There was a time when my daughter insisted that we keep a bottle of ranch dressing around.
At first, I didn't even want to taste it. I preferred vinaigrettes on salads, and I was used to making my own dressings.
Eventually, though, I tried it, at first sneaking it off my kids' plates. I started admiring the combination of garlic and onion flavors in a creamy dressing.
After all, it has been the top flavor of salad dressing for years, according to The Association for Dressings and Sauces. And that's no fluke.
Oddly enough, salads are probably my least favorite use for ranch dressing. I like it better as a dip for raw vegetables.
I like it even more as a dip for chicken. Although it's not going to replace ketchup in my heart anytime soon, ranch is even pretty good with french fries.
In case you haven't heard the story, there actually was a Hidden Valley. It was a dude ranch for tourists near Santa Barbara, Calif., run by Steve and Gayle Henson. Beginning in the 1950s, visitors came for hiking, fishing, horseback riding and a home-cooked meal. During those meals, the Hensons would serve a tasty buttermilk dressing, which apparently was more memorable than the dude ranch.
The Hensons eventually started selling the dressing. Their dry-seasoning mix became such a hit that they sold the business to Clorox for $8 million in 1972.
Give Clorox credit for figuring how to make shelf-stable bottles of the finished dressing so people didn't have to mix it themselves. Once it was available in bottles, Hidden Valley Ranch shot up on the charts, eventually making it the king of dressings that it is today.
Of course, part of achieving that success meant adding preservatives, monosodium glutamate and artificial flavors that must have made ranch a bit different from what the Hensons concocted and something a bit less than fresh food.
The good news is it's easy to make it fresh at home. And if you like store-bought ranch, you're going to love homemade ranch.
Ranch dressing is mayonnaise and buttermilk flavored with a little onion and garlic. A touch of vinegar gives it a little zing. Many recipes add nothing else other than salt and pepper. I like to stir in parsley or chives, but nothing too intrusive, mainly for color. Some recipes may use a little mustard or paprika for accent flavor.
The ratio of buttermilk to mayonnaise is mainly about the consistency. I find that equal amounts work pretty well for a salad dressing. I might use more mayo and less buttermilk if I want a thicker dip.
Other dairy can be used, too, but I found that sour cream and yogurt tend to mute the flavors. So if you don't mind a milder flavor, substitute sour cream or plain yogurt for some, but not all, of the mayonnaise.
In general, though, I recommend sticking with the buttermilk and mayo combination.
If you've only had bottled ranch, eating a fresh version is almost a new experience. When I tried store-bought next to homemade, there was no comparison. The store-bought seemed almost tasteless.
Make a thick version and use it as a spread for sandwiches. My new favorite use for ranch is on a tomato sandwich. With a homegrown tomato and homemade ranch, that makes for some good eating.
Here's my basic recipe for ranch. Feel free to play around with it and make it your own.
HOMEMADE RANCH DRESSING
(Makes about 3/4 cup)
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon minced onion or shallot
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
6 tablespoons light mayonnaise
6 tablespoons buttermilk
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon chopped parsley or chives
For best results, sprinkle the garlic with some of the salt on a cutting board and mash it several times with the flat side of a chef's knife. That will help spread the garlic flavor throughout the dressing. Place garlic, salt, onion and vinegar in a bowl; mix well. Add mayonnaise and buttermilk and mix well. Add black pepper to taste and the herbs. Taste for salt. If mixture seems a little thin or thick, add a bit more mayo or buttermilk as needed.
Note: To make this more like a dip or spread, use 8 tablespoons (1/2 cup) mayonnaise and 4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) buttermilk. To make this dressing less piquant and more like store-bought versions, try adding 1/2 teaspoon sugar.