There is a great Simpsons episode in which Homer, overcome by carbon-monoxide fumes, hallucinates that he is an Ottoman sultan. Though he is surrounded by gyrating concubines, the Simpson family patriarch is not satisfied. “I grow weary of your sexually suggestive dancing,” he says. “Bring me my ranch-dressing hose!” Within seconds, the women are blasting him with a geyser of gooey ranch.
Homer’s tastes are meant to reflect those of the American everyman, and in this case the Simpsons writers nailed it: Ranch dressing has been the nation’s best-selling salad topper since 1992, when it overtook Italian. How did this simple mixture of mayonnaise, buttermilk, and herbs become America’s favorite way to liven up lettuce?
In the early days, ranch dressing didn’t seem likely to take Italian’s crown. It was a strictly local delicacy—the pride of Steve and Gayle Henson, a couple who’d opened a dude ranch near Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1954. Visitors to the Henson spread, known as Hidden Valley Ranch, came for the horseback riding, but they frequently left with fonder memories of Steve’s special dressing. The Hensons began to give their guests to-go bottles, and eventually they started a small plant where they manufactured packets of ranch seasoning for the retail market.
The packets were problematic: You had to blend the herbs with both mayonnaise and buttermilk to create the dressing, and very few households kept a spare carton of buttermilk in the fridge. But the Hensons’ product sold reasonably well, and in 1972, the Clorox Company bought the Hidden Valley Ranch brand for $8 million.
Before ranch could become a national favorite, however, the scientists at Clorox had to reformulate the original recipe and make it easier to use. First, the great minds behind Pine-Sol and Liquid-Plumr added butter flavoring to the seasoning so home chefs could make the dressing with plain milk. But the real breakthrough came in 1983, with the debut of bottled—or, in the lingo of the dressing industry, “shelf stable”—Hidden Valley Ranch. At that time, more and more dressings were being sold in nonrefrigerated bottles; today, according to the market-research firm Mintel, shelf-stable dressings account for 82 percent of sales in the $1.7 billion industry. Ranch presented a serious challenge, because its high dairy content makes it susceptible to quick spoilage. But Clorox managed to add the right blend of preservatives to give the dressing a shelf life of approximately 150 days. (The science behind Clorox’s innovation is secret, though it’s a safe bet that Steve Henson’s original recipe didn’t call for calcium disodium ethylenediaminetetraacetate.)
Once ranch was available in a bottle, Americans fell in love with its rich-yet-inoffensive taste. It is devoid of potentially objectionable ingredients, such as chili sauce (a key component in Thousand Island) or anchovies (found in Caesar and Green Goddess). And perhaps more important, ranch is fattier than humdrum Italian, which is basically a gussied-up vinaigrette. Ranch dressing, which arrived at a time when mayo had gained a reputation as a diet-buster, was essentially a socially acceptable form of the gloopy condiment. It quickly became the preferred way to infuse otherwise healthy dishes with a palatable amount of fat. The salads offered by chains such as Little Caesars or McDonald’s were soon accompanied by packets of ranch, to the chagrin of nutritionists.
Ranch became increasingly popular in the mid-to-late ‘80s, when executive chefs at casual-dining and fast-food companies began to use it as a moistening agent for their processed grub. Ranch worked well on burgers and sandwiches because it’s thinner than mayonnaise, which skeeves out some consumers with its texture, but thicker than oil and vinegar, which can seep into bread and turn it soggy. During the wrap craze of the 1990s, ranch became a key condiment on such products as KFC’s Twisters, and it also turned up in a wide range of dishes at chains like Applebee’s (where the Tequila Lime Chicken is smothered in “Mexi-ranch”) and Chili’s (which pioneered chipotle-flavored ranch). And as a flavoring, ranch got another boost from chipmaker Frito-Lay, which created the wildly successful Cool Ranch Doritos in 1987. Recipes cannot be patented, so Clorox could not prevent Kraft or Unilever (which owns the Wish-Bone brand) from creating their own ranch dressings, to say nothing of preventing snack-makers from inventing ranch-flavored chips. Clorox made the best of this situation, though, by partnering with Frito-Lay in 1994; the duo then released Hidden Valley Ranch Wavy Lay’s.
Will ranch forever dominate the dressings realm? At the moment, there are no obvious contenders for the top slot (although honey Dijon, the seventh most popular dressing, has been making impressive strides). But recent instances of ranch-based decadence suggest that perhaps a backlash is in order. In the last few years, restaurateurs—inspired in large part by the rising popularity of Buffalo wings, which are traditionally accompanied by a bowl of blue cheese dressing—have begun to offer ranch as a dipping sauce. Chili’s, for example, created a wasabi-ranch dressing to accompany its boneless Shanghai wings. And numerous Pizza Hut franchises in the South began offering cups of ranch alongside their pies, after a few franchisees discovered that teenagers were dipping their slices in the dressing. Although dunking one’s pizza in ranch dressing is a culinary act best described as arterial suicide, the company took the concept nationwide earlier this year with the debut of the Dippin’ Strips Pizza, which is precut into easily dippable ribbons and served with ranch “sauce.” Short of being blasted in the face with a ranch-dressing hose, that’s about as intense a fat rush as the human body can handle.
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