Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

Best of FlavorTop 10 Trends

Back to the Ranch Sometimes the key to successful flavor innovation is hidden in plain sight

This poutine takes the classic bacon, ranch and cheese flavor combination and turns it up a notch thanks to ranch-flavored cheese curds, thick-cut bacon and rich gravy.
PHOTO CREDIT: Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board

Ranch dressing is a wholly American flavor that is unabashedly downscale, ultimately customizable, easily made and deliciously familiar. It is the family minivan of flavors—utilitarian and comfortable, but with just a few upgrades, it’s ready to go off-roading, taking diners on flavor adventures. NPD Group tells us it’s the top ready-to-use dressing flavor shipped to foodservice outlets. “It’s one of the few dressings that’s been able to reinvent itself,” says Darren Seifer, food and beverage analyst with The NPD Group. “And when you can reinvent and customize a product like ranch, you drive usage and you drive innovation.”

Today, we’re seeing operators leverage the well-known, well-loved flavor of ranch, using it as an anchor for bolder exploration, giving it culinary credibility along the way. Primed for modern taste buds, its tangy, sour notes of cultured buttermilk help pique interest. From a straightforward dipping sauce or spread to a creative cocktail ingredient, ranch is the perfect vehicle for turning familiar flavors into successful menu innovation.

“Ranch has an incredible opportunity to be redefined and made (or modified) in house. It can be completely reinvented and used to spice up an old favorite or familiarize a new concept,” says Jorge Cespedes, research and development chef at Food IQ. At The Blind Butcher in Dallas, duck fat fries are served with pickled ranch (housemade ranch dressing with chopped pickles), giving them a homey, hip feel. At Darby’s American Cantina in Redlands, Calif., the premium Darbinator burger comes with a chipotle ranch dressing. At Hu Kitchen in New York, raw, dehydrated organic kale chips stay recognizable with a dusting of ranch flavoring. And at Hopscotch in Fullerton, Calif., the Peruvian cocktail stretches the imagination with Pisco Portón, Courvoisier, fresh lime juice, thyme syrup, celery bitters and bacon-ranch powder on the rim.

It Just Tastes Good
Apart from familiarity, childhood nostalgia and its all-American pedigree, ranch’s unique flavor thrusts it into stardom today. Boasting creamy, rich dairy tones with background notes of fresh parsley, dill and chives, it also packs a nice tang. “What’s not to like? Ranch is made up of garlic, buttermilk, herbs, and it has an addictive umami undertone,” says chef Tim Soufan. “It is a giant hub flavor—sort of like a bicycle wheel where all the spokes come together and drive forward this amazing flavor.” Build flavors with ranch as home base and you tempt both the traditionalists and the adventurists.

“Value-added items and familiarity drive this opportunity,” says chef Rick Perez. “Housemade ranch dressing also presents an opportunity to differentiate operators from each other. The addition of fresh dill and lemon, a heavier buttermilk-to-mayonnaise ratio, or the addition of chipotle or jalapeño can help make your ranch one-of-a-kind and craveable.”

There’s the magic word: craveable. It’s the elusive brass ring, but ranch dressing bottles craveable and sells it. It offers a charmed combination of fat, sodium and unique seasonings. It’s also often paired with other craveable items, like chicken wings or potato chips, which helps it stay in the zeitgeist. But like all things craveable, the challenge is making it signature, too, so the crave translates to brand impression and repeat business. Ranch invites customization and embellishment, yearning for a flourish or added dimension—as long as it stays recognizably ranch.

At The Nugget Spot in New York City, cheese-cracker-crust chicken tenders are paired with OG Ranch, a proprietary ranch dipping sauce that promises familiarity along with urban bravado. At Mud Hen Tavern in Los Angeles, the BBQ Cracked Pepper Ranch was so popular that once the special burger was taken off the menu, the chef put it to use as a dipping sauce for beer-battered onion rings. “We’re a pub, so we like to do fun takes on familiar flavors,” says Kajsa Alger, chef and co-owner. “It’s a homemade ranch with lots of cracked pepper, and it’s for folks looking for something familiar.” For this vegan ranch dressing, she uses a “buttermilk” base (soy, lemon and vegan sour cream), homemade barbecue sauce, cracked pepper, scallion and herbs.

Haven in Miami uses a “Cool Ranch” flavor to tap into nostalgia and craveability. In the Cool Ranch Edamame, steamed edamame are tossed in a housemade ranch powder. “We do it while they’re still wet, so the powder sticks, but we don’t put too much at this stage because we don’t want a gummy mess,” says Haven chef Todd Erickson. He then seasons with salt and adds more powder, fresh chives and cracked pink peppercorns. “It took awhile for us to land on the right flavors in the powder, but it’s fantastic. It’s fun, nostalgic and tastes better than their memory of ranch.” He blends organic Vermont white cheddar with dehydrated parsley, garlic and onion powder, cayenne, sashimi togarashi and paprika. “I used to live in Dallas, and ranch is king there. Edamame can be kind of boring, and this was a fun way to make it a finger lickin’, messy, interactive dish,” says Erickson.

Ranch Branches Out
Ranch offers a wellspring of discovery. Bathed in a familial richness, this well-loved flavor serves as a perfect bridge to global adventure, and it can help make other trends accessible. “It is, perhaps, one of the hardest working back-of-house workhorses around,” says Maeve Webster, senior director at Datassential. “And it can be customized for a wide variety of world-cuisine focused menus. Ranch can also be made incorporating on-trend ingredients from Greek yogurt to kale, so it’s not only a trend in its own right but can be the entry for an operator into other trends.” Global heat finds a good marriage with ranch. Richard Blais of “Top Chef” fame makes a Sriracha ranch (or “Srirancha”) foam as a topping for a fried chicken sandwich. Togarashi is another companion flavor—at Linger in Denver, togarashi ranch accompanies the Honey-Sriracha Duck Wings, while at The Dawson in Chicago, “Togaranchi” is a menu mainstay served alongside Chicken-Fried Lobster and fries. And buttermilk can be replaced with other bases, such as Greek yogurt, white beans or tahini. Rebecca Newell of Boston’s The Beehive makes a Tahini Ranch for a quinoa salad (tahini, lemon juice, mustard, miso, dill, parsley, basil, pepper).

Embellished or housemade ranch not only delivers big flavor, it also extends premium cues to the diner. Maybe it’s toasted curry powder blended into ranch dressing, or jacked up ranch powder added to a coating for chicken patties. “Its flavor profile is endlessly versatile, which appeals to younger consumers eager for fun, interesting foods,” says The NPD Group’s Seifer.

At Mud Hen Tavern, Alger wanted to make a signature ranch for the restaurant’s Buffalo Potato Poppers, so she made a celery ranch (buttermilk, celery juice, celery bitters, celery seed, herbs) to accompany them. “I wanted to make something lighter and do a play on Buffalo wings,” she says. “Celery ranch still says ‘ranch’ to our guests, but they can only get it here. They love it, and they come back for it.”

About The Author

mm

Katie Ayoub is managing editor of Flavor & The Menu. She has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 16 years and on the Flavor team since 2006. She won a 2015 Folio award for her Flavor & The Menu article, Heritage Matters. In 2006, she won “Best Culinary Article” from the Cordon D’Or for an article on offal.