The Best Passed Appetizers, Ranked

There's nothing like an amuse-bouche to get the tummy rumbling. And at a large gathering, appetizers can often be more enticing than the main entrée, whether you're catering a wedding, a birthday celebration, a baby shower, a housewarming party, or a black-tie gala. And as the cult comedy Starz series "Party Down" has demonstrated, when the apps are passed by an assembly of dedicated cater waiters, the event's wow factor goes up more than a few notches. The guests are impressed, and the hosts are relieved of serving duties (but also down more than a few dollars).

For less fussy affairs, there should be no need to hire a crew that's donning starchy dress shirts and bow ties. But that doesn't mean you should forego passed appetizers — a well-planned and executed amuse-bouche can add an impressive touch of sophistication or creativity to any event. When planning a gathering, it's always worth taking in the cost-benefit analysis, and passed appetizers are no exception. As you contemplate the menu, consider how well the app will stand the test of time — hot and crispy bites are most vulnerable to getting soggy unless eaten immediately. And, while pricier items might taste delicious, they can be a pain to transport and keep fresh for your guests. Some appetizers check all the boxes — but before we get to the good stuff, let's start with our least favorites of the bunch.

13. Sliders

It's pretty hard to let a platter of piping-hot sliders pass you by. But burgers are best served hot and fresh, and we would argue that a large-scale event is neither the time nor the place to serve them en masse. The meat and cheese are likely to have gone cold, the lettuce has probably gotten limp, and the buns aren't as toasty or may have become soaked with the dressing. Beyond serving up a lackluster dish, why take the risk of filling up your guests' bellies with a bad burger before the main courses arrive? Sliders are also not a quick bite, and with the sauce, there's a high chance of splattering that will stain a nice dress or suit before the event has even truly commenced.

Rather than a pre-dinner passed app, a platter of burger sliders is probably better offered up as an after-party snack when everyone's done a few rounds on the dance floor — and probably at the bar, as well — and worked up a second-round appetite. They might be a bit less discriminating with the content and quality of the food on offer.

12. Crab cakes

For seafood lovers who crave crab, mini crab cakes may seem like a tempting option for a passed appetizer. But this crustacean isn't known for being a cheap product. Unless you pay exorbitant amounts, you likely won't be able to provide the freshly caught, meaty, and extra-crispy bite that one might be accustomed to with crab cakes that are made fresh to order at a restaurant. Unless you're on the coast or working with the best companies, there's a reasonable risk that your caterers are using a lot of bread crumbs and other fillers like eggs and herbs more than the actual shellfish to cut costs. This is a huge drawback when it comes to serving crab cakes as a passed appetizer — and the main reason why it's ranked low for us.

It's also worth considering that crab season varies from region to region. But regardless of the time of year, the high price point of fresh wild-caught seafood makes it unlikely that the lump crab in that cake is coming straight from the sea. If you're hosting an event, it's probably better that you save your budget for other passed appetizers that give you a lot more bang for your buck. And for attendees, you may want to keep your hands off a tray of crab cakes and save your appetite for other bites.

11. Skewers

There are endless options when it comes to skewers. With meats, you can go down a turf route with a range of proteins — consider featuring chicken thighs, sirloin steak, leg of lamb, or pork belly. Prawns, or sturdy fish like sea bass, tuna, salmon, or cod, would make an excellent addition to a seafood skewer. Whatever protein you choose, think carefully about the marinade and how you want it seasoned because skewer flavorings can run the gamut between herbaceous, citrus-tinged, sugar glazed, and extra spicy. You can also load up a skewer purely with greens like tomatoes, peppers, and onions, or even pasta such as cheese-filled tortellini, which will accommodate the vegetarians at your gathering.

Skewers come with benefits and downsides when it comes to passed appetizers, which is why they're lower ranked for us. In the plus column, they're helpfully equipped with a handle, making it easy for both the caterers and guests to serve and be served. But the major strike against skewers, and the reason why they aren't more highly ranked as a passed appetizer, is that they run the risk of going cold and dry. One way you could hydrate your skewers is with an irresistible dipping sauce — try tzatziki for chicken, tartar for shrimp, or chimichurri for beef.

10. Blinis topped with caviar

We could rank a plate of blinis topped with a dollop of crème fraîche and a sprinkling of caviar towards the top of the list of passed appetizers purely for the extravagance factor. But, it's lower on the list for a number of reasons. Hosts should consider that the high salinity levels of inky black sturgeon roe are not to everyone's tastes. Beyond its polarizing salty notes, caviar comes at a notably high cost point — even if you go the Costco route — so, buyer beware.

