Outdoor Kitchen Ideas and Planning
Lighting the Night
Your goal is to build an outdoor kitchen that is inexpensive, but that does not mean you have to start out thinking small. Don’t fail to dream. Start by thinking of all of the things that you would like—a large-enough counter in a shape that best meets your needs, the countertop, side-of-counter surfaces, cabinets, drawers, a refrigerator, a sink, an overhead structure, and last but not least the grills and burners that you have dreamed about.
Look through this section for inspiration and practical solutions. Later, when you add up the numbers, you may need to scale back or leave space to add additional upgrades. Or you may be pleasantly surprised to find that you can fit most if not all of the features that you would like into your budget. Once you have an idea what you like and can afford, which gets specific about saving money without sacrificing goodies. Begin with a plan that copies other kitchens you have seen. Then as you think through how you will use the space, your plan should come into focus.
Bringing It All Outdoors
Even when a backyard barbecue consists of a simple charcoal grill and a few lawn chairs on the deck or lawn, the outdoor setting creates a naturally convivial atmosphere, and the food seems to taste better and is more fun to prepare. The downside is all of the trips back and forth, the mess in the indoor kitchen, and the general lack of creature comforts.
An outdoor kitchen solves these problems, bringing outdoor cooking and dining to a new level: food preparation is easier; the cooking experience is better; and the chef and diners have comfortable places to hang out. Adding an outdoor kitchen increases the time that a family spends outdoors, and it relieves stress on the indoor kitchen (and the cook). It effectively increases the square footage of the home’s living space and the value of the home.
With the ever-growing number of products on the market, there are amenities to fit every budget. If your budget is tight, plan bigger than you can afford—leaving room for future upgrades. As you plan, think of your space as an outdoor dining/living room, designed for comfort and relaxation so that everyone who uses the space—cooks and their advisors, diners, and loungers alike—will feel at home.
The pergola over this kitchen keeps the area shady but still wide open to the yard.
Wood cabinetry is unusual in an outdoor kitchen, but it can be durable if you use rot-resistant wood and extra-strong finishes.
Stackable block assembles quickly and has the look and durability of natural stone.
This counter’s rough stone veneer complements the smooth flagstone patio.
Cooking and Entertaining Styles
An outdoor kitchen will encourage your family to eat outside more often, making for less mess and more relaxed meals. And for those occasions when you need to cook for a larger crowd, an outdoor kitchen will make the job easier. Even a small outdoor kitchen essentially doubles your cooking space, giving you two separate kitchen areas and separate domains for chefs. Homeowners who live in cold climates increasingly grill outdoors even when it is too cold to eat there. Cooking a big turkey dinner at Thanksgiving, for instance, is easier when you can cook the main course outside on the grill and devote the indoor kitchen to all of the side dishes.
Entertaining in the summer allows you to move the messiest aspects of the meal outdoors. If you are hosting a child’s birthday party, for example, you can let the kids make their own pizzas on a table that you have brought outside for the occasion. Then they can cook (supervised, of course) their creations on a grill-top pizza stone or in a pizza oven if you have one. Even if the kids get into a food fight, your indoor kitchen will remain unscathed. You can hose off the deck or patio afterward.
To design an outdoor kitchen that works for you, it helps to think about your cooking and entertaining style. Here are a few questions to ask:
- How much will local climate limit your use of an outdoor kitchen? If your backyard is too hot or rainy or too cold or buggy, consider over your head products, respectively, which may prolong your grilling and outdoor-dining season.
- Do you like to cook by yourself or with others helping? How many workstations do you normally use to prepare a meal? Do you prefer to just grill outdoors, or do you like to cook side dishes and prepare salads outside as well?
- What is your entertaining style? Do you prefer separate grilling and dining areas or a single grilling counter where you can quickly serve diners who watch as you grill?
- How convenient are your indoor kitchen’s sink and refrigerator to your outdoor space? If they are nearby, adding outdoor appliances may not be worth the trouble and expense.
- Which appliances and extras do you most desire? Think back on family cookouts and larger gatherings in the past, and make a wish list in order of priority. Of course, you will want a grill that will cook the way you want to cook. Maybe there are other dream features that will make you happy, such as a fridge, sink, or even a stereo or TV.
The separate buffet counter in this kitchen lightens traffic around the cooking counter.
Here, serious diners can sit at a table; snackers and drinkers can pull up to a bar.
This full-service counter includes grill, side burner, refrigerator, warming drawer, sink, and kegerator.
This U-shape counter gives the cook a perfect work triangle and shields diners from grilling smoke.
Your outdoor kitchen counter will probably rest on or abut a patio or a deck. This guide concentrates on outdoor kitchens. If you need to install a new deck, porch, or patio, see Creative Homeowner’s guides on those subjects. (Ultimate Guide: Decks and Ultimate Guide: Walks, Patios & Walls) Most of the designs in this guide are lightweight enough that they can rest on any surface that is relatively strong. (If you build a counter using concrete block, first pour a deep concrete footing to keep the structure from cracking and sinking.)
The floor where you cook will, of course, receive spatters and spills. That is not a problem with, say, composite or vinyl decking, which you can easily wipe clean. But other common surfaces—wood decking or a patio made of brick, stone, or concrete pavers—will not be as easy to keep clean. To solve this problem, you can seal the surface with a deck or masonry sealer. Apply several coats to keep the area relatively impermeable and easy to clean. Or lay down an outdoor rug, or do both.
A Rug Near the Grill
Grease spatters and spills can stain or damage flooring right by the grill, so consider using an outdoor rug to protect your patio or deck.
Many composites today have sumptuous wood tones yet never need staining and easily wipe clean.
The wide joints between stone pavers on this patio provide space for sturdy crevice plants, which seem to hold it all together.
Ceramic tiles with a stone appearance can be mortared onto a solid concrete slab.
Carefully cut slate tiles form a neat crazy-quilt pattern.
Concrete pavers are available in groupings that form circular patterns and can be set in sand.
Sizing and Situating the Kitchen
Two of the first design decisions you will make are the size and location of the kitchen counter. Here we show some possible outdoor kitchen arrangements designed to meet different needs.
At the far edge of the patio, this cooking center keeps heat and fumes away from diners. It is an attractive complement to the landscaping.
This spacious patio has room for several different use areas. The cooking center is close enough to the house to make trips in and out easy, and an entertainment counter on the other side of the patio is perfect for sipping drinks on movie night.
Built on a concrete slab along the edge of the deck and a good distance from the indoor kitchen, this spacious kitchen has plenty of amenities to minimize the need for trips back and forth.
This outdoor kitchen’s location capitalizes on the view, for both the chef and the diners. Be sure that a new kitchen with a great view does not itself obstruