As Heinz and ketchup goes, so goes Hidden Valley and ranch. Brand affinity affects taste perceptions, and as we found out in our blind taste test of ketchup, the most popular brand don’t always score the highest points when you can’t see the label.
So we repeated our blind experiment with seven widely available ranch dressings, the most American of sauces. We poured each onto unlabeled plates and tasted the dressing by itself, and again with cucumbers. Which was our favorite?
- One thing was clear: When our tasters sought ranch, they weren’t looking for organic, artisan recipes—they wanted a very specific flavor from childhood. And most of those are the dressings made by multi-national companies, with preservatives and artificial flavorings. Here’s an example of a food, much like ketchup, where our tasters preferred a store-bought version than one made at home from scratch. They don’t necessarily want the best-tasting, but the most familiar.
- The dressings judged to taste the least like traditional ranch were the ones that came in fancy bottles or with organic labels. Some were very good dressings, such as Briannas Home Style Classic Buttermilk Ranch, but in that case it tasted closer to Caesar, cheesy and savory, as if you were biting into a hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano. This would be really good with crunchy romaine lettuce. Newman’s Own Organics Ranch separated in the bottle and required a good shake, so you know it’s not shot through with stabilizers. That dressing was on the liquid side, eggy with a vinegary backend, tasting like homemade mayonnaise. Some tasters found it too sharp and acidic for their liking. O Organics Ranch was also just outside of familiar ranch, though the full-bodied onion flavor and black pepperiness was pleasant.
- That leaves us with four “classic” ranch dressings, and all came in plastic squeeze bottles. The one that excited taste-testers least was Kraft’s Classic Ranch, which didn’t taste bad, but was meek compared to the other offerings (like I said in the ketchup taste test story, there’s a certain buying-a-TV-at-Best Buy effect going on—when there’s a bunch of flatscreens side-by-side, you’ll point out deficiencies relative to one next to it. Same goes with ranch dressing—I’m sure if I poured Kraft ranch dressing on my salad, I wouldn’t complain).
- What I thought would happen, did happen: Everyone lumped Wish-Bone, Hidden Valley and Ken’s Steak House in the same grouping. The differences between the three were minute, and you’d have to taste real hard to pick a favorite. So that’s what we did. We went back and forth between all three, tasting, pondering, jotting down notes. With Wish-Bone, I liked that it was well-balanced between tang and sweet with bits of dried onions and garlic. Hidden Valley was one click tangier than Wish-Bone, as well as being zestier and thicker in consistency. But most of us agreed Ken’s Steak House eked out the victory. It was the creamiest dressing we sampled, with good zip and a strong tangy backbone. It was ranch asserting its ranchiness.
Ken’s Steak House Ranch Dressing
Briannas Home Style Classic Buttermilk Ranch Dressing