Reader Ask, I Answer: Ranch Dressing

Question:  “Who invented Ranch Dressing and why is there not a national holiday for this person?” -Amy P  Portland, OR

Answer:  Amen sister. Since 1992 Ranch Dressing has been the most popular salad dressing in the United States, usurping the title from the classic Italian.  As a dip, a bread spread or a veil over salad, this is probably one of the most versatile dressings on the face of the planet.  In fact, if you’re from the west coast and are of a certain age, you probably remember a time when it was difficult to find its blue cheese east coast counterpart as ranch was de rigueur.  Personally, I still enjoy dipping both fries in it and drizzling it over salad at the same meal.

Ranch Dressing is a uniquely Californian variety that originated in the mid fifties at the actual Hidden Valley Ranch outside of Santa Barbara.  (Who knew it existed?) However, the origins of Ranch aren’t really that unique as there were many similar varieties of dairy based salad dressings well before then.

As the well known story goes, in 1954 Steve and Gayle Henson opened the iconic 120 acre Hidden Valley Ranch outside of Santa Barbara. They would entertain visitors with various outdoorsy activities during the day then feed a steak dinner at night (which featured the creamy house dressing on an otherwise ordinary salad).  The house dressing, unlike the various outdoorsy fare, took center stage when people started asking to take some home with them after visiting.  Before you could say “Rawhide!” the Henson’s house dressing was being bottled for guests to take home and was making a tidy profit.  In 1972 Clorox bought the rights to the dressing for a cool eight million dollars, and it caught on like wildfire in the salad accoutrement market once the shelf life of the product was increased.  (Thank you, preservatives!)

The Henson’s recipe for Ranch dressing was amazingly simple to make.  The original Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing was simply mayonnaise, buttermilk, dried parsley flakes, black pepper, monosodium glutamate (MSG), salt, garlic powder and onion powder blended together and chilled.  That’s it.  So where did the Henderson’s get the inspiration for the future locust plauge of salad dressing?

Chances are that they may have riffed off another popular salad dressing of the day, Green Goddess Dressing.  Like Ranch Dressing, Green Goddess Dressing also originated in California.  Phillip Roehmer, chef at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, created the dressing around 1930 to honor the wishes of stage actor George Arliss, star of the play The Green Goddess.  His salad dressing is as follows:

Green Goddess Dressing

-1 cup mayonnaise

-1 clove garlic

-1 Tablespoon French Dressing (oil, vinegar, salt and pepper)

-1 Tablespoon each fineley chopped parsley, chives, tarragon

-4 anchovy fillets

How To:

1. Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl.  Stir to incorporate

2. Check the seasoning and adjust as necessary.

3. Chill the dressing several hours before serving

See how similar they are?

Wherever the Henderson’s got their inspiration from for their salad dressing, this variety really gained popularity as a versatile dressing throughout the 1970′s and 1980′s.  With the mild flavor and production simplicity, it was soon slathered on everything from sandwiches to meat as an alternative to mayonnaise.  Doritos debuted the Cool Ranch variety in 1986, thereby opening the door for endless variety of Ranch flavored chips.  Today, many typical fried finger foods are served with a cup of ranch dressing on the side as a dip.  With the high fat content and afore mentioned mildness, its the perfect choice.

So next time you’re standing in line at the salad bar, take a quick moment to say “Score another one for the West Coast, Betches!” as you ladle on a helping of California food history.

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