Ranch dressing, the salad dressing invented from buttermilk, is having a moment. New York Magazine reports that the “Great American Condiment” is appearing on the city’s hippest restaurant menus as a topping or dipping sauce on everything from chicken sandwiches and onion rings to pizza. Last year a restaurant serving ranch dressing on all its dishes opened in St Louis. National food blogs recommend putting ranch on every inappropriate food one can imagine, from pasta to breakfast cereal, while a list of top organic restaurants in L.A. praises one place for putting ranch on french fries and another for adding it to lettuce tacos.
Ranch originally hails from the Midwest, and it never went out of fashion there. In its purest form, it’s made of buttermilk, salt, garlic, onion, herbs and spices, although the stuff sold in stores and served in chain restaurants has ingredients like sugar, vegetable oil and unpronounceable chemicals.
It’s the kind of topping serious chefs correctly disdained for decades as extravagant and trashy. But now, animated by a kind of faddish philistinism, professional food connoisseurs are giving it another look. Today’s hip chefs revel in finding ways to profit from glorified junk food, from cronuts to little $8 jars of artisanal bacon mayonnaise, and the food critics cheer them on, as if this were a worthy endeavor. The current ethos is something like this: The more lowbrow a dish is, the more drenched in fat a dish is, the better.
It isn’t. There are three main problems with ranch dressing.
First, it’s disgusting. It tastes like exactly what it is, which is milk that’s halfway rotten. Why would anyone want to take something that they would throw out if they unexpectedly smelled it in their fridge and put that on their salad? The gooey goop doesn’t even spread well when tossed. Since 1992, ranch dressing has been America’s most popular salad dressing, and it currently has twice the market share of its nearest competitor, blue cheese dressing, which is basically a better, more flavorful version of ranch. So Americans have bad taste, as is their right. But the whole point of expensive restaurants that get glowing reviews is to expand a diner’s horizons with something better than the stuff he or she picks up at the supermarket.
Second, diners are using it incorrectly. Putting ranch on salad at least has a rationale: Many people don’t appreciate vegetables and feel compelled to slather everything in processed fat. Fine. But why would anyone use it on french fries? Because deep-fried food isn’t greasy and caloric enough? And putting it on pizza — a horrifying, common practice — is insane because pizza is already dripping with mozzarella. It’s completely redundant, wildly unhealthy and disrespectful to any halfway decent pizza, the chef who made it and to the Italian people who gave it to us. (One pizzeria in Houston, owned by Italian Americans, has banned ranch dressing.) Pizza does not need a dipping sauce, because it’s already perfect. If it needs ranch to improve the taste, it’s bad pizza, and you shouldn’t eat it at all.
Finally, our vulgar extravagance is going to destroy the planet and starve the global poor. Like meat, dairy produces more local and climate pollution than most plant-based foods. Dairy cows also require more land, water and other resources than grains and vegetables. Unless we moderate our habits, we will run out of resources to feed the Earth’s 7 billion-and-growing population and cause massive climate disruption. Here’s an easy way to cut back: Don’t slather milk products on foods already awash in them.
Putting ranch dressing on pizza springs from the same idiotic thinking — that more milk fat on everything is always better — that inspires such revolting innovations as Pizza Hut’s new Grilled Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza. The dish, which contains “extra gooey cheddar and mozzarella cheese” in the crust and toasted bread crumbs and melted butter on top, prompted Thrillist to enthuse, “It simply contains way too much cheese for any mere mortal to resist.”
Defiling pizza by turning its crust into a fake grilled cheese sandwich, or by putting ranch dressing on it, is the culinary equivalent of setting your air conditioner to 62 degrees or driving a Hummer. It’s tacky, wrong even on its own terms — it doesn’t taste better, just like over air-conditioned rooms are uncomfortable and Hummers are blocky, unattractive cars — and it’s also worse for the environment.
Emily, a restaurant mentioned in the New York article for offering ranch dressing on one of their highly-regarded pizzas, happens to be near my apartment, so I’ve been a few times. It’s great — if you want to stand for 25 minutes in a dark, cramped entryway waiting for a table and then pay $25 for a personal pizza. And judging from the patrons waiting in line, a shocking number of inexplicably skinny young people do.
But overpriced pizza is just one of the many trends fetishizing down-market food. Cities are awash in lists of the “best hamburgers” that add toppings such as pork belly or fried pork rinds. Every hip neighborhood has a new barbecue joint or four. Fried chicken is featured in upscale restaurants. And expensive pizza is served with crude American toppings that would have any nonna worth her red sauce spinning in her grave. This is not doing any favors for our planet or our health.
The ingredients may be organic, locally sourced and so on. But no matter where you raise the beef for your burger, it’s still less healthy and more carbon-intensive than vegetables — and that’s before you put ranch dressing on the fries. Socially responsible eating isn’t knowing the name of the heritage breed of pig your ribs came from. It’s actually minimizing your impact on the planet.
How about, in exchange for feeding tastemakers willing to line up and pay handsomely, chefs serve something that won’t kill their clientele or do gratuitous harm to the planet? They should do the work of finding interesting flavors instead of just asking what they serve at Buffalo Wild Wings and cooking a twee version of it.
– Adler is a staff writer at Grist, where he covers environmental politics and policy with a focus on climate change, energy and urban planning.