With its unique blend of creamy, zesty and herbaceous flavors, ranch dressing is the perfect complement for everything from a fresh green salad to pizza and wings. As a favorite of busy parents with picky eaters, veggie lovers and carnivores alike, it’s no surprise that 40 percent of Americans claim ranch as their dressing of choice. However, even some of the most hardcore ranch fans have no idea about the humble beginnings of their beloved bottles.
Unlike many classic recipes that developed over time with contributions from generations of cooks, ranch dressing has a single origin in the recent past. The creamy, cool phenomenon that captured the tastebuds of a nation was invented by just one person as he toiled away in a rough and challenging work environment more than 70 years ago. So, who exactly invented ranch dressing?
A Delicious Discovery in the Wilderness
The story of ranch dressing begins in 1949 with a Thayer, Nebraska, native named Steve Henson, who moved with his wife to the Alaskan bush. Henson worked as a plumbing contractor and was in charge of feeding the crew. Looking for ways to keep his coworkers happy, he invented a buttermilk-based salad dressing flavored with a savory blend of herbs and spices.
This new dressing was as cool as the chilly climate they were working in, and its rich creaminess hit the spot with the hungry crew. The winning combination of hearty buttermilk and zesty spices transformed simple vegetables into a dish that could keep these hardworking plumbers going all day in the harsh, untamed land. It was no wonder that they asked for Henson's specialty with every meal.
An Unexpected Hit at Hidden Valley
Henson's plumbing business was so successful that he was able to retire at the ripe old age of 35. He used some of his savings to purchase a dude ranch in the San Marcos Pass area of California, which he dubbed the Hidden Valley Ranch. Does that name sound familiar?
When tasked with creating a menu for the ranch's kitchen, Henson decided to serve the dressing that he first created back in Alaska and had been perfecting over the years. The guests were delighted, and the dressing began to appear in local grocery stores as a packaged mix by 1957. Henson also started a mail-order business selling the packets for 75 cents each, an operation that soon took over every room in his home.
The guest ranch closed its doors in the mid-1960s, but Henson's "ranch dressing" business was thriving and outgrew its home-production model by the early 1970s. The Hensons decided to open a factory to manufacture their famous dressing in larger quantities that could be easily distributed to supermarkets nationwide. Their business was incorporated as Hidden Valley Ranch Food Products, Inc.
After moving operations first to Colorado and then to Sparks, Nevada, the Hidden Valley Ranch company was bought out by the Clorox corporation for a cool $8 million in October of 1972, allowing the Hensons to retire for a second time.
A Nationwide Phenomenon
As Hidden Valley took the nation by storm, the ranch wars began to heat up with competitors like Kraft and General Foods offering their own versions of the increasingly popular condiment. Copyright lawsuits flew back and forth between the dressing giants and another unlikely party, the maker of Ranch Style Beans.
Meanwhile, Clorox was busy formulating new versions of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing. The first change was adding dried buttermilk to the packets so that less expensive plain milk could be used to make it, while the shelf-stable bottled version of ranch dressing that we all know and love today rolled onto store shelves in 1983.
Throughout the 1980s, ranch-flavored snack foods like Cool Ranch Doritos and Hidden Valley Ranch Wavy Lays found their way into hungry consumers' hands. Children of the 1990s found whole new ways to enjoy ranch, such as dipping their most-hated vegetables and even their school cafeteria pizza slices in the cool and zesty white stuff. Ranch dressing had thoroughly cemented its place in American food culture.
More Than Just Salad Dressing
Today, ranch dressing is found on almost any savory food you can imagine. Far from its humble origins drizzled atop green salads, ranch adorns burgers, sits alongside crispy chicken tenders and heaping orders of Texas cheese fries, serves as a blue cheese alternative for spicy buffalo wings and goes with pizza like peanut butter goes with jelly.
There are also far more varieties of ranch than Steve Henson could ever have imagined when he whipped together the very first batch in the Alaskan wilderness. Avocado and southwestern ranch dressings have become almost as popular as the original and are often found served with fish tacos or grilled corn, while ranch dressing seasoned with parmesan and garlic has become a staple sauce at many pizzerias.
Ranch lovers on a diet need not worry either. From yogurt-based ranch dressings to zero-carb and vegan versions, there is a ranch for everyone these days. You can even find fat-free and zero-calorie ranch dressing if you want to enjoy that creamy flavor without any guilt whatsoever.
What would a young Steve Henson say if he were told that his work camp recipe would one day take up entire aisles in supermarkets all across the country? No one can say for sure, but if you asked his crew who couldn't get enough of the stuff, they would probably ask you to pass the bottle.