Ranch Dressing Stages a Comeback on Snack Menus
Is there a more precise indicator of a substandard slice of pizza than one dipped in ranch dressing? It’s a low point for both the pie and the all-American salad dressing that has endured all manner of culinary indignities, from ranch-flavored taco shells to hummus and even soda. Sometimes it seems as if we as a nation are waterboarding ourselves with Homer Simpson’s proverbial ranch dressing hose.
How did this once-wholesome concoction of buttermilk, mayo, sour cream, parsley, onion, garlic, and salt and pepper come to be so debased? Ranch-flavored kale chips surely weren’t on Nebraska cowboy Kenneth Henson’s mind when he whipped up the dressing to feed his hungry crew while working as a plumbing contractor in Alaska. But he definitely saw its potential when he and his wife opened the Hidden Valley Ranch near Santa Barbara, Calif., and his dressing proved so popular that the couple began bottling it and sending it home with their guests.
They eventually built a plant and began selling dried seasoning packets, with instructions to add buttermilk, making millions after selling the company in 1972. Other companies brought their own recipes to market, and an ocean of ranch flooded the land, deluging carrot sticks, Buffalo wings, fried chicken, burgers, sandwiches, onion rings, tacos, French fries, jalapeño poppers and more.
Since then, ranch, bolstered by the powers of disodium inosinate, modified food starch and monosodium glutamate, achieved peak junk food status.
But real ranch dressing has mounted a comeback among chefs with strong formative taste memories, for whom it’s never been off the table. They’re making their own recipes, adding novel seasonings, culturing their own fresh local buttermilk, and otherwise creating new versions. Ranch’s tangy, soothing sorcery is bewitching us again.
“It really adapts well to multiple flavors,” says Jason McLeod of Ironside Fish & Oyster in San Diego, who dresses his lunch salad with a goat milk yogurt ranch blended with puréed green onion and basil. “There are so many things you can do with it,” he says.
Indeed, ranch is everywhere these days: mixed in the labne served with the lamb kebab at Atlanta’s Yalla, taming the burn from the hot chicken at Saltine in Jackson, Miss., even poured over the chicken milanesa at Trois Familia in L.A. But its partnership with fried food is what makes ranch dressing rule.
“Ranch is indigenous to the United States,” says Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer in Kinston, N.C. “It’s one of the few things that is. And we love fried food here. The two work together.”
Howard serves a fried okra and ranch appetizer with a twist. “I love the juxtaposition between crunchy, hot, steamy things and creamy, cold things, so we just decided to put our ranch in the spinner and make it ice cream,” she says. “For the period of time we have it on the menu, every table gets the ice cream and fried okra.”
“Ranch is creamy and rich and coats fried things really well,” agrees Stephanie Izard of Chicago’s Little Goat Diner, who says her final meal would include French fries dipped in ranch.
“To me it’d be awkward to eat spoonfuls of ranch, so that’s why I put it on fried things.”
Mike Sula’s favorite snack is crispy roast chicken skin.