Ranch is a type of salad dressing or seasoning. As a seasoning, it’s a mix of different substances and not a seasoning or flavoring in and of itself.
The term “ranch” is often synonymous with the salad dressing, though it’s also used for ranch-flavored food products. Ranch dressing is extremely popular, and in 2017, the NY Times reported that 40% of Americans named ranch dressing as their favorite.1
Is it vegan? No, true ranch dressing and seasoning is not considered vegan. It’s a combination of buttermilk, salt, onion, garlic, herbs, and spices.2 However, it does contain a number of plant-based ingredients, so it’s fairly easy to find vegan-flavored ranch sauces on the market, or to simply make your own.
Other ingredients are also used in place of buttermilk, but they all tend to be non-vegan.
Overall, ranch dressing tends to contain the following ingredients:2
- Herbs like chives, dill, and parsley.
- Spices like black pepper, ground mustard seed, and paprika.
- Sour cream and/or yogurt.
What we’ll do here is go over the specific non-vegan ingredients used in ranch, their functions, and what can be used to replace them in commercial and homemade ranch dressing.
Why Ranch Is Not Considered Vegan
Cultured Milk Products
Fermented or cultured milk products have been used for centuries, and have long been thought to confer benefits to human health.3
Dairy has a number of potentially negative effects on human health, but the probiotics present in cultured milk do seem to offer a few benefits. Fortunately for vegans, there are a number of cultured non-dairy products on the market these days.
Commonly consumed fermented milk products in North America include buttermilk, acidophilus milk, yogurt, sour cream, and kefir.
The one feature they all have in common is that they have had bacterial cultures added to them in order to ferment the lactose (the natural sugar found in milk) into lactic acid. This gives them their tangy character.
The lactic acid concentration precipitates out the casein protein giving the milk a curd-like consistency.
The specific type of bacterial culture used is the factor that most determines the flavor of the resulting product.
The particular bacterial cultures and the amount used both influences the quality of the fermented milk products. Some of the protein present in milk breaks down which provides the nitrogen needed for bacterial growth, and also makes the curd soft and more digestible.
This is the most common milk ingredient used in ranch dressing.
Despite its name, buttermilk only contains around 2 grams of fat per cup, which is far less than the calorie content of whole milk.4
In fact, buttermilk is simply the fluid that remains after the fat from whole milk is removed when making butter—hence, the name.5
This is a point of confusion for many because the name seems to imply that buttermilk contains butter.
Buttermilk is used in products to add tanginess and moisture among other functions.6
In ranch dressing, buttermilk is used to:
- Add richness. Low- and full-fat buttermilk (buttermilk with a slightly higher fat content) is added to dressings like ranch to provide more richness. Also, as milk becomes more acidic, the protein (casein) precipitate out due to the lower pH. This process, formerly referred to as clabbering, contributes to the thickening of the resulting milk product and high viscosity of milk-containing dressings like ranch.5
- Emulsification. Emulsifiers help ingredients stay mixed increasing the stability of emulsions. Natural buttermilk is added to dressings and other goods (even ice cream) due to its high phospholipid content. Phospholipids derived from the membranes surrounding fat-droplets are broken down during the churning process at which point they’re able to serve as emulsifiers.
- Flavor (Tanginess). These days, most commercial buttermilk is cultured with Streptococcus lactis bacteria which convert lactose into lactic acid, giving the buttermilk a much more sour taste than regular milk which is desirable for ranch dressing.
So, the end result of the process is a milk product that’s more sour, bubbly, and thick compared to regular milk.
A common vegan replacement is to add 1 Tbsp of white vinegar or lemon juice to 1 cup of high-protein plant milk (soy) and allow the mixture to sit for 10 minutes. This method is used with regular cow’s milk to produce quick buttermilk.7
It may not precipitate the protein but will give it the right taste.
Another option is vegan yogurt.
For example, So Delicious Plain Coconut Milk Yogurt contains:8
- Organic Coconut milk (Filtered Water, Organic Coconut Cream)
- Organic Cane Sugar
- Rice Starch
- Calcium Citrate
- Live And Active Cultures
- Vitamin D2
- Vitamin B12
The other common fermented milk product used in ranch dressing is sour cream.
To make this food product, milk cream is soured by Streptococcus lactis bacteria, though other acidifying agents are often used.
Higher fat cream (half-and-half) or light cream is fermented at 72°F (or 22°C) to the point where the acidity from lactic acid reaches 0.5%.9
A higher-fat cream obviously results in a thicker product. However, a thicker sour cream can be produced if MSNF (milk solids non-fat) is used. This is achieved with the use of thickening agents like vegetable gums (carrageenan), or the addition of certain enzymes.
There are a few vegan sour creams on the market these days, but they’re not allowed to be advertised as true sour cream. To be labeled “sour cream,” manufacturers have to use a minimum of 18% milk fat before the addition of sweeteners, or 14.4% with sweeteners.9
Follow Your Heart has a Vegan Gourmet Sour Cream product. Don’t ask me how they got around the labeling restrictions.
