Although it first began showing up on supermarket shelves in the early 60s where I grew up, I really don’t recall its popularity soaring until some twenty years later while I was cooking in New York City. It was there in the “big city” that I started to think, “Folks are so crazy about this stuff that I’m surprised they don’t put it on their breakfast cereal.” Now don’t get me wrong, I like ranch dressing. But there are other dressings I like on my salads just as well, and in some cases, better.
So where and how did ranch dressing begin? And why is it so damned popular?
It all started in 1949 when plumbing contractor Kenneth (he later changed his name to Steve) Henson and his wife Gayle took a job in the remote Alaskan bush. In addition to his plumbing skills, Henson also loved to cook and consequently prepared most of the meals for his crew. It was during these years that he began to develop what eventually became ranch dressing, constantly tweaking the recipe until it had the perfect flavor profile–creamy, cool, with just the right amount of twang.
In 1954, the Hensons decided to leave Alaska and retire in sunny California. But retirement wasn’t for Henson and he began searching for something productive to fill his time. It wasn’t too long before he heard that the Sweetwater Ranch, nestled in the mountains of San Marcos Pass outside of Santa Barbara, was for sale. Steve had always dreamed of becoming a rancher, so in 1956 he and Gayle purchased the picturesque 120 acre ranch, promptly renaming it Hidden Valley Guest Ranch.
During the day, ranch guests enjoyed a plethora of outdoor activities ranging from riding to hiking, from fishing to swimming. Guests also enjoyed great home-cooked meals and freshly prepared salads, always dressed with the buttermilk dressing Henson had perfected while in Alaska. As the word spread about this unique dressing, folks began to frequent the guest ranch as much for the opportunity to sample the special concoction of herbs, spices, buttermilk and mayonnaise as for the activities. Soon guests were asking for jars of the stuff to take home.
Then Henson began getting so many requests for his dressing that he and Gayle created a dry spice mix that, when blended with mayonnaise and buttermilk, allowed the customer to enjoy the same ranch dressing experienced while a guest at the ranch. They also trademarked the name Hidden Valley Ranch.
In 1957, Kelley’s Korner, a small store located on the corner of what is now State Street and La Cumbre Road, was the first to start selling Henson’s packets of Hidden Valley Ranch mix. In fact the dressing packets sold so fast (more than 140 in two days) that the store’s owner Lloyd Kelly thought his employees were stealing them.
Realizing he was on to something big, the Henson’s began a mail order business selling the packaged dressing mix for 75 cents each. Demand for Hidden Valley Ranch dressing continued to grow until soon it took up every room of their home. And by the mid-1960s the mail order business had completely taken over the guest ranch, and by the end of the decade orders from all 50 states and over 30 countries were being filled. It was also at this time that Henson’s dressing was being distributed in stores throughout the Southwest.
In the early 1970s, Hidden Valley Ranch dressing production had outgrown the ranch facilities and had to be moved offsite, although the ranch remained corporate headquarters. Griffith Laboratories was contracted to blend the dressing mix and ship it to a 65,000 square foot facility in Los Angeles where it was packaged at the rate of 35,000 packets a day. Similar operations were later set up in Colorado and Nevada.
In 1972, the Hensons sold their Hidden Valley Guest Ranch, and by October of the following year Clorox had purchased the Hidden Valley dressing business for $8 million.
Clorox reformulated Steve Henson’s ranch dressing in order to make it more consumer friendly. The first improvement was to add buttermilk flavor to the spice packet so standard milk could be used, rather than buttermilk. The most important improvement came in 1983, with the shelf-stable, ready-to-use bottled version found on the grocers shelves. Today, Hidden Valley Ranch dressing is sold in both packets and bottles.
While Hidden Valley Ranch was the first, it is certainly not the only ranch dressing on the market. Today ranch dressing is also produced by Ken’s, Draft, Marie’s, Newman’s Own, Wish-Bone, as well as a number of private and lesser known brands.
In 1992 ranch dressing overtook Italian dressing as the leading salad dressing flavor sold in the United States and Canada. However, in the rest of the world it is virtually an unknown. So for now at least, I guess those folks will have to continue using milk on their breakfast cereal.
Make Em: Buttermilk Ranch Dressing