Ranch dressing had its humble beginnings with a homemade dressing that a man named Steve Henson developed. When he and his wife opened a dude ranch in 1954, they named it Hidden Valley Ranch, and they served Steve's special dressing there to their guests.
That's right: Hidden Valley Ranch is a real place!
The house dressing served at Hidden Valley Ranch was quickly named "Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing," and history was made. The dressing was so popular that the Hensens began selling it in a dried spice packet - just add buttermilk and mayonnaise and let it sit refrigerated for a few hours. This was inconvenient, but tasty, and very popular on a national scale. My father reminisces about his mother (my grandmother) mixing up ranch dressing for Sunday dinner in the 1960s, where they would apply it to their iceberg lettuce salads as a special "fancy dinner" treat.
Fast forward a few more iterations and we come to the year 1983, when Clorox (which bought the brand in 1972) developed a shelf-stable bottled dressing formula. This meant no more mixing of packets: you could just grab the bottle and you were good to go.
This invention brought ranch dressing into the homes of Americans everywhere. The 1980s was the decade of single working moms in power suits and latchkey kids. We didn't have the time, interest, or resources to mix our own dressing. What were we, hicks? Being able to buy pre-made ranch dressing made it suddenly ubiquitous.
The flavor was so popular that it was quickly applied to just about everything. People found that you could use it as a dip for French fries, pizza, cheese sticks, and crudités. It made a topping for everything from sandwiches to baked chicken breasts (oh, and salad, too).
"Ranch flavor" became the popular rallying cry for mass market foods, from microwave popcorn to Cool Ranch Doritos (introduced in 1987). You cannot patent the contents of a recipe, so once people cracked the ranch dressing code, everyone was free to make their own "ranch flavor" whatever.
According to food writer Brendan I. Koerner, ranch dressing became so popular because it is both bland and rich. Americans love that buttery dairy flavor (other countries are not as smitten with that end of the food palette). As far as an actual salad dressing goes, Ranch manages to be fattening without being too challenging. As a dipping sauce its blandness makes it the perfect accompaniment to almost any food, be it spicy, fatty, or a raw vegetable.
If you think about it, "ranch" is barely a flavor at all. Not compared to other national flavors like salsa (Mexico), miso (Japan), sambal (Thailand), olives (Greece) and a dozen others. But ranch is uniquely American in its ubiquity, its genial ability to mix and match with just about everything, and its horrifyingly high fat content. And all that started in the 1980s!
Photo credit: Flickr/Generation X-Ray