How to Serve Hors d’Oeuvres

The two most common ways of serving hors d’oeuvres are butler-style and buffet-style.

In butler-style service, the hors d’oeuvre selections are offered to guests by service staff carrying small trays as they pass among the assembled group. Several points should be kept in mind when planning this style of service:

Hors d'Oeuvres
  • Each item should be small enough to be eaten in one or two bites.
  • Each item should be easily handled by the guest. Canapés or other foods that can be picked up without soiling the fingers are ideal. For foods with a moist or oily surface, offer picks that guests can use to handle the food without touching it. Cocktail napkins should always be offered. Foods requiring a plate are better served on a cocktail buffet.
  • Strive for simple, attractive arrangements on the tray. The foods should look appetizing even when only a few items are left. Trays that no longer look appealing should be brought back to the kitchen or pantry area to be refreshed and refilled.
  • Ideally, each tray should hold only one food selection. For simple items, two or three selections can be presented on a single tray, but avoid making the tray too complex or overloaded.
  • Avoid presenting hot and cold items on the same tray. Cold items are easiest to serve. Hot items should be brought back to the kitchen or pantry area as soon as they are no longer warm.
  • For items to be offered with dips, a small bowl of the dip can be presented on the same tray as the individual hors d’oeuvres.

In buffet-style service, hors d’oeuvres are arranged attractively on one or more tables, and guests help themselves. Small plates can be offered on buffet tables, so it is not necessary to confine the food selections to finger foods.

Cold hors d’oeuvres are usually presented arranged on trays, which can be easily replaced when they are depleted. Canapés and similar items are best arranged in neat rows, circles, or other arrangements.

Raw vegetables may be piled in neat stacks, with bowls of dips placed among them. Hot items should be offered in chafing dishes, which keep them hot.

Finally, hors d’oeuvres are also served informally as accompaniments to beverages. This category is often known as bar food and may be served one item at a time, as ordered by the customer, or presented on a buffet.

“Outside The Work”

The French expression hors d’oeuvre literally translates as “outside the work,” meaning “apart from the main meal or main part of the meal.”

In French, the term is not spelled or pronounced with an s at the end to make it plural, so you will often see the plural form spelled the same as the singular.

The term has been thoroughly adopted into English, however, and in English language dictionaries, the plural is spelled and pronounced with a final s.



Canapés may be defined as bite-size open-faced sandwiches.

Canapés are perhaps the most traditional and also the most modern of hors d’oeuvres.

This is no doubt because they are so varied and so versatile. Because they consist of tiny portions of food presented on bases of bread, toast, or pastry, they are perfect finger food, easily handled and easily eaten.

Nearly any food that can be served in a small portion can be served as a canapé topping. The variety of possible combinations is nearly unlimited.

Most canapés consist of three parts: base, spread, and garnish.


Canapé spreads may be as simple as butter or softened cream cheese, but it is better to use a more highly flavored spread because sharp or spicy flavors are better for stimulating the appetite.

The spread should be thick enough to cling well to the base and so the garnish sticks to it without falling off.

Spreads may be divided into three basic categories, as follows.

Flavored Butters

Most flavored butters are made simply by blending the flavoring ingredients with the softened butter until completely mixed. Solid ingredients should be pureed or chopped very fine so the butter can be spread smoothly.

Proportions of flavoring ingredients to butter can be varied widely, according to taste.

For example, to make anchovy butter, you could double the quantity of anchovies to get a stronger flavor, or you could decrease it to get a milder flavor.

Because of this variability, and because the basic procedure is so simple, you should be able to make many flavored butters without individual recipes.

  • Shrimp
  • Olive
  • Shallot or scallion
  • Curry
  • Caper
  • Lemon
  • Parsley
  • Tarragon
  • Chive
  • Anchovy
  • Caviar
  • Mustard
  • Horseradish
  • Pimiento
  • Blue cheese

Flavored Cream Cheese

Flavored cream cheese spreads are made like flavored butters, except cream cheese is substituted for the butter. Alternatively, use a mixture of cream cheese and butter, well blended. Flavor variations are the same as those listed above for butter.

In addition, cream cheese is often blended with sharper, more flavorful cheeses that have been mashed or grated. Adding cream cheese to firmer cheese helps make the latter more spreadable.

A liquid such as milk, cream, or port wine may be added to make the mixture softer. Such cheese spreads are often flavored with spices and herbs such as paprika, caraway seeds, dry mustard, parsley, or tarragon.

Meat or Fish Salad Spreads

You can use many cold meat or fish mixtures, such as cooked salads, to make canapé spreads. Popular examples include tuna salad, salmon salad, shrimp salad, chicken salad, deviled ham, and liver pate.

1. Chop the solid ingredients very fine, or grind or puree them, so the mixture is spreadable and not chunky.

2. Do not add the liquid ingredients and mayonnaise all at once. Add them a little at a time, just until the mixture reaches a thick, spreadable consistency.

3. Check the seasonings carefully. You may want to increase the seasonings to make the spread more stimulating to the appetite.


The garnish of a canapé is any food item or combination of items placed on top of the spread.

It may be a major part of the canapé, such as a slice of ham or cheese, or it may be a small tidbit selected for color, design, texture, or flavor accent, such as a pimiento cutout, a slice of radish, a caper, or a dab of caviar.

Even the spread can be used as a garnish. For example, you may make a canapé with a mustard butter spread and a slice of ham, then decorate the ham with a border or design of mustard butter piped on with a paper cone.

Here are some of the many food items that may be used alone or in combination to decorate canapés:

Vegetables, Pickles, and Relishes

  • Radish slices
  • Olives
  • Pickles
  • Capers
  • Pimiento
  • Pickled onions
  • Chutney
  • Asparagus tips
  • Cucumber slices
  • Cherry tomato slices or halves
  • Watercress leaves
  • Marinated mushrooms
  • Parsley


  • Smoked oysters and clams
  • Smoked salmon
  • Smoked trout
  • Herring
  • Shrimp
  • Rolled anchovy fillets
  • Caviar
  • Salmon or tuna flakes
  • Crab meat
  • Lobster chunks or slices
  • Sardines


  • Ham
  • Salami
  • Chicken or turkey breast
  • Smoked tongue
  • Roast beef


  • Cheese
  • Hard-cooked egg slices


Canapé bases may be made from several items. The following are suggestions:

  • Bread cutouts
  • Toasted pita wedges
  • Toast cutouts
  • Tortilla chips or cups
  • Crackers
  • Tiny biscuits, split in half if necessary
  • Melba toasts
  • Polenta cutouts
  • Tiny unsweetened pastry shells
  • Miniature pancakes (short dough, phyllo dough, or other pastry)
  • Profiteroles (miniature unsweetened cream puff shells)

Many of these items, such as crackers and Melba toasts, can be purchased ready-made, but bread and toast cutouts are the most widely used and offer the lowest food cost, though they require more labor.

Untoasted bread for canapés should be firm enough to allow the finished product to be handled easily. It may be cut thick and flattened slightly with a rolling pin to make firmer.

Toast is, of course, firmer, and it gives a pleasing texture and crispness to canapés.


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.

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