The Best Bottled Ranch Dressings, From A Seasoned Midwesterner

Because anytime is a good time to enjoy buttermilk.

My husband recently made the mistake of asking me my "grossest food take." His ultimate food vice: if he could do it without reprimand, he would scoop crunchy peanut butter from the jar with his hands. I was in awe of his bravery, confessing this to me, but I demurred. I didn't have any gross food takes. I am an epicurean angel.

Finally, after much probing, I broke. I couldn't hold it back any longer. I needed to relieve my conscience. I needed someone to know who I really was.

"When I worked at that pizza place in Chicago," I said, my tone hushed, "we made our own ranch dressing. And I loved it so much that sometimes... I would drink it. From the little one-ounce cups. Like they were shot glasses. I would drink ranch."

My husband was horrified, but not altogether shocked. We're both, after all, from Michigan.

I'm not sure why ranch is the manna of the Midwest. This article suggests that ranch became popular when the dry seasoning mix was purchased by Clorox. Clorox reformulated the stuff to be easily mixed with milk and mayonnaise, creating a dressing that landlocked Midwestern states could enjoy without requiring coastal ingredients. Now, ranch dressing is as ubiquitous in Michigan as the state bird (the robin) or people wearing college football jerseys (go Blue).

In my 27 years of Midwest living, I became a ranch aficionado. I dipped everything from crudités to chicken nuggets to Detroit-style pizza in the stuff. I learned how to appreciate the tang, the viscosity, the dill-to-buttermilk ratio in each dressing I encountered. I turned my nose up at any bottle labeled "Light," which my mother insisted on buying. Ranch dressing–full-fat, salty and peppery, creamy and herby–ran through my veins, and still does today. No wonder I moved to California, ranch dressing's surprising birthplace.

My ultra-refined palate has detected many different types of bottled ranch and many different uses for it. Here, I'm proud to present some of the most popular brands you'll find at the grocery store, and how to best enjoy them. (Note: none of them should be slurped from a plastic cup. Do as I say, not as I do.)

The convenient option: Hidden Valley Buttermilk Ranch

Picture this: it's 8:36 p.m. You were supposed to be at that housewarming party at 8:30. You don't have time to make anything, but you'd better bring something to share. Speeding to the grocery store, you grab some baby carrots, broccoli, and wrinkled cherry tomatoes. You can slap 'em all on a plate and call it a veggie tray. But no veggie tray is complete without dip.

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Enter the eleventh-hour hero: Hidden Valley Buttermilk Ranch. The name Hidden Valley is practically synonymous with ranch. It's on every grocery store shelf, and probably every gas station shelf, too. The "original" is fine, but the "buttermilk" is just as widely available and has the delicious flavor that only fermented milk can somehow provide.

Taste-wise, it's inoffensive. It's definitely ranch: the tiniest hint of spice, tempered by the creamy tang of buttermilk. The texture is a little thin, almost watery, so don't expect it to hold up on its own. But drizzled on some iceberg lettuce, or smothering a wrinkly tomato? Perfection.

The when-you’re-here-you’re-family experience: Olive Garden Parmesan Ranch

Growing up, I didn't have many meals at Olive Garden. For a dinner out, my parents preferred Magdalena's, the tiny Mexican restaurant down the street that served $3 margaritas. But when I went away to college, I discovered the joy that only soup, salad, and breadsticks can bring an extremely depressed 19-year-old.

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If you want to recreate that Olive Garden experience at home, bust out the bottled version of their delectable parmesan ranch, which is sold at major grocery chains. It lacks some of the creaminess of other ranch dressings, but more than makes up for it with the addition of zippy, nutty parmesan. The flavor seems a little more grown-up, a little more complex, than your average ranch.

I plan to experiment with adding this to pasta dishes and pasta salads, or using it as a marinade for chicken. Overall, let this ranch add some zest to your next family dinner by enjoying it on a house salad, paired with some warm breadsticks and a truly gigantic bottle of white wine. It's the Olive Garden way.

The vegan staple: Hidden Valley Original Ranch Plant-Powered

Why is Hidden Valley on this list a second time? Because it's what my grocery store carries. It's what every grocery store carries.

But this Hidden Valley offering is different. Gone are the eggs and milk that one might consider necessary for a proper ranch. Instead, this dressing is beefed up by soy protein isolate, which acts as a "gelling agent" to add texture and smush all the other ingredients together.

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When, in the name of journalism, I bought a bottle of Plant-Powered dressing, I was skeptical. However, I came to a surprising conclusion: it's fine. It's fine! Surprisingly, it's slightly thicker than the buttermilk—probably thanks to that soy protein. Taste-wise, it's less peppery and spicy, more surprisingly herby. I definitely tasted parsley and rosemary, which is good for a dressing that proclaims the power of plants. But overall, it tastes... like ranch dressing.

If you are dairy-free for any reason, you'll be just fine picking up a bottle of this. If you're vegan, you may still have trouble finding the perfect meat substitute, but at least you'll have the dressing to slather on top of it.

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The indulgent treat: Ken’s Steak House Ranch

When I go to a steakhouse, it's definitely because someone else suggested it and I'm too polite to decline. Steak isn't my thing; give me a burger any day. At least, at a steakhouse, I can still enjoy the veritable cornucopia of appetizers and side dishes. And if that little side salad I order comes with Ken's Steak House Ranch on the side, I will know I'm in for a truly decadent dining experience.

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I'll say it: Ken's Steak House is my ideal ranch. It's thick. It's creamy. It's tangy. It's salty. It's high in calories. I wonder if this is all thanks in part to both cream and sour cream powder, two ingredients I didn't spot on any of the other product labels. Ken's ranch is the closest I've tried to homemade, or at least to the kind we made in that Chicago pizza joint.

The possibilities with Ken's are endless. I would proudly dip BBQ wings in this, confident that the thicker consistency would stick to the meat and not drip onto my plate. I would add it to mashed potatoes for ultra-creaminess and flavor. I would generously drizzle it onto a buffalo chicken salad. I'd put it on a veggie tray for people I actually like.

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The ultimate question: would I drink it? No. But that's mostly because I don't want my husband to leave me.

 

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