Where did ranch dressing come from?

Friday, September 21st, 2018

Where did ranch dressing come from?

Steve Henson, a plumber from the tiny village of Thayer, Neb., came up with the dressing mix around 1950, during a stint in Anchorage as a construction worker, where he also served as an occasional cook for the crew. In that part of the world, perishable ingredients like fresh herbs, garlic and onions, and dairy products were not easy to come by.

By 1954, he and his wife, Gayle, had moved to California and bought a ramshackle property called Sweetwater Ranch, in the San Marcos Pass above Santa Barbara, Calif. They renamed it Hidden Valley, and opened it as a guest ranch. But according to their son, Nolan Henson, the place became even more popular as a steakhouse, with Steve’s dressing a favorite souvenir.

“It was all dry ingredients the way my dad made it,” said Nolan Henson, now 74, who grew up on the ranch. (Gayle died in 1993, Steve in 2007.)

“People carried it home in mayonnaise jars,” Mr. Henson said. “Seemed like we were always mixing it, and we put it on everything: steaks, vegetables, potatoes.”

Overwhelmed by demand, in the late 1950s the Hensons began packaging the dry ingredients in an envelope that could be presented or mailed to customers, who would add their own buttermilk and mayonnaise at home — much like a boxed cake mix, which was introduced to the mass market by Pillsbury in 1948.

The product was a runaway success. “The dressing pretty much took over the ranch,” said Mr. Henson, who spent hours as a child filling seasoning packets.

With that, ranch began to take over the nation, moving from the West to the Midwest and occupying salad bars through the 1970s; a shelf-stable version arrived on supermarket shelves in 1983. But according to Abby Reisner, the author of the new cookbook “Ranch” (Dovetail Press), ranch madness didn’t go national until 1986, with the introduction of Cool Ranch Doritos, tortilla chips that were infused with a distinctly creamy, oniony bite. Ranch was already popular on its own, but the combination of cream and crunch in one bite — a fusion of dip and chip — turned out to be a masterstroke.

Cool Ranch Doritos opened the door to ranch as a seasoning beyond salad. It began to show up frequently as a dip for French fries (replacing ketchup), for chips (instead of salsa) and for Buffalo chicken wings (pushing aside blue cheese dressing).


Ranch may be a modern phenomenon, but its flavor profile isn’t new at all. Many classic condiments also combine cream (or creaminess) with alliums (the family that includes garlic, onion, leeks and chives). Middle Eastern toum, Mediterranean aioli, Caesar dressing, French onion dip and the pasta sauce “Alfredo” served at places like Olive Garden all have the same profile: a mild, cooling base set against the heat of strong, pungent alliums.

That coolness is what makes ranch an appealing partner for food that is spicy or charred or deep-fried, and many of America’s favorite foods have those flavors front and center. (In case you don’t believe that ranch flavor represents the pinnacle of American culinary achievement, consider that ranch dressing is already called “American dressing” in many European supermarkets, and that the Doritos flavor we know as “Cool Ranch” goes by “Cool American.”)


  1. Graham says:

    Pinnacle, indeed.

    In a mid-run Christmas episode of The Simpsons, Homer crashes his car into a snow-covered fire hydrant.

    He then experiences a gas-fume induced dream in which he is a sultan surrounded by his harem girls, several dancing. He claps his hands and says “Bring me my ranch-dressing hose!” So the girls bring a fire hose connected to a source of the condiment, which they attach to his gaping maw. Pop culture seal of approval.

  2. Juro Meecham says:

    Hmmm, do you really want a Plumber to double as your Cook?

  3. Kirk says:

    I’m unsure of when I first encountered Ranch dressing, but it had to have been in the early 1970s. I remember those early salad dressing bottles where you had the spice package and the little marks for how much oil and vinegar to add, and how making the salad dressing was my part of dinner prep for the family. The first time I saw Ranch, it was the same thing–Roll your own. Heady stuff, for a kid. I think that was probably my first actual foray into cooking, as a matter of fact…

  4. Bob Slob says:

    In 1996, The Onion, a satirical newspaper and website, featured an article with the headline “Doritos Celebrates One Millionth Ingredient”, lampooning Frito-Lay for the sheer number of ingredients found in Doritos.

    Ranch dressing is a type of salad dressing made of some combination of buttermilk, salt, garlic, onion, mustard, herbs (commonly chives, parsley, and dill), and spices (commonly black pepper, paprika, and ground mustard seed), mixed into a sauce based on mayonnaise, or another oil emulsion.

    “Ranch” Doritos on the other hand are composed of over 34, mostly chemical ingredients (like monosodium glutamate, disodium phosphate, 3-4 different colors, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, over 10 chemical flavors for the “cheese” alone, and god knows what else).

    No wonder Americans are continually getting so much fatter & dumber.

    Eventually, every farm will merely be a subsidiary of some globalist chemcial company.

    We’re almost there now.

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