The next great place to prepare food is in the great outdoors.
by Jesse Darland
While the back deck or patio has long been home to the occasional charcoal smoker or gas grill, things are changing for many homeowners.
For an increasing number of U.S. grill owners, a complete outdoor kitchen – complete with food prep areas, storage and multiple sources of heat – is becoming a must-have.
According to the Hearth Patio and Barbecue Association, 10 percent of those with a grill have an outdoor kitchen. Of these outdoor kitchen owners, 35 percent are likely to upgrade in the next three years.
“Right now, the trends are really being driven by the food itself,” says Russ Faulk, chief designer and head of product for Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, a Chicago-based maker of luxury outdoor grilling equipment. As homeowners become more adventuresome in their outdoor cooking, “they’re looking for specialized products that offer true artisan or professional performance,” Faulk says. He points to a new product from his company called the “Gaucho Grill” that allows for cooking over a live wood fire.
The increasing variety extends to the types of meals as well. “For example, outdoor breakfast is definitely something that is becoming more common, or an outdoor brunch more specifically,” says Isaac Juarez of outdoor kitchen equipment manufacturer Cal Flame.
The sheer number of outdoor-ready appliances can be overwhelming. In addition to refrigerators and prep and wash sinks (which can include garbage disposals), the outdoor kitchen can be equipped with grills, ovens, warming drawers and built-in coolers for beverages.
“They’re no longer an after-thought. Homeowners and designers are taking a more thoughtful approach, and this isn’t exclusive to the upscale market,” Faulk says.
Dale Seiden, co-founder of California manufacturer Alfresco Open Air Culinary Systems, explains some of the wide variety of specialized equipment on the market.
“Some of the ancillary cooking systems that are becoming popular, in addition to the grill, are side burners, pizza ovens, high power burners, teppanyaki griddles, wok cookers, smokers, Kamado cookers, food warming and holding drawers,” he says.
Installing one of these full-featured kitchens in the backyard means a commitment to outdoor entertaining. If you install it, you’ll want to use it. “It’s certainly more relaxing than going to a restaurant despite the work involved and sometimes even more affordable for many families and groups of friends,” Juarez says.
And if you think an outdoor kitchen means a mass of stone and masonry, styles have changed. While you can still get something that’s wrapped in hardscaping, many manufacturers and installers have embraced a more modern aesthetic that’s full of stainless steel surfaces and smooth, clean lines.
“There are many advantages to open air cooking such as the elimination of smells that can spread through an entire home especially,” Seiden says. “Most importantly, the outdoor kitchen is simple to clean and maintain.”
There are other benefits, too. “Simply put, people just love being outside and they especially enjoy having meals outside. The outdoor kitchen is the best and most convenient way to make that happen at home,” Faulk says.
Juarez says you don’t need much to install an outdoor cooking area on your patio or other outdoor area. “The ideal small outdoor kitchen need not break the budget,” he says. “Even an outdoor grill or BBQ cart can stand in for an actual outdoor kitchen, provided you simply put some seats and a table nearby.” This might even be the better option for many outdoor kitchens if people like relocating to a spacious backyard from time to time. The important thing is to have an area for food preparation.
If you’re looking to install something more permanent, you can get away with as little as 8 feet of space. The must-haves remain the same as what you’d need for an indoor kitchen – “a grill for cooking, a sink for washing your hands and utensils, plenty of refrigeration to support one meal, storage space for essentials and as much countertop space as you can fit,” Faulk says. If you opt for something with storage cabinets, make sure they seal when closed. Properly sealed storage areas are important to maintaining the freshness of what’s inside.
If you aim to go a little bigger, Seiden suggests including everything above and adding some side burners and a beverage storage area. Your kitchen can benefit from adding more refrigeration, storage and countertop space – or even additional cooking appliances like pizza ovens or smokers. You also could add a Kamado cooker (those ceramic, egg-shaped grills and smokers that are increasingly popular).
For the ultimate outdoor kitchen, you can really go all-out. Manufacturers can supply outdoor-ready pizza ovens, ice makers and warming drawer. Why not? “A bar and serving area with keggerator,” Seiden says.
No matter what, the important thing is to make sure that you know what you want and find the best choice for your budget and lifestyle. “Big or small, always focus on the quality, performance and versatility of each product to ensure the most enjoyment,” Faulk says.