Steve Henson named his land in California Hidden Valley, hence the name of his dressing. (Linda Xiao for The New York Times)
As a young republic, the United States embraced the dressings of many lands: Italian, French, Russian and the magical Thousand Islands. But with the creation — and inexorable rise — of ranch, we have forged the one true American dressing.
Invented in the 1950s, ranch is now the most popular salad dressing in the country, according to a 2017 study by the Association for Dressings and Sauces, an industry group. (Forty percent of Americans named ranch as their favorite dressing; its nearest competitor, Italian, came in at 10 percent.) And it has spread far beyond salad.
It is a routine dip for chicken wings, baby carrots, French fries, tortilla chips and mozzarella sticks. It is incorporated into American classics like macaroni and cheese, fried chicken and potato salad. And it is drizzled over tacos, casseroles and — perhaps most controversially — pizza.
Ranch dressing has inspired fandom beyond food: Sightings include bottles of ranch-flavored soda, ranch fountains at parties, ranch tattoos and memes, even ranch-and-pizza earring sets. It stars in countless videos posted on YouTube by ranch superfans, who pour it on uni, instant ramen, ice cream and more. “Bring me my ranch dressing hose!” commands Homer Simpson, rejecting the sensual attentions of concubines, in a famous dream sequence on “The Simpsons.”
What makes ranch ranch? It’s a combination of creaminess (from buttermilk, sour cream, sometimes mayonnaise) and herbaceousness (often parsley, thyme, dill), plus a long pull of allium (onion and garlic) and a shot of black pepper. Ranch seasoning eliminates the creamy element, making it a dry spice mix like any other, ready to be added to Chex Mix, shaken onto popcorn or mixed into biscuits.
Any home cook can make a lovely, full-flavored ranch dressing using real garlic, freshly ground black pepper and bright green herbs. But the particular flavor of traditional ranch can only be achieved with the dry versions of all those aromatics: garlic and onion powder, dried herbs, powdered pepper and buttermilk.
Steve Henson, a plumber from a tiny village in Nebraska, came up with the dressing mix around 1950, during a stint in Alaska as a construction worker, where he also served as a cook for the crew. In that part of the world, perishable ingredients like fresh herbs, garlic and onions, and dairy products were not common.
By 1954, he and his wife, Gayle, had moved to California and bought a ramshackle property called Sweetwater Ranch, above Santa Barbara, California. 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,” he 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,” Mr. Henson said.
Steve Henson, with his wife, Gayle, came up with the ranch dressing recipe while working in Alaska. (Santa Barbara Historical Museum)
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,” 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.
It began to show up frequently as a dip for French fries, for chips and for Buffalo chicken wings. It is through chicken wings that ranch made the transition to pizza.
Tim McIntyre, a spokesman for Domino’s, said the company added chicken wings to its menu in 1994. Ranch was sent along with each order of wings, but Americans quickly began dunking pizza in the stuff.
“It’s kind of like a whole extra course,” said Alvin Lim, 31, a culinary student. “You eat your pizza, but then you’re probably still hungry, so you stick the crusts in the ranch.”
Back in Santa Barbara, the Hidden Valley Ranch is no more. Steve Henson sold the brand to the Clorox company in 1972 for $8 million; in 2017, Hidden Valley products (there are more than 50) took in over $450 million. But the nearby Cold Spring Tavern, the first place outside the ranch to serve the dressing, is still open — and has been since 1868.
Steve Henson came over one day with a handful of dried herbs and spices, said Debbie Wilson-Potts, the tavern’s unofficial historian. Her grandmother always used the same words to describe that first momentous taste: “It took off in my mouth like a freight train.”
The restaurant still serves the original dressing.
“I think she would come back from the grave and haunt us if we changed it,” Ms. Wilson-Potts said.