Many a gab session of my 1980s suburban youth was fueled by Cool Ranch-flavored Doritos — after school, on a campout, on a sleepover — whenever the girls got together. We'd seek out that tangy, salty flavor, inhale a bag or two, and lick the red, blue and green flecks off our fingers when they were all gone. (Ah, the pre-calorie-counting days.)
Today, ranch flavor is everywhere. American kids love to dip their carrot sticks and broccoli spears and pizza crusts in ranch dressing. It competes with blue cheese as the best happy hour companion to plates of $1 hot wings and bargain beers. In powdered form, it's being mixed into crackers and Chicken Helper.
So it was no surprise that the global information company The NPD Group reported Tuesday that bottled ranch dressing is the No. 1 dressing shipped to the country's cafeterias, restaurants and institutions. Its sales and shipping doubles that of its closest competitor, blue cheese, and no one's even talking about Italian dressing anymore.
But just when you thought the market might be — ahem — saturated, "ranch dressing sales are growing in an otherwise flat category," NPD says.
In fact, ranch dressing has won the Miss Popularity contest for salad toppers for years now, and because it's so adaptable, the NPD folks have dubbed it "the Swiss Army knife" of salad dressings. It might even be the "new ketchup."
But does that tangy, addictive flavor come from an actual ranch?
As it turns out, yes, there is a ranch — the Hidden Valley Guest Ranch just outside Santa Barbara, Calif.
Nebraska-born Steve Henson and his sweetheart, Gayle, bought the property in 1954. "At the ranch, guests enjoyed the great outdoors by day and home-cooked meals by night. But it was something else that brought them back again and again: delicious, homemade buttermilk salad dressing made with a special blend of herbs and spices, lovingly prepared by the proprietor — the Original Ranch® dressing," the website says.
Soon customers were asking for jars to take home, and then the proprietors were packaging the spices for customers to mix at home with their own buttermilk. The spice packets eventually found their way onto supermarket shelves.
As Slate reported back in 2005, the dressing really took off in 1983 when the company (now owned by those masters of clean, Clorox) came out with a shelf-stable version.
"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.)"
The first four ingredients in the latest formulation of Hidden Valley Original Ranch are vegetable oil, water, egg yolk and — you guessed it — sugar. The typical bottle of ranch also includes phosphoric acid, xanthan gum and MSG — things Henson probably wasn't adding back in 1954.
So why do we like it so much?
Lynn Dornblaser, new-product expert at the market research firm Mintel, says it hits all the right flavor notes. "It's cool, creamy, dairy, and it has a little bit of nip to it, but not much."
Its flavor profile is also endlessly versatile, which appeals to younger consumers eager to try new foods.
Ranch dressing-flavored soda, anyone?