors d’oeuvres.

No matter if this is your first time to consider serving some or if your last attempt was a big fail, keep in mind the pieces of information you encountered above in order to make the experience great for both you and your guests.

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