When I was growing up, our refrigerator was stocked with a variety of condiments. From sriracha to sambal and lizano to tahini, the shelves were packed with options to accessorize any meal. We even had a corner devoted to mustards, each picked out on weekly trips to Brooklyn’s beloved Eagle Provisions (RIP) and each capable of tickling the tongue’s various flavor geographies (a favorite was a brand of German honey mustard, which possessed a soft smoothness coupled with a fiery after-taste).
One condiment we never stocked, though, was ranch dressing. Perhaps it was my father’s aversion to all things perceived bourgeois, perhaps he didn’t particularly like the taste of ranch (the only creamy condiment we habitually used was blue cheese dressing), or perhaps he never could quite figure out what exactly was ranch’s purpose — I didn’t fully appreciate the dressing until well after college, when I began to date my future wife, who grew up in western Pennsylvania, an epicenter of the dressing.
As I visited her friends and relatives in her hometown of Erie, PA, I came to appreciate the vitality of ranch on a daily basis. My wife used to sell pepperoni balls to raise money for her Girl Scout troop, and each frozen ball of bread and meat was accompanied by a tin of ranch. Restaurants are chosen based on the quality of their ranch dressing (each spot obviously has its own recipe); grocery stores carry a wide swath of options, ranging from the generic buttermilk-based, to ones flavored with cucumber, chipotle, and avocado. Ranch was inescapable, and with good reason: it’s delicious. Ranch has a beguiling and complex profile; not quite dominated by its spice blend, with enough fat and unctuousness to complement nearly every type of food. Ranch doesn’t just go well with salad — it stands up to fried foods and pizza, gives steamed and raw vegetables a flavorful boost, and complements a wide variety of proteins.
Ranch is as American as apple pie or barbecue (in Europe, the dressing is known as “the American dressing“). Created in the 1950s by a plumber from California, the dried spice mix (born of necessity as its creator, Steve Henson, concocted the blend while working construction in Anchorage, Alaska, lacking a consistent source of fresh vegetables and spices) and the subsequent application of buttermilk to make the dressing quickly attained cult status on the west coast, slowly moving eastward one application — from steakhouses to pizza and wings — at a time.
But for decades, ranch was still very much misunderstood, losing favor in the 1970s during a period in which the dressing was banned from diets because it was considered too fatty — our salads were always topped with the “healthier” option containing some form of vinaigrette. Yet there has been an uptick in recent years, which coincides with when I started to fall in love with the condiment. Ranch isn’t a condiment just for gluttonous hangovers or finicky eaters; as Henson likely envisioned when he began mixing, its range is limitless. Ranch has been the nation’s most popular salad dressing since 1990, and Hidden Valley, the Heinz of ranch, even began to market the condiment as “the new ketchup.”
Grub Street’s Chris Crowley documented how ranch has begun to influence not only the palette of mainstream America but also that of chefs, writing in 2016,
Now, ranch is front and center at some of the country’s favorite restaurants. Popular southern-food specialist Bobwhite Lunch Counter opts for ranch in its buffalo-chicken sandwich, while the sandwich artists at Court Street Grocers serve ranch-topped kale salad. Meanwhile, the trendy Mr. Donahue’s serves it with fried onions. At Chicago’s hugely popular neo-diner Au Cheval, ranch dresses a chopped salad with bacon and eggs. In St. Louis, there’s an all-things-ranch-dressing restaurant called twisted RAnCh.
And that popularity hasn’t abated, as restaurants have since begun to tinker with Henson’s recipe and push the bounds of what constitutes ranch. Take Charter Oak in Napa Valley, which now features a fermented soy dip: ““It’s very different from ranch in the way that it’s made. But it’s creamy and tangy, and it has salt and umami, and it definitely reminds people of ranch,” chef Katianna Hong told the New York Times.
When our son began to transition from formula to solid foods, ranch was one of the first condiments dipped on his tongue. He wasn’t a fan, immediately wiping out his mouth, but he’ll learn. It took me 22 years to finally appreciate the American dressing.