Scott n' Pepper

Ranch dressing ... you may have heard of it. So has Scott Eren, who pulled out all the gelatinous stops for his ranch recipe in this week’s Scott N’ Pepper column.

I’ve always liked ranch dressing, and, like a lot of delightful processed foods, one day I figured I’d try to make it myself. Looking for recipes, I remember being surprised how many called for dried herbs and garlic. I couldn’t understand why so people were content to make their “homemade” ranch with only OK seasonings.

To understand why, it helps to know the history of ranch dressing.

The consensus is that it was created by a plumber named Steve Henson in the early 1950s. In 1954 he opened a dude ranch in Santa Barbara, California. He named the dude ranch “Hidden Valley” and served his salad dressing to guests. That’s right, the buttermilk- and mayonnaise-based salad dressing was created not in the South, but in healthy Southern California.

Soon after opening the ranch, Henson began sending guests home with seasoning packets that could be mixed with buttermilk and mayo to make his dressing, meaning that guests could help spread the secrets of ranch across the whole country. The reason so many ranch recipes start with dried seasonings is because that’s how the dish’s creator did it.

Eventually ranch production became bigger business than dude ranching, and Henson expanded his operation until he sold it in the ’70s to the Clorox Company. The bleach people tinkered with the recipe and had a breakthrough in the early ’80s, when they created a shelf-stable bottled version of the sauce.

Since then ranch has marched steadily toward ubiquity. Ask for a side of ranch at nearly any restaurant, and your waiter is unlikely to bat an eye. When restaurants offer choices for salad dressing and don’t include ranch it feels both like a knowing political stance and that they just don’t understand hospitality.

Unsurprisingly, the omnipresence of ranch tends to attract strong opinions. Every couple of years a major media outlet will publish some piece about how Americans love ranch or how ranch is “in” again, at least among chefs in Los Angeles and New York. In recent years there has been a rise in anti-ranch screeds, culminating with a piece published in The Washington Post unironically titled “Ranch dressing is what’s wrong with America.”

And while I don’t always use ranch, when I’m in the mood I’ll eat it with anything. Raw vegetables, definitely. Burgers and chips, hell yeah. Pizza crust, sure, why not? And though I rarely encounter a ranch I can’t compliment in some way, most restaurant and supermarket shelf-stable ranch dressings leave something to be desired.

Unlike the muted flavors of the original ranch, today’s recipe is fresh and lively. Raw garlic, gently tamed in a quick acid bath, offers a piquant note that makes the dressing stand out. Fresh lemon juice and olive oil help make store-bought mayo taste homemade. Fresh herbs bring lightness and bright flavor to the mix.

Feel free to change up the herbs, by the way. I frequently add chives to my dressing, but you can also take things in a different direction by subbing lime juice for lemons and cilantro for parsley. Just make sure that you use fresh herbs, not dried, and that your citrus juice comes from a fruit, not a plastic bottle. 

Scott Eren writes about his culinary interests twice monthly. Contact him at columnists@jhnewsandguidecom.

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