- Filtered Water
- Soybean Oil
- Inulin (Chicory Root Extract)
- Palm Fruit Oil
- Soymilk Powder (Soybeans)
- Rice Starch
- Soy Protein
- Calcium Lactate (Plant Source)
- Lactic Acid (Plant Source)
- Agave Syrup
- Lemon Juice Concentrate
- Natural Flavor (Plant Sources)
- Guar Gum
- Sea Salt
- Locust Bean Gum
Mayonnaise is what’s known as a colloidal dispersion which is an oil-in-water (o/w) or water-in-oil (w/o) emulsion.
The water and fat content don’t dissolve in each other, but rather become dispersed in each other, which creates the emulsion. Other examples of food emulsions include regular milk, milk cream, egg yolk, ice cream, sauces, gravy, and salad dressings.11
Anyway, mayonnaise is a fairly common ingredient in ranch dressing, which is one more way the ranch dressing disqualifies as being vegan. Mayo contains egg which contains lecithin, a phospholipid ingredient that acts as an emulsifying agent by attracting both fat and water molecules allowing hydrophilic and hydrophobic compounds to mix.
Mayo is also white and has a creamy texture, so it’s often used in ranch dressing.
Mayo is mostly oil and egg. If you’re purchasing a vegan ranch dressing, it’ll come with oils and emulsifiers. If you want to make your own vegan ranch dressing using mayo, then you’ll need to look no further than your favorite grocery store. Even Walmart tends to have vegan mayo in stock these days.
As an example, Follow Your Heart’s Veganaise includes:12
- Expeller-Pressed High-Oleic Safflower Oil
- Filtered Water
- Brown Rice Syrup
- Apple Cider Vinegar
- Pea Protein
- Sea Salt
- Mustard Flour
- Lemon Juice
Commercial Vegan Ranch Dressing
If you’re like me and too lazy to make your own, there are several plant-based ranch dressing available today. These two will give you a good idea of what’s out there.
Daiya Homestyle Ranch Dressing
- Non-GMO Expeller Pressed Canola Oil
- White Vinegar
- Cane Sugar
- Sea Salt
- Potato Starch
- Potato Protein
- Whole Algal Flour
- Vegan Natural Flavors
- Vegan Cultured Dextrose
- Xanthan Gum
- Lemon Juice Concentrate
Primal Kitchen Vegan Ranch with Avocado Oil
This product includes:14
- Avocado Oil
- Organic Apple Cider Vinegar
- Organic Distilled Vinegar
- Organic Gum Acacia
- Organic Guar Gum
- Sea Salt
- Cream of Tartar
- Organic Lemon Juice Concentrate
- Organic Onion Powder
- Organic Garlic Powder
- Organic Nutritional Yeast
- Organic Mustard Flour
- Organic Parsley
- Organic Chives
- Organic Dill
- Organic Black Pepper
- Organic Rosemary Extract
That wraps it up for ranch dressing. Thanks for reading.
You may also want to check out the following articles:
- Is Commercial Buffalo Sauce Vegan?
- Is Horseradish Vegan? (List of Vegan Variations)
- Is Marinara Sauce Vegan? (Store-Bought, Restaurants, Homemade)
- Is Alfredo Sauce Vegan? (Store-Bought, Homemade, Restaurants)
- Is Vegetable Oil Vegan?
- Study by the Association for Dressings and Sauces mentioned in Moskin, Julia (2018-09-18). “Ranch Nation”. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/18/dining/ranch-dressing-history.html
- Ranch dressing. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ranch_dressing
- Fiander A, et al. Effects of lactic acid bacteria and fermented milks on eicosanoid production by intestinal epithelial cells. Journal of Food Science 70(2):M81–M86, 2005.
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 212-213). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011
- Weil C. For tang and tenderness, bake with buttermilk. Fine Cooking 68:22, 2005.
- Anonymous. Can’t find any buttermilk? Fine Cooking 88:83, 2007.
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 221-222). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011
- Plain Coconutmilk Yogurt https://sodeliciousdairyfree.com/dairy-free-foods/dairy-free-yogurt-alternatives/coconutmilk-yogurt/plain
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 223). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011
- Follow Your Heart Vegan Gourmet Sour Cream (16 Oz) https://www.instacart.com/products/111107-follow-your-heart-vegan-gourmet-sour-cream-16-oz
- Cornec M, et al. Emulsion stability as aff ected by competitive absorption between an oil-soluble emulsifier and milk proteins at the interface. Journal of Food Science 63(1):39–43, 1998.
- Follow Your Heart’s Veganaise. https://followyourheart.com/products/soy-free/
- Daiya Homestyle Ranch Dressing. https://thrivemarket.com/p/daiya-homestyle-ranch-dressing
- Primal Kitchen Vegan Ranch with Avocado Oil. https://thrivemarket.com/p/primal-kitchen-vegan-ranch-with-avocado-oil