A Hamburger Today
Taste Test: Bottled Ranch Dressing
#1: Ken's Steakhouse Ranch
#2: Hidden Valley Ranch Dip
#1: Hidden Valley Ranch Mix
I'll be honest: I didn't grow up eating ranch dressing outside of the occasional bag of Cool Ranch Doritos (this was back before they were "Cooler"), and I've personally never developed much of a taste for it. That said, there's a reason why it's the number one selling flavor of bottled dressing in America. Creamy, fatty, and tangy, it coats even the dullest-tasting leaf of iceberg lettuce or the most underdeveloped pizza crust with a salty, herbal tang. Instant flavor, just shake, squeeze, eat, and repeat.
Either that, or we all just need an excuse to eat mayonnaise on everything.
The original ranch dressing was created in the mid-1950's when dude ranches—working or semi-working ranches in which city slickers could go visit for a few days to get a glimpse of the cowboy way—were all the rage. Hidden Valley Ranch, outside of Santa Barbara, CA is where the first ranch dressing was served to guests. The mixture of mayonnaise, buttermilk, garlic, herbs, and spices was so popular that it was offered by mail order delivery and eventually retail.
Since then, a number of other brands have entered the game. Most, including Hidden Valley, have developed shelf-stable versions of their dressing, while a few brands require refrigeration.
So which is the creamiest, tangiest, tastiest of the bunch?
We—gulp—tasted 13 different brands to find out. It was not an easy process and many a gag was induced, but we came away with a few answers, the most important one being: None of them. There wasn't a single dressing in the bunch that we'd heartily recommend, particularly not when a homemade Ranch Dressing or Buttermilk Ranch Dip is just a few ingredients and a whisk away.
But when you simply must use a bottle, read on.
The Contenders: Shelf Stable Category
- Brand 1: Hidden Valley Original Ranch Dressing
- Brand 2: Hidden Valley Original Ranch Topping & Dip
- Brand 3: Ken's Steakhouse Peppercorn Ranch Dressing
- Brand 4: Ken's Steakhouse Ranch Dressing
- Brand 5: Ken's Chef's Reserve Steakhouse Farmhouse Ranch With Buttermilk
- Brand 6: Kraft Ranch Dressing and Dip
- Brand 7: Newman's Own Ranch Dressing
- Brand 8: Whole Foods (365 Brand) Organic Ranch Dressing
- Brand 9: Wish-Bone Ranch Dressing
The Contenders: Refrigerated Category
- Brand 1: Trader Joe's Parmesan Ranch Dressing
- Brand 2: Marie's Creamy Ranch Dressing
- Brand 3: Marzetti Ranch Veggie Dip
- Brand 4: Hidden Valley Original Ranch Dressing Mix
When tasting ranch dressing, we want tang without cloying sweetness. Creaminess without gloppiness or weird, chemically-thickened sliminess. A good ranch should taste primarily of buttermilk with richness from the eggs and oil in the mayonnaise. Garlic should taste fresh, not dry and stale. Herbs should taste like real herbs, not like dust or artificial flavoring.
When black pepper, paprika, or other spices are present, they should add a layer of flavor that complements the base ingredients but doesn't destroy them outright. While vinegary tang is a good thing, too much can make the dressing taste like bottled creamy Italian dressing.
The Results: Shelf-Stable Category
As I mentioned, not a single one of the brands broke through the 5.0/10, acceptable-but-not-so-great barrier. Here's where we ended up:
#1: Ken's Steakhouse Ranch Dressing (4.9/10)
Ken's Steakhouse brands placed in three out of the top four places in our shelf-stable category, and this is their plainest variety of ranch (the other two are jazzed up with peppercorns or extra-virgin olive oil). Not too thick and gloppy like some other brands, the nicest comment here was "This one is actually okay!" "Not too buttermilk-y" and "good amount of pepper," were common threads.
#2: Hidden Valley Original Ranch Topping & Dip (4.3/10)
A new product from Hidden Valley, this version of their dressing is thicker and creamier, and marketed as "The New Ketchup"—something you're expected to squirt on your burgers and fries. It gets its thickness mostly through the help of xanthan gum and modified food starch. Some called it "very greasy and thick," while others said "Synthetic texture. Very heavy."
