Creamy, zesty, and pleasantly herbaceous, ranch dressing unites hungry Little Leaguers and reluctant veggie eaters all across this divided nation. According to a 2017 study by the Association for Dressings and Sauces (a club I’d love to join), 40% of Americans named ranch as their favorite dressing. Its nearest competitor, Italian dressing, claimed a measly 10 percent. YouTubers love it, my coworker Dennis once tried to consume a gallon of it, and Homer Simpson famously requested that it be dispensed via hose in lieu of further sexually suggestive dancing.
So, who do we have to thank for bringing us this creamy wonder? According to the Omaha World-Herald, Kenneth Henson of Thayer, Nebraska invented everyone’s favorite velvety salad sauce. The Herald reports that Henson got his start in 1949 as a plumbing contractor in Alaska—a job that, weirdly enough, involved cooking for his coworkers. Not sure why they decided the plumber was the man to handle the food, but I’m sure glad they did. During the gig, Henson refined a recipe for dressing that included buttermilk, parsley, thyme, dill, black pepper, and plenty of onion and garlic.
In 1954, the Hensons purchased a dude ranch near Santa Barbara, California and named it—wait for it—Hidden Valley Ranch. Henson’s buttermilk dressing became the house dressing at the ranch, delighting guests after a long day out on the range. According to the Herald, the Hensons started getting so much demand for the dressing that they created a dry packaged mix to which home cooks only needed to add buttermilk. The mix contained salt, monosodium glutamate (aka MSG), dehydrated garlic, parsley, onions, black pepper, and calcium stearate, making it a shelf-stable alternative to Henson’s ever-present vat of buttermilk. Henson sold the product at a local grocery until word got around, at which point the dressing’s creamy footprint began to expand around the country.
Of course, all good things must come to an end. The Hensons sold the ranch in the early 1970s, and Henson sold both the dressing brand and the product to Clorox for $8 million in 1973. At that point, Clorox tweaked the pre-packaged mix and added buttermilk flavoring, getting the powdered version a little closer to the real deal and making it so that home cooks only needed to add regular milk, not buttermilk. Then in 1983, some genius at Clorox devised a shelf-stable, ready-to-eat bottled version. This kicked off the golden days of ranch that we know so well.
While Henson was the first rancher to monetize buttermilk dressing, he certainly didn’t invent the concept. According to Thrillist, Texan recipes for buttermilk dressing date back as far as 1937. That’s because buttermilk was more readily accessible on the High Plains than vegetable-based fats like shortening, making it a favorite among cowboys. There’s a good chance that someone else could’ve capitalized on the nation’s taste for buttermilk, but it seems poetic that the product came from a plumber-turned-rancher-turned-entrepreneur. Rising from one’s humble roots by inventing a product that turns carrot sticks into tangy milk vessels? That’s the real American Dream.