Ranch Dressing Was Actually Invented By A Cowboy On A Dude Ranch

It's difficult to imagine American cuisine without ranch dressing, but such a world actually existed prior to 1950. The gentleman responsible for creating the cool, tangy condiment that is poured over an eye-popping amount of foods is Steve Henson. The story goes that he developed the recipe while working as a plumbing contractor in Alaska during the mid-20th century. He also occasionally cooked for his crew and included his early ranch dressing (which was made with buttermilk, mayonnaise, sour cream, dried parsley, dried onions, dried garlic, MSG, and salt and pepper) as part of the meals.

Henson earned a fortune in Alaska, enough so that he could retire at the age of 35 and move with his wife, Gayle, to a 120-acre California plot called Sweetwater Ranch. After renaming the property Hidden Valley, the couple opened it up as a highly entertaining dude ranch, complete with parties and food that was accompanied by — you guessed it — Henson's dressing. 

Guests loved it so much, they often brought some home with them in glass jars. Nearby restaurants and food stands also took notice and began selling the dressing at their own businesses. Little did Henson know, his dressing would shortly take the country by storm.

Ranch dressing mania began in the 1980s

The demand for Steve Henson's ranch dressing became so high that he and his family began packaging the dried ingredients in envelopes and mailing them to customers for 75 cents a pop. All people had to do was mix the package with the wet ingredients to create the dressing (much like people still do today with envelopes of Hidden Valley Ranch mix). 

Word of the dressing slowly began to spread throughout the country, popping up in restaurants and salad bars. In 1972, Clorox bought Hidden Valley Ranch for $8 million, and by 1983, bottles of pre-made dressing were available in grocery stores.

But, what made ranch dressing a household name and a nationwide obsession? The year was 1986 and the product was Cool Ranch Doritos. The introduction of the chip flavor basically opened up the idea that ranch wasn't just a salad dressing flavor, but it was a certifiable seasoning that could go beyond iceberg lettuce to things like pizza, french fries, chicken wings, chicken nuggets, tater tots, and countless dips. 

Because Henson only trademarked the term "Hidden Valley Ranch" and not "ranch dressing," other companies were able to use the term to describe their own similar products. And so, ranch dressing has become a slice of Americana, a beloved staple in countless households and restaurants, and it all stemmed from a retired plumber who decided to become a rancher.

Ranch dressing works on everything

Although some believe ranch dressing is an overused condiment, and it can make pizza purists' blood boil, the creamy concoction is actually a well-balanced and flavorful creation for a number of dishes. It's cool, peppery, and full of yummy umami flavors from the garlic and onion — and it truly makes a delicious foil for things like spicy wings and tangy tomato-sauce laden pizza (there, we said it), not to mention classic green salad. There certainly is no shortage of brands that make the dressing but creating your own is a snap, too.

Homemade ranch dressing can get its thickness from Greek yogurt, sour cream, buttermilk, mayonnaise, or a combination of these ingredients plus plenty of dried herbs like parsley, garlic, and onion. Other options like dill, chipotle peppers, shredded cucumber, or even taco seasoning can change the classic flavor into something unique that can top a number of dishes, much to the joy of fans everywhere.