Looking for a new dip or appetizer recipe? Try Ajvar, a roasted red pepper spread hailing from the Balkans that’s deep in flavor and absolutely delectable when served with crusty bread and clotted cream. Not only does charring sweet red peppers make your home smell amazing, but the bold flavor is unbeatable. Enjoy this dip as written, then explore this recipe with eggplant and/or chiles added.
Ajvar (I-var) is a flavorful roasted red pepper spread originating in the Balkans. It’s made with just a few ingredients, and it’s naturally gluten-free and vegan, making it a great option to serve for nearly any ground of dinner guests.
Sweet red peppers, and sometimes eggplant, are charred over a fire, peeled, and pureed. The mixture is seasoned with vinegar, garlic, and salt.
This tangy, slightly sweet—and sometimes spicy—red pepper spread is served either hot or cold, and is delicious either way!
History of Ajvar
There’s some discussion regarding where ajvar actually originated from. It’s been popular in Serbia and other Balkan nations, including Bulgaria, Croatia, and Macedonia, for centuries. Each country has its own slightly different way of making this red pepper relish. Traditionally, ajvar is made using the ajvarka or ‘kurtovska kapija’ variety of sweet red pepper, which is local to that area of the world.
In early autumn, at the peak of pepper season, families gather to prepare large batches of ajvar to last through winter, until the following summer. Bushels of sweet red peppers are slow roasted outdoors until charred, creating a delicious smoky flavor.
Once the peppers are thoroughly roasted, they are peeled, finely chopped, and slowly cooked over low on the stovetop with garlic, olive oil, vinegar and salt until a thick purée is formed.
The mixture is then placed in a glass jar with a lid and stored in a cool, dark place, allowing it to stay fresh through the winter season.
Depending on tradition, some regions include roasted eggplant in their ajvar, in addition to the red peppers. The addition of eggplant is not necessary, but it can create a slightly more mild flavor.
How to Make Ajvar
Making ajvar from scratch is a lengthy process since cooking low and slow brings out the pepper’s robust flavors. Since the traditionally used European sweet peppers are uncommon in many other parts of the world, you can make ajvar using red bull’s horn peppers or even red bell peppers instead.
There isn’t really a wrong way to make ajvar, but there are different ways to make it.
Some prefer to purée the red peppers into a smooth spread, while others leave the mixture a bit chunky. Ajvar can also be made mild or spicy, depending on preference. Hot ajvar is made using a mixture of sweet peppers and hot chilies.
- Sweet red peppers
- Eggplant (optional)
- Olive oil
1. Begin by slow roasting the red peppers (and eggplant, if using) until thoroughly charred. If you don’t have a charcoal grill, you can oven roast, broil, or char over a gas stovetop. You can find our tips for perfectly roasted peppers, using 4 different methods, here. For this recipe, we chose to go with the oven-roasted method.
2. Next, remove skin and seeds from the peppers and place in a food processor, along with garlic cloves. Process until roughly chopped.
3. Add olive oil, vinegar, and salt and process once more. Pour mixture into a saucepan.
4. Simmer ajvar on low, stirring often, until a thick puree is formed (about 30 minutes).
5. Once cooled, place ajvar in a glass container and refrigerate until ready to use. Fresh ajvar is best if eaten within one week.
What to Eat With Ajvar
Ajvar is frequently served alongside fresh bread and meats—particularly ćevapi, small sausages also native to the Balkan region. It makes a delicious spread on a slice of crusty bread, especially when paired with kajmak (kai-mak), a cheese-like product similar in texture to clotted cream or whipped cream cheese. It’s also often served with burek, a phyllo pastry filled with meat, cheese, or potatoes.
Truly though, the greatest thing about ajvar is its versatility. Don’t be afraid to try it in a non-traditional way—as a dip for veggies or crackers, a substitute for pasta sauce, or on pizza, perhaps! It also pairs nicely with roasted meats and veggies, or as a condiment on sandwiches. Basically, you can use ajvar in nearly any way you’d use ketchup, tomato sauce, or hummus—it’s just that good.
Absolutely! While some regions include roasted eggplant in their ajvar, many people make ajvar using only roasted red peppers. Do whichever you’d prefer!
Ajvar is traditionally made using long, sweet red peppers. If you cannot find them, you can roast red bell peppers instead.
We’ve tested this recipe with jarred roasted red peppers, and while it was still good and definitely saved on time, we still preferred the taste of the fresh roasted version.
Store bought ajvar is shelf-stable until opened. Once opened, it’s best kept refrigerated. If making fresh ajvar, store the puree in a glass container and keep it refrigerated.
An unopened jar of processed ajvar will stay fresh for 4-6 months. Once opened, ajvar is best consumed within 7-10 days. Homemade ajvar should be consumed within a week of preparing.
Yes! You can freeze ajvar, just like you’d freeze pasta sauce. When ready to eat, simply remove from the freezer and allow to defrost in the refrigerator before use.
If making your own ajvar isn’t on your must-try list, shelf-stable ajvar can often be found at European grocery stores. However, if you don’t live near a city with a European grocery store, don’t worry—you may be able to find ajvar at certain grocery chains. It’s often labeled as roasted red pepper spread, not Ajvar.
Check out your local Big Lots; many carry roasted red pepper & eggplant spread from a brand called Konex Foods.
If you frequent Trader Joe’s, you’re in luck! TJ’s makes their own roasted red pepper spread, which also includes eggplant. It’s delicious and a great alternative to making your own if you can’t find the authentic European ajvar.
More Dip Recipes to Try
Ajvar (Roasted Red Pepper Dip)
- 5-6 sweet red peppers*
- 2 garlic cloves
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt + more to taste
- Optional: Eggplant or chilies
- Preheat oven to 425°F (218ºC). Place peppers on a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes on the top oven rack. Using tongs, rotate peppers and roast for an additional 20 minutes, until softened and charred.
- Transfer peppers to a bowl with a tight fitting lid. Let steam/cool until they are cool enough to handle.
- Remove skin, stems and seeds from the peppers.
- Place peppers and garlic cloves in a food processor and pulse until roughly chopped.
- Add olive oil, vinegar and salt and process once more until desired texture is achieved.
- Next, pour red pepper mixture into a saucepan and simmer on medium-low, stirring frequently, until a thick puree is formed—about 30 minutes.