Welcome to Never Fail, a semi-regular column where we wax poetic about the recipes that never, ever let us down. This week: the homemade ranch dressing that Basically editor Amiel Stanek just couldn’t live without.
Every home cook needs a signature sauce up (and ideally not on) their sleeve—the kind of condiment they can whip up on a moment’s notice, without a recipe, and deploy with Swiss Army-versatility. It might be a kitchen-sink pesto that can be just as easily schmeared on crostini, dolloped alongside poached fish, or tossed with pasta. Or the dead-simple shallot vinaigrette that does double duty as a salad dressing and all-purpose grilled meat waker-upper. And while it would make sense for me, an annoying food snob who works at a fancy food magazine, to have some exotic, French-y sounding sauce as my go-to, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ll say it loud, say it proud, with not a drop of shame: Homemade ranch dressing is my north star, my Special Sauce, and it has never, ever done me wrong.
How to I love thee, ranch dressing? Let me count the ways. For one, there is literally not a single person on God’s Green Earth that does not like the taste of ranch dressing. It’s rich. It’s creamy. It’s tangy. It’s got subtle kick from garlic coupled with the implacable frisson of green herbs. Whether you’re four or forty, from Los Angeles or Lubbock, you can get down with ranch. (Fun Fact: My friend John Nicolo once chugged a bottle of Hidden Valley on a dare, became violently ill, and still loves and eats the stuff to this day. That’s what I’m talking about.) Which is to say, I know that when I make it, it’s always, always going to be a dunk.
Then there’s the fact that making it at home is almost as easy as opening a bottle of the store-bought stuff. (Almost.) You could use a recipe, sure, but to me the beauty of homemade ranch is how flexible the preparation is, and that the base ingredients are a) things I almost always have in the fridge and b) things that don’t go bad. Mine always starts with two giant spoonfuls of rich, tangy, full-fat dairy of some kind (yogurt, sour cream, creme fraiche, and labneh all work), followed by one giant spoonful of mayo, followed by a grated clove of garlic, a big pinch of kosher salt, five or six hearty turns of freshly cracked black pepper and a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice. After that, I slowly whisk in buttermilk (kefir works too) until the whole mixture has the texture of, well, ranch dressing. And there you have it: The most basic, and delicious, homemade ranch dressing imaginable.
While you can certainly stop there—I often do—the best part of this recipe is how infinitely riff-able it is. Sometimes I’ll just add a ton of black pepper to make it extra aromatic. I’ll often chop up any and all fresh soft herbs I’ve got lying around—basil, parsley, chives, dill—and stir them in to add a bit of color and complexity. Or a bit of hot sauce like sambal oelek or sriracha for a chile kick. Or a splash of fish sauce or soy sauce for a big umami boost. Or citrus zest. Or toasted spices. Or chopped pickles. The possibilities are endless. And the cool thing is that no matter what you add, you can use it as a modifier to make your dressing sound cooler and a lot fancier than it actually is. “Chive-Basil Ranch.” “Dill Pickle Ranch.” “Charred Scallion Ranch.” “Whatever-Happens-To-Be-In-The-Fridge Ranch.” (Did I mention that I work at a food magazine?)
And if the possibilities for customizing this dressing-to-end-all-dressing are limitless, so are its applications. It’s obvs the best green salad dressing there is, but more often than that I’m using it as a dip for prepped raw veggies (crudites, for you fancies), drizzling it over thick slabs of sliced tomato, or serving it alongside grilled meat (hey, what did you think the “white sauce” on a gyro was?). I use it as the dressing for cole slaw, set it out with pretzels for a party snack, and serve it with any and all things fried.
If you don’t believe me, try this experiment: The next time you’re serving, I don’t know, anything, put out a bowl of homemade ranch, just call it “sauce,” and see if people don’t naturally spoon it over everything on their plate like it was gravy on Thanksgiving. Because they will. Because ranch dressing is gravy for the other 364 days of the year. And because it makes everything better, every single time.