How Ranch Dressing Became the All-American Condiment

Though it has humble origins, the product has become one of the most ubiquitous condiments in the U.S.
Ranch dressing: the highlight of any veggie tray.
Ranch dressing: the highlight of any veggie tray. / Kevin Trimmer/Getty Images

Ranch is the unofficial mother sauce of American cuisine. Though it’s a salad dressing by name, the famous flavor can be found everywhere from dive bars to the snack food aisle. As one of the best-selling condiments in the United States, it’s as much a part of the country’s fabric as apple pie, but it appeared on the culinary scene more recently than other American classics. 

Who invented ranch dressing?

Before making a name for itself in California and then sweeping the Midwest, ranch dressing got its start farther north, in Alaska. A Nebraskan named Steve Henson moved there around 1950 to work as a plumbing contractor in a remote part of the state. He also prepared meals for his crew—and fresh ingredients were hard to come by in the Alaskan Bush. Desperate to keep his men happy, he whipped up a creamy buttermilk salad dressing flavored with shelf-stable ingredients: Dried herbs, black pepper, onion powder, and garlic powder introduced strong, savory flavors to the tangy dairy base. 

Baby carrots, celery sticks and a bowl full of ranch dressing
Ranch has come a long way since its humble beginnings. / Roberto Machado Noa/GettyImages

The concoction was a hit among the workers, but it didn’t gain its name or its national reputation until Henson moved to California with his wife, Gayle, in 1954. There they bought Sweetwater Ranch and renamed it Hidden Valley. They converted the 120-acre property into a combination “country club, nightclub, and dude ranch” for visitors looking for a glamorized taste of cowboy life. The attraction also functioned as a steakhouse, with Gayle herself cooking up to 300 steak dinners on their busiest nights. The most popular item they served was Steve’s herb, mayonnaise, and buttermilk mixture. According to ranch employee Alan Barker, it was clear from the start that the condiment was good for more than dressing lettuce. “We ate it on everything from steaks to, in a comical moment, ice cream,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1987.

The dressing was so in-demand that guests started purchasing mayonnaise jars full of the stuff to bring home as souvenirs. The Hensons eventually got the idea to sell it as a powdered mix customers could stir into their own salad dressing base at home. They shipped these seasoning packets across the country, and soon Hidden Valley Ranch was a national brand. In 1972, the Clorox Company purchased it from the Hensons for $8 million (an amount that would be equivalent to nearly $60 million today). A decade later, the first bottles of pre-made, shelf-stable ranch appeared in supermarkets, which further boosted the dressing’s popularity.  

Why is ranch dressing popular in the Midwest?

While Hidden Valley was and remains the most popular ranch brand, imitators were quick to begin churning out their own versions of Henson’s recipe. Soon the term ranch was as generic as ketchup or buffalo. Its place in the mainstream became undeniable in 1986, when Doritos launched its Cool Ranch flavor featuring onion, garlic, and buttermilk; the success of the new snack food raised the profile of the condiment itself. By 1992, ranch was officially the most popular product in the salad dressing aisle, ousting Italian for the top spot.  

While ranch is consumed across the country, it’s especially beloved by Midwesterners. There you’re less likely to get dirty looks for adding it to your pizza—or even your Bloody Mary. The region’s obsession with the condiment may be explained by its ubiquity in fast food. According to Indianapolis’s Do317, many fast food chains test new products at their Midwestern locations before rolling them out nationally. When pizza chains like Domino’s and Little Caesar’s started experimenting with ranch as a dipping sauce, Midwestern customers were the first to fall in love with the concept, and they never looked back. Hidden Valley Ranch was also accessible throughout the region thanks to the company’s plant in Wheeling, Illinois.

Invented in Alaska, popularized in California, and embraced by the Midwest, ranch is truly the all-American condiment.

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