What are Canapés?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Canapés are hors d'oeuvres made with a base of bread or crackers, and topped with an assortment of small, usually savory toppings. Typically, they are served before dinner in a drawing room or lounge area, along with an assortment of other appetizers. Most cooks and caterers produce an assortment of options, so that guests can try out numerous different flavors. They may also be used as a standalone food item, in the case of things like receptions for art shows and theatre performances.

Canapés with cheese, tomato, olive and basil.
Canapés with cheese, tomato, olive and basil.

The word is French, and derived from the Greek konopeion, for a bed or couch with protective mosquito curtains. In French, the word describes curtains in general, and it may have been adopted for the appetizer in a reference to the fact that the bread base is draped or covered with food items. In other Romance languages, such as Spanish, the term refers to a couch, showing how an original word can diverge in meaning widely, even in a related language family.

Shrimp canapés.
Shrimp canapés.

The base of all canapés is some type of bread. Traditionally, they have been made with stale white bread that is toasted, sauteed, or fried to turn it golden and crispy. Crackers may also be used. The bread is cut out in a geometric shape, commonly a square, although triangles, circles, rectangles, and other shapes may be used. Some caterers use their shapes as a code, so that they can readily distinguish between different options when asked about them by guests.

Salmon canapés with crème fraîche, caviar and dill.
Salmon canapés with crème fraîche, caviar and dill.

Next comes a thin layer of a spread, which is usually dairy based. A flavored butter or cream cheese is a common choice, with the flavor complementing the next layer, a main focal point such as cheese, meat, or vegetables. Next, the food is topped with a garnish to make it more formal, decorative, and flavorful. Caviar, herbs, scallions, and flavored oils such as truffle oil are common choices of garnish.

Canapes are often garnished with caviar.
Canapes are often garnished with caviar.

The flavor of canapés is rarely neutral. Most often, they are made salty or spicy so that they complement the drinks being served with them. They may be served hot or cold, and are intended to be eaten with the fingers from a canapé plate, a small dish which holds each guest's individual appetizers. Large platters of the hors d'oeuvres may be carried around a party or laid out on large buffet tables.

A related appetizer is the vol au vent, an hors d'oeuvre made with filled puff pastry. The pastry is shaped almost like a thimble, designed to accommodate a small and flavorful taste of food. It is also garnished, and may be available in a wide assortment of flavors at a large party.

Caviar canapés with sour cream and basil.
Caviar canapés with sour cream and basil.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


@lighth0se33 – One of my favorite canapes recipes is a sweet one. The base is a simple sugar cookie, and the topping is cream cheese with strawberries and kiwis.

It reminds me of the larger strawberry kiwi pizza I made that was so delicious. You might want to mix powdered sugar with the cream cheese for a little extra sweetness, particularly if the fruit is not in season and might be a bit tart.

If you aren't a fan of kiwis, you could always use blueberries instead. I've even had raspberry and blueberry topped canapes that were scrumptious.


Can anyone tell me some ideas for sweet canapes? I'm throwing a party for my best friend on her birthday, and I want to have a mix of savory and sweet canapes. I won't be serving an actual dinner, so I need to have a variety of appetizers to keep everyone from getting hungry.


I used to love these simple shrimp canapes on the appetizer menu at my favorite restaurant. The grilled shrimp was flavored with garlic and butter and served on a cream-cheese coated piece of tiny toast.

You could get four canapes on a plate. I could have eaten many more than this, but since it was only on the appetizer menu, I had to settle for eating them slowly and enjoying every bite.

The canapes always got me in the mood for the grilled shrimp platter as a main course. Since it was one of the more expensive items on the menu, I can't help but wonder if this was the plan all along!


Salmon canapes are very unappetizing to me. I was at a party where these were being served, and I didn't know that the fish had only been steamed and not fully cooked.

It tasted raw, and it had that slimy texture that is so gross. It really felt like fish before it is baked. I won't be eating salmon canapes anymore!


I too was looking for the fruit from the Bahamas! It's been about 20 years since I've had them.


I was trying to look up a small fruit called a canape, found in the Bahamas during the summer months--similar in size to a small lime--has a thin green skin and a large smooth pit, and the pit is covered with a very tasty, orangeish coloured, sweet fibrous "meat".

Not an appetizer.


what is different between au jus and brown sauce.


To distinguish some similar terms:

an hors d'oeuvre is typically cooked (so no pieces of cubed cheese, for example)

appetizers are typically larger than hors d'oeuvre and can include uncooked things like veggies

capapes are a type of hors d'oeuvre but they typically have a base (like a cracker) a topping and then a garnish on top of the topping

I always confuse them. Hope it helps.

Post your comments
Forgot password?