#3: Ken's Chef's Reserve Steakhouse Farmhouse Ranch With Buttermilk (4.09/10)
More words on a bottle don't necessarily lead to better flavor. This one also boasted "made with buttermilk" and "made with extra virgin olive oil." And indeed, it is, though the EVOO comes pretty far down the ingredients list (and no tasters detected it). "Light on dried herb flavor, which is nice."
#4: Ken's Steakhouse Peppercorn Ranch Dressing (4.0/10)
"Good flavor balance and tang, but a little too much mayo," was a pretty general consensus. Tasters did appreciate the amped up black pepper flavor, but it wasn't enough to save the odd texture.
#5: Newman's Own Ranch Dressing (3.7/10)
Very sweet and tangy in a Miracle Whip-type way. It's not overwhelmed with dry herbs the way others are (the only one we could detect was chives). Best summed up as "enigmatic... in a terrible way."
#6: Wish-Bone Ranch Dressing (3.4/10)
An overwhelming chemical savoriness, likely due to the disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate, two chemical flavor additives used in conjunction with monosodium glutamate (MSG) to enhance a sense of savoriness. In this case, they went overboard. Way, way overboard. Not as overboard as they went with the slimy thickeners, but overboard. "Fake chemical flavor and slimy texture, blech!"
#7: Kraft Ranch Dressing and Dip (3.4/10)
Kraft certainly knows how to stretch the value of its food cost. Amongst the only two dressings in which water is the very first ingredient (Wish-Bone was the other), it remained one of the thickest, creamiest, slimiest of the lot. Garlic makes an appearance in its flavor, but any herbs and spices are indistinguishable from the general "tangy and savory" background noise.
#8: Hidden Valley Original Ranch Dressing (2.8/10)
The one that started it all, though we have a tough time believing that the original recipe included the triple chemical umami-punch of monosodium glutamate, disodium inosinate, and disodium guanylate. The flavor was quickly dismissed as terribly chemical tasting, with not much to redeem it.
#9: Whole Foods (365 Brand) Organic Ranch Dressing (2.1/10)
The bottom of the bad ranch barrel, the Whole Food's house brand was extremely runny, tasted mostly of apple cider vinegar (it's the third ingredient, before buttermilk), and not only had an overwhelming dried herb flavor, but actually contained hard, stick-in-your-teeth chunks of dried herbs that reminded some tasters of having a mouth full of sticks. Whole Foods pre-packaged goods have never fared well in our blind tastings, and products like this continue to prove why.
The Results: Refrigerated Category
Overall, our refrigerated dressings fared better than their shelf-stable counterparts. Indeed, it featured one contender that broke the 5.0/10 barrier, though admittedly, it was a bit of a cheat, since the Hidden Valley Original Ranch Mix requires you to add your own milk and mayonnaise. It was this fresh dairy flavor that propelled it to the top of the heap. Then again, if you're starting with fresh ingredients, why not make the whole thing from scratch?
#1: Hidden Valley Original Ranch Dressing Mix (5.3/10)
While some tasters found the chemical savoriness of the mix to be a little strong (like with the bottled Hidden Valley Ranch), others praised it for reminding them of "dive bar food," or for its "garlicky, salty, smooth texture." In a pinch, this is the best dip/dressing you'll get from the store.
#2: Marie's Creamy Ranch Dressing (4.1/10)
A high-end brand made with, well, lots of real ingredients (oil, buttermilk, eggs), it nevertheless had problems, mainly in the consistency department. Many tasters declared (please read in best Obi-Wan Kenobi voice), "This is no dressing, this is for dip stations!"
#3: Marzetti Ranch Veggie Dip (3.7/10)
Another one closer to the dip category, Marzetti's Ranch is the only one based on sour cream, with no buttermilk in sight. It was also riddled with vegetables like peppers and carrots. When we read "veggie dip" on the container, we figured they meant "this is something to dip your veggies into," not "this is something that already has veggies in it for you to dip more veggies into." We appreciate the gesture, but really, it's not necessary!
#4: Trader Joe's Parmesan Ranch Dressing (3.6/10)
Thin and runny, the Trader Joe's Ranch was characterized by an overwhelming dried herb flavor, more so than any other brand. Oddly enough, the herbs used in it are basil and oregano—not typical ranch flavors. "Given its texture and extreme vinegariness, some tasters said it was "more like Italian dressing." "So herby ewwwww," one taster quipped. These tasting sheets really bring out the poet in us.
Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.