When you look at a bottle of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing, the best-selling salad topper in America, you probably don’t think about the chemical engineers and supertasters involved in the making of that bottle. After all, it’s just a bunch of buttermilk and herbs, right? Yeah, sure, and an airplane is a bunch of aluminum.
We’re about to take you behind the curtain of the dressing titans at Hidden Valley and talk to the food scientists who develop the brand’s ranch flavors.
Hidden Valley Ranch Is A Real Place
But the food scientists don’t work there. A little background before we get started: Yes, there was a real ranch in Santa Barbara, California, called Hidden Valley Ranch. Nowadays, its food scientists work from the Clorox campus in Pleasanton, California.
“[Creators Steve and Gayle Henson] had a small bed and breakfast, and this is the homemade dressing they made,” longtime research and development director Miranda Helmer told HuffPost. “It was a powder they ended up selling to their visitors.” It began as a mail order business selling this dry mix, but everything changed in the ’70s when the company was purchased by Clorox. Yeah, that Clorox! It underwent another reinvention in the ’80s. “It really skyrocketed when [Clorox] turned it into a bottled dressing,” Helmer said.
How To Become A Professional Ranch Expert
Clorox told HuffPost that Hidden Valley Ranch employs more than five food scientists, along with more than 10 packaging scientists, process engineers and product developers.
So how does one get into the ranch development business? It helps to be a supertaster.
Edith Neta, the associate research fellow of product development, who has a masters and a Ph.D. in food science, took a sensory test in grad school and found out she had the qualities.
“Your tongue has a lot of tastebuds,” Neta told HuffPost. “A normal person has about 10,000. I have 700,000 to a million.” Both her nose and her tastebuds are extremely sensitive, which can be difficult in regular life ― if her husband cooks chicken in the house, she can smell it on their towels tucked away in a bathroom a day later ― but it’s a huge benefit at work.
“She’s considered our ranch gatekeeper,” Helmer said. “She’s the most sensitive supertaster that I’ve ever met in all my time I’ve worked in food. Her palate is so sensitive that she can’t even drink tap water because she can taste all the impurities.”
Neta is the one who says whether new flavors still scream ranch (even if it’s an oddball flavor like Fiesta Salsa Ranch), and she can also make sure the dressing will stay tasty over time. “She’s totally amazing because she can also taste different off-flavors that can turn into something worse as the product ages,” Helmer notes.
A Typical Day On The Job
“I think it might surprise people that we think of our job as making something in a kitchen first,” Helmer said. “Because we’re trying ranch day in and day out, we try to get inspired by food in general.”
That means visiting their on-site herb garden or making a ton of food that seemingly has nothing to do with ranch, like homemade pasta and sauce for a deep dive into Italian cuisine. They also eat out in restaurants to study menus, travel to conferences about food and listen to what consumers want.
Once the team is properly inspired, a prototype is developed in the kitchen. “We try to figure out our flavor profile and what form it should come in ― should it be a squeeze bottle, a dip, a dressing?” Helmer said. “And of course we pass it by Edith to make sure we’re hitting the right ranch notes.”
An in-house panel of tasters trained to taste ranch (their job is literally to eat ranch!) gives the team feedback on the flavor profile to make sure it’s hitting those ranch-y notes, whether it’s paired with pizza or a carrot stick. Focus groups made of the ranch-loving public give them even more feedback.
Neta often spends time tagging along with consumers going shopping, or visiting their homes and cooking with them to see how they use ranch in their daily life. But she also has to use her knowledge of chemistry and microbiology to do her job properly.
“There’s a lot of science that goes behind the bottle that’s on the shelf,” she said. Neta goes to the industrial lab to develop flavors and to make sure it’s safe to consume. “We have to understand how it’s going to perform during its shelf life, and how we can keep the flavor fresh so that it tastes great no matter when the consumer consumes it. We face those challenges every day.”
Hidden Valley’s Secret Ranch Language
Most third-wave coffee roasters will use a flavor wheel to properly describe any coffee they’re tasting. You’ll find words you’d expect on there like roast, floral and chocolate, but also peach, curry and tobacco. The depth at which Neta can describe ranch is not dissimilar to a coffee roaster’s or a sommelier describing wine.
“Ranch has aromatics, which are things you can smell through your nose and when you’re eating (retro-nasally from your throat to your nose),” Neta said. “Some examples are caramelized garlic and onion. It has a complex dairy component ― the buttermilk has milky, creamy notes. The top notes are umami, salt, heat and sweetness. The under (or background) notes are black pepper and some custard, eggy notes make the base.”
The Job Is Never Over
Most people are happy to leave their jobs behind when they go home for the day, but those people don’t work at Hidden Valley.
“As we develop new products or make improvements, we taste them in the lab, but I also take the product home and use it with my family,” Neta said. “I use it as I cook, work on salads or as a dip. I’m constantly using the product on a daily basis, not only the main product, but everything else we come up with: the dips, the Blasted [Pizza Ranch Creamy Dipping Sauce, a ready-to-eat dip due in supermarkets in the coming weeks]. If you took a picture of my fridge right now, it’s full of Hidden Valley.”
Helmer worked in a bakery in college, and said that while she didn’t want to eat the baked goods at work, she would crave cupcakes when she got home. Swap ranch for cupcakes, and things haven’t changed much.
“It’s readily available and we’re tasting it all the time,” she said. “It’s our job to taste it, and while it’s enjoyable, we’re doing work on it. It’s fascinating that when I’m home and out of the element in my normal home setting, I’ll reach for ranch. Again.”