And it takes a fair amount of time and energy to produce the blini pastry at the base. If you're making your own appetizers, you'll need to whip up the batter, cook them on the griddle, and then ensure throughout the event that those doughy bites are kept at an acceptably warm temperature and maintain a crispy yet tender texture. That's a lot of money and attention to pay to a passed appetizer when you could put your focus on a more exciting entrée.

9. Pigs in a blanket

Pigs in a blanket are a passed appetizer that sits slightly lower in our rankings for a few reasons — and it's not necessarily the dish's fault. The name doesn't help, for starters. What's worse, there are too many slapdash recipes that utilize bland hot dogs and factory-made crescent dough. But, we would make the argument that with a considerate approach, these pigs can fly right off the platter. They won't turn up noses, or snouts, and will open up a lot of mouths. It all comes down to the ingredients.

Pass on Pillsbury and seek out some house-made pastry dough. Or, keep the store-bought bread casing and aim to amp up the porky filling — go with chorizo or andouille for a spicy kick. You can also stick with a mild Italian sausage that's well-seasoned with herbs. For fans of Southeast Asian food, we wouldn't hesitate to use the sweet, sour, and fermented notes of sausage recipes from that region for pigs in a blanket. And definitely have some Mae Ploy sauce available for dipping!

8. Bruschetta

Bruschetta roughly translates from Italian into English as "roast over coals" and while that may be the ideal way to get your bread toasty and add an extra layer of smoky flavor, an oven or gas grill are fine substitutes. Bruschetta is a customizable passed appetizer with a multitude of options when it comes to ingredients and flavors. 

When you know there are vegans and vegetarians in the crowd, it's worth considering bruschetta as a passed app. The standard approach to bruschetta is to rub a clove of garlic on the bread, brush it with olive oil, then toast it. Finish it off with a scattering of chopped tomatoes, and a garnish of herbs followed up with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and salt and pepper seasoning. A tapenade base is one way to jazz it up even further, and a sprinkling of grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese could also give it a boost.

We would rank bruschetta a bit higher, but with the heavy hit of garlic, it may not be the best bite to serve in a large social setting. If you choose to offer it, maybe have a dish of minty Life Savers nearby.

7. Shrimp cocktail

There's a lot that shrimp cocktail can offer as a passed app. Let's start with the fact that it comes with a built-in handle — the ruby red tail is a sturdy vehicle to dip into a delectable tomato-laden cocktail sauce.

Fresh, frozen, wild-caught, or farmed, there are all sorts of ways to buy quality prawns in bulk. This is also a protein that's easy to cook en masse. Look for the aid of a cast iron pan specially devised for shrimp – which will work well in an oven — or a sturdy grill basket for an outdoor cooking situation. Either approach will yield some crispy and juicy crustaceans.

You don't even need a flame to make a savory shrimp-based passed appetizer. You could also find inspiration from south of the border by serving spoonfuls of tangy shrimp ceviche. The magic of acidic citrus juice essentially cooks the shrimp by breaking down the protein, and it can be served with no fuss or muss in cups with disposable forks.

6. Stuffed mushrooms

Stuffed mushrooms are a one-bite wonder. Starting with the shrooms themselves, they're high in protein, vitamin B, and iron (via As for flavor, the gentle earthy notes accompanied by their chewy texture make them an excellent foundation for any number of ingredients. You can go completely vegetarian and stuff the mushrooms with artichoke hearts and Parmesan cheese. Or, cater to the carnivores and fill them with chorizo and ham.

Button mushrooms are an affordable approach to the dish. Additionally, you could consider cremini mushrooms, which are also known as belly bellas because if they hadn't been harvested, they would eventually grow into big, meaty portobellos. But basically, you're looking for a shape that, once the stem is carved out, makes a deep, wide cup-shaped vessel that's ready to hold whatever stuffing mixture you desire.

We would rank stuffed mushrooms higher, but in a passed appetizer situation catering to many guests and where other dishes have equal priority, there's always the risk that they aren't as warm as they should be when they're served.

5. Oysters

Shucks, we really love oysters — and it pains us to not place them on the top of the rankings when it comes to passed appetizers. But seafood is always a risky wager when you're at a social gathering. Putting aside allergy concerns, more often than not, fish isn't going to make you sick. But the question is, when it's a catered event with a lot of guests, are those oysters bought in bulk going to taste good?

