What is Tapenade?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Tapenade is an olive-based spread common in Mediterranean cuisine. The most traditional recipe involves only a few ingredients, including black olives, caper berries, olive oil, and anchovies that are mashed together into a thick paste. That paste can then be spread on toast, used to flavor meats, or eaten as a dip. The dish dates back to Roman times, but is popular all over the world today, and comes in many different variations.

Bowl of tapenade.
Bowl of tapenade.


Making tapenade is generally very easy, though it can take a bit of time. The most traditional preparation method requires the cook to mash all ingredients together with a mortar and pestle. Ideally, the end result will be chunky, but well blended. Similar results can be achieved in a food processor, or simply by chopping all ingredients into very small pieces and blending with a spoon.

Tapenade served with a slice of bread.
Tapenade served with a slice of bread.

Most cooks recommend letting the spread rest for a few hours before serving so that all of the flavors can blend together. Tapenades are usually served at room temperature, though most will keep for up to a month in the refrigerator, longer if topped with a layer of olive oil. The oil will act as a preservative to help keep the ingredients fresh.

Tapenade usually contains capers.
Tapenade usually contains capers.

Common Variations

Although olive tapenades are by far the most common, there are many variations on the traditional recipe. Some chefs use different varieties of olives to create interesting flavor combinations, and infused oils can also impact the taste. Adding outside ingredients is also common. The following is a list of some of the most popular additions:

Artisan bread, which is served with tapenade.
Artisan bread, which is served with tapenade.

Mushrooms are a common addition to tapenade.
Mushrooms are a common addition to tapenade.
Fresh black olives.
Fresh black olives.

Popular Uses

Tapenade can be served with vegetables, fish, or meat, and is sometimes used as a stuffing. It can also be enjoyed on its own, often spread on artisan bread or crackers. Some use it as a sandwich spread, while others use it to top baked potatoes or to create an innovative pasta sauce.

Garlic is sometimes roasted and used in tapenade.
Garlic is sometimes roasted and used in tapenade.

Adding the spread to butter is also popular in many places. This sort of flavored butter can be used as a meat garnish or inserted under a chicken or turkey’s skin before roasting in order to give the meat flavor. It can also be formed into a log, chilled, and served in slices alongside warm bread.

Differences from Pesto

It can be easy to confuse tapenade with olive pesto, as the two often look very similar and are used in many of the same ways. The main difference is in the ingredients, with pestos typically featuring both cheese and nuts. While nuts are sometimes added to tapenades, cheese almost never is.

Mediterranean Origins

Even the earliest tapenades centered on olives, though the word “tapenade” derives from the old Provencal word for caper, “tapeno.” Provence is a region of France situated on the Mediterranean Sea, and is where the spread is believed to have originated. The name likely comes from the way in which Provence’s early residents stored caper berries. Despite the name, recipes for tapenade date back to Roman times.

When the berries, also known as buds, were ready for harvesting, farmers would collect and store them in tightly packed jars of olive oil. This preserved the berries, but also caused them to break down slightly. Upon removal, cooks often found more of a caper paste than distinct buds. Adding olives and anchovies results in what today is commonly known as tapenade.

Anchovies are commonly used in traditional tapenade.
Anchovies are commonly used in traditional tapenade.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments

Tapenade is a great way to make an ordinary brushcetta a lot more interesting.

Many of us have eaten so much bruschetta in our lives that there is not much to get excited about. But the addition of tapende give the dish a richness and saltiness that the traditional version lacks.

@vigilant - That sounds amazing, but kalamata olives are so expensive. I would eat a lot more of them, but when you do the math you pay something like 40 cents an olive.
I have an amazing kalamata olive tapenade recipe that I found in a magazine a few years back. It only has a few ingredients, but it has tons of flavor. I love to serve it at parties and events because it is easy to make, but everyone loves it.

How long will the tapenade last? Can you freeze it?


@Markus - Pesto is a sauce that originated in Genoa, Italy. A good pesto recipe will generally include pine nuts and Parmesan cheese.

Olive tapenade recipes do not include cheeses. Its main ingredient is olive because it originated in the Mediterranean area where it has always been an abundant crop.

A chef at Maison Doree in Marseilles invented the classic recipe for black olive tapenade over 100 years ago. And just like the pesto, there are many variations to it.


@Markus - That's a very good question and you're right, they are very similar. But pesto's are herb based, usually with basil and tapenades are olive based. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference with all the variations over the years to the basic recipes.


What's the difference in a recipe for green olive tapenade and a recipe for olive pesto? Basically the same ingredients are found in both recipes and they're both spreads.


@dega2010: This is a really tasty tapenade recipe: ½ lb. mixed olives, 1 anchovy fillet (rinsed), 1 small garlic clove (minced), 2 Tbsp. capers, 3 basil leaves, 1 Tbsp. lemon juice and 2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil.

Rinse the olives well. Place all of the ingredients in a food processor. Process them until well combined or until the mixture becomes a paste.


Does anyone have an easy recipe for tapenade?


Some great alternatives to the traditional tapenade for those of you that want to mix it up include roasted bell pepper tapenade, eggplant tapenade, and fig and walnut tapenade. Yum!

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