What Is Ranch Dressing?

Ah, “what is ranch dressing?” Something one might utter as a Jeopardy contestant (hopefully during the game and not during the interview segment) but also, a valid question. We all know it’s a sauce…or is it a dip? Well, it’s a dressing, for sure, that’s in the name. Anyway, like it or not, ranch is the flavor on everyone’s mind (and sometimes staining their good shirts) so we’d better learn a thing or two about it. Luckily, I’m here to help—with the info stuff, not your laundry. Sorry, I’m all out of quarters.

What is ranch dressing?

Here are some things it is not: substitution for cream in one’s coffee, an acceptable form of bricklaying mortar, a replacement for glue when taking part in the art of papier-mache (unless you want your project to smell funny for a few weeks). 

Now that we’re all on the same page, we can get down to what ranch dressing really is: America’s favorite salad dressing. That’s no hyperbole! According to a 2017 poll by the Association for Dressings and Sauces, ranch received 40% of the vote, putting it squarely at number one, beating out Italian and waffle batter (which was not in the running, but that means ranch beat it). It’s a tangy and zesty, high in fat, low in effort concoction that adds zing to anything you’re eating. And, let’s face it, it’s one of like three things that will get your gruff dad to order a restaurant salad.

Who invented ranch dressing?

As it stands, ranch dressing’s origins are a little murky, but the commonly accepted story says a plumber-turned-cowboy named Steve Henson (no relation to Jim, but a legacy-leaver just the same) invented ranch in the early 1950s in Anchorage, Alaska. After moving to San Marcos Pass in California, Henson founded the actual, real-life Hidden Valley Ranch. That’s right, it’s a real place just outside of Santa Barbara, which has me hopeful that all that stuff about the North Pole not actually being home to Kris Kringle is B.S as well. While there are no salad dressing rivers like on the bottle, Hidden Valley is now a billion dollar company…not to mention, according to their website, a place where you can get ranch-festooned swim trunks and tablecloths

Henson’s ranch dressing company was originally a mail order business that sold packets of ranch dressing for 75 cents apiece. Must have been a different time, because whenever I send envelopes full of sauce nowadays the postmaster general comes to my house and gives me an earful (of harsh words, not sauce). 

What is in ranch dressing?

The primary ingredients that truly make ranch “ranch” are buttermilk, salt, garlic, onion, mustard, and a melange of herbs and spices, which usually includes pepper, paprika, and ground mustard seed. Some folks like to put their own twist on the dressing to create variations such as the short lived Hidden Valley ranch flavor variations “pizza,” “taco” and “nacho cheese.”  

Hidden Valley was bought by Clorox in the ‘70s and in the ‘80s, Henson’s recipe was overhauled in order to create shelf-stable bottles. That’s why these days you’ll see things like  soybean and canola oil on the label. Don’t shy away. That’s what allows you to enjoy the rich tangy flavor on things like pizza crusts, chicken nuggets, and that nice shirt of yours even longer. 

Best Ranch Dressings

Best Ranch Dressing

Now that you know all about ranch dressing, find out about the best ranch dressing. Click to see the results of our ranch dressing taste test.

About the Author

Joe Rumrill

Joe Rumrill is a fictional one-eyed spinach-loving sailor created in 1929 by E.C Se- Wait, no, that's not right... Joe Rumrill is a stand up comedian and writer currently based in Los Angeles. His favorite thing about food is a close tie between the taste and the nutrients one gets from it. His least favorite thing about it is the "gritty, dirt-like quality some food has", but he's most likely referring to the time in third grade he was dared to eat playground sand.

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