It's known that oysters don't travel well and need to be kept on ice. From harvesting to transporting them and finally to serving them fresh, they're a food that requires a lot of effort. They're also hard to pop open unless you're an expert, so there's an added expense that goes into that piece of labor. In the end, these mollusks may taste great, but as a passed app, they end up costing a few clams.

But if you're adamant about having some shells on your passed appetizer menu, as the old adage goes, good things come in small packages. We would concur when it comes to oysters, and would recommend seeking out Kumamotos if you're on the West Coast, as these oysters are small, flavorful, and require little — if any — sauce. However, to make sure every guest is happy, it doesn't hurt to include classic toppers like horseradish, mignonette, and some spicy catsup.

4. Arancini

If you want a crowd-pleasing passed appetizer that doesn't cost a fortune, jump on the arancini bandwagon. This classic Italian recipe of stuffed rice balls gets its name from resembling "little oranges", though it tastes nothing like the citrus fruit. After the frying process, they turn into mini copper-toned basketballs of bliss.

Arancini is higher on our list because the dish can appeal to a wide variety of palates from carnivores to vegetarians to little tykes with picky appetites. Each rice nugget is a bite-sized carb bomb and is often stuffed with cheeses that can span the range of gooey mozzarella, salty parmesan, soft ricotta, or a blend of any of your favorite fromaggi. To add some meat to the bite, consider including ground beef or pork sausage in the stuffing.

Don't forget about dipping sauces either. You can stick with a classic marinara, go green with pesto, or opt for a rich, creamy aioli to give this passed appetizer a few extra layers of flavor.

3. Stuffed endives

Stuffed endives are an ideal base for a passed appetizer as it's a quick bite that whets the appetite and doesn't spoil the upcoming meal. This leafy green is shaped like a sturdy cup and is a great vehicle for fillers. It's slightly bitter in flavor and pairs well with the sweet notes that you would find in fresh fruits such as apples or pears, or maybe dried fruits like cranberries. Round out the bite with crumbles of a salty cheese like feta, and add some crunchy texture with pecans or walnuts.

Stuffed endives also get bonus points for their elegant presentation — the white and chartreuse boats with delicate drops of colorful fillings can look quite striking, and immediately signal that this is a fancy affair. It's also a little-to-no napkin situation if constraint is exercised when it comes to the amount of stuffing.

This is also a dish you don't have to worry about going cold and can be prepared in advance. But in hot, humid weather, you may want to serve stuffed endives as soon as possible so that the leaves don't wilt.

2. Canapés

As far as amuse bouches go, let us say "oui, oui" to canapés. This is the hors d'œuvre you want to serve and be served. They've made appearances at Presidential inaugural celebrations, the Met Gala, and Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex's royal wedding.

The options with canapés are pretty much limitless. The foundation is a bread shell that's ideally equal parts soft, chewy, and crispy. They've been formed into a cup shape to accommodate a wide range of sweet and savory ingredients. When the bake is right, a canapé stands the test of time as a passed appetizer and doesn't get soft or mushy even when it's encasing ingredients high in moisture, which is a quality that makes it a top pick for us when it comes to passed apps.

So, feel free to go with some goat cheese. Lure in hungry guests with smoked fish. Do some duck diving. The world is your oyster. But don't forget the garnishes — they'll add flavor and a valuable pop of color that will make this passed appetizer especially memorable.

1. Flatbread

There are so many ways to flatter flatbread. It's the ultimate tabula rasa of passed appetizers and a savory treat enjoyed across the globe. With its combination of toasty bread and an endless assortment of meats, cheeses, vegetables, and even fruits and nuts, it's an irresistible and tempting bite for all ages and tastes. With flatbread, there can be thick, pillowy crusts that are heated up in wood-fired ovens, as well as thin, crispy wedges that show off the toppings more than the dough.

And the main reason that flatbread tops our list of passed appetizers, is, of course, the toppers. Flatbread is easily customized to suit any event's theme and overall menu. You can try tortilla-based tlayudas from Oaxaca, sail to Hawaii for a taste of sweet and savory with pineapple and ham, go Greek with pita bread accompanied by olives and feta, or copycat California Pizza Kitchen's famous barbecued chicken 'za. 

Flatbread is also a rather affordable option when you're crunching the numbers on a catering budget for your passed appetizers. And, if you don't have a kitchen on-site, there are mobile pizzaiolos out there who are happy to sling up a lot of pies if you want to mix and match ingredients and make flatbread the centerpiece of your festive gathering.