What Are Canapés?

A tray of canapés.

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A canapé (pronounced "can-a-PAY") is a type of hors d'oeuvre, or small, easy to eat food, made with a base of a small piece of bread or pastry with a variety of toppings, and traditionally served before dinner, usually with cocktails. 

These finger foods are made to be held with one hand, so that you can hold a drink in your other hand, and eaten in a single bite (or two at the most), to make it less messy. 

Hors D'oeuvres vs. Canapés

Some people may use the term hors d'oeuvres and canapé interchangeably, but a canapé is a type of hors d'oeuvre. In other words, all canapés are hors d'oeuvres, but not all hors d'oeuvres are canapés.

Hors d'oeuvres are finger food, small one- or two-bite items that are served before dinner, usually accompanied by cocktails. As such, hors d'oeuvres are food you eat standing up. They can be passed around on a tray by a server or presented on a buffet table, but they are something that guests enjoy either before dinner, or sometimes (like at a cocktail party) instead of dinner. 

Examples can include small items served on a skewer, stick or toothpick such as grilled shrimp, satay chicken skewers, or cheese and fruit kebabs; small fried items such as turnovers, empanadas, samosas, and egg rolls are often served with a dipping sauce; as well as deviled eggs, crudités, or even a bowl of nuts. 

Parts Of The Canapé

But one of the most common types of hors d'oeuvres are canapés. Canapés traditionally consist of four main parts:

  • A base of a small piece of bread, pastry or crackers. Crostini and bruschetta are classic examples of canapés. Modern canapés may use a cracker, a small pancake (called blini) or even a pastry shell as the base.
  • A flavorful spread such as butter, flavored cream cheese or mayonnaise. The spread adds moisture and flavor while also forming a barrier so that the bread underneath doesn't become soggy. It also serves as a sort of glue, so that the toppings are less likely to slide off the base. 
  • A topping of meat, seafood, vegetable, fruit or whatever. This is the primary ingredient of the canapé, and the more luxurious the better: steak, prosciutto ham, smoked salmon, lobster and shrimp are excellent choices. 
  • A garnish, usually something small, like tiny minced onions, herbs or caviar.

While there's no rule that canapés can't feature more than one topping, such as a meat and a vegetable, the best canapés are simple in their construction, so that they don't topple over or make a mess while eating. Nor is it always possible to set your drink down to tackle some piece of food that requires two hands or multiple bites. Indeed, one advantage of canapés is that guests never have to worry about what to do with their used toothpick or skewer.

And while it is acceptable for a canapé to require two bites, a single bite is better. And if the guest does have to bite the item in half, it should yield easily and not require excessive gnawing or twisting to break it apart. For instance, crusty baguette should be sliced thinly and toasted, so that it becomes crispy rather than chewy. Neatness and ease of eating are paramount. 

By the same token, a single-bite canapé should not overstuff the guest's mouth. A single bite should be a single manageable bite.

When it comes to flavor, however, canapés should pack a punch. Whether they're a quick nibble served before dinner, or the dinner itself, canapés have to compete with the flavor of the cocktails that accompany them. As such, bold, spicy, tangy flavors are definitely the goal.

How Many Canapés Per Person?

As we discussed, canapés are served with cocktails, either before dinner, or instead of dinner. And depending on what the scenario is, you'll need a different number of canapés per guest.

If you're serving canapés prior to serving a sit-down dinner, you don't want the guests to fill up. In this case, two to three canapés per person is adequate. But if you're hosting a cocktail party with no dinner, then figure 4 to 6 canapés per person for the first hour, and then 2 to 4 pieces per hour after that. Which means if your party will last two hours, you'd need 6 to 10 pieces per person in total.

It's also a good idea to provide a mix of hot and cold items, as well as a variety of meat, seafood and vegetarian options. 

Tips For Making Canapés

One great way to make canapé bases is by using fluted cutters to cut rounds out of slices of plain white or wheat bread. The two-inch cutter is usually about right, and depending on the size of your slice of bread, you can cut three or four bases out of each slice. Make sure you stay within the crusts when cutting your bases. 

Once the rounds are cut out, arrange them on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven at 350 F for five minutes or so. You want your rounds crispy, but not crumbly. They should be firm enough so they don't start to droop or sag when someone picks one up, but not so brittle that they break apart when someone bites into one.