When Escoffier defined his five mother sauces, he did so based on a proud culinary tradition that dated back to Careme and others. These were flexible sauces that stood the test of time. Fortunately, he could not predict how boring the average consumer would become. In most modern chain restaurants the mother sauces would be redefined as marinara, alfredo, ketchup, gravy, and ranch. It is said that if you stand perfectly still above Escoffier’s gravesite, you can actually feel him spinning.
Of these sauces the newest and most commonly used is ranch dressing. It became America’s favorite salad dressing in 1992. It has since only gained popularity as a dipping sauce and suspected beverage (“the lady at table 24 wants another side of ranch, what is she doing, drinking the stuff?”). Ranch’s rise to the top is a modern day success story. The reason behind it will change the way you look at food.
In 1954, Steve and Gayle Henson opened a dude ranch near Santa Barbara, California and named it Hidden Valley Ranch. After a long day of hiking and horseback riding, guests were treated to a home cooked western style meal. During these meals Steve would serve a salad dressing that he created while living in Alaska. It was not long before guests were coming back for the dressing. At first he sold it in bottles, but they had limited shelf life. Later he sold them in packets that could be blended at home with mayonnaise and buttermilk.
In 1972, Clorox bought Steve Henson’s original recipe. Eleven years were spent tweaking to come up with a shelf stable product. Hidden Valley Ranch bottles were introduced in grocery stores in 1983. Other brands of ranch soon followed and sales started to skyrocket. By 1992, ranch had surpassed Italian dressing as America’s number one salad dressing. Restaurants joined the trend by introducing a variety of other ranch-based sauces to use for dipping. These include peppercorn ranch, bacon ranch, mexi-ranch and the slightly oxymoronic light ranch.
In recent years, ranch has developed an almost cult like following. Websites are online to show you which countries in the world do not have ranch. There is a band named after it. A ranch randomizer is available for creating menus around ranch. There are even people bragging about the things they have eaten with ranch dressing. There are books about it. Contrary to the beliefs of a certain restaurant critic, it is even asked for on Caesar salads.
This all leads to the more interesting question, what is it about ranch that has made it so popular? The answer will change the way you look at food forever.
Dr David Kessler, the head of the Food and Drug Administration during the Bush and Clinton Administration, had similar questions regarding food. He did not understand why certain foods could have such control over people. In seeking to understand this, he first noticed the change in our eating habits. A huge number of items that are staples on restaurant menus were unheard of half a decade ago. Dishes such as chicken fingers, Buffalo wings, nachos, jalapeno poppers, and mozzarella sticks became popular since the 1950s. A large portion of restaurant menus would be unrecognizable to our ancestors only a few generations ago.
This lead Dr Kessler to seek out the link between these food items and the food related problems our society faced. He disclosed these results in a book entitled “The End of Overeating.” His research showed that a large portion of the population has had their brains virtually rewired to be stimulated by three powerful substances: fat, salt, and sugar. These three substances are so powerful that even the anticipation of them releases dopamine into the pleasure centers of our brain. Once we eat these foods, powerful opioids are released to calm us and reaffirm this pleasure. This dopamine/opioid combo can become so entrenched that even walking by a fast food place can trigger it. In time many people find themselves eating out of a craving for these neurotransmitters rather than out of hunger.
Combining the three salient food qualities (fat, salt, and sugar) makes items even more powerful. These create what are referred to as “highly-palatable” foods. When this combination is used it can actually make us want to eat more. This is where we get back to our ranch dressing. It is a potent blend of both fat and salt. It can even turn a salad into a highly palatable food. Using it as a dipping sauce can let people simply replace the salad with a more crave-able base to apply it to. When what you love about a salad is the dressing, you might as well just put it on wings.
For those of you who are interested in learning more, I highly recommend Dr Kessler’s book, “The End of Overeating.” In writing this I ran across a couple great articles from The Washington Post and The Huffington Post. To learn more about ranch dressing, I think the definitive piece has to be Brendan I Koerner’s article from Slate.
One last note, I have been meaning for a while to give a shout out to one of the very first fans of this blog. Twisted Oak Winery is producing some of the most interesting varietals coming out of California. They make wine that my wine snob friends speak very highly off. What I enjoy more is that they seem to be the wine anti-snobs. If you think wine tastes better when people who really love making wine made it, you should check them out. I will not go so far as to say they are California’s best winery, but they are by all appearances the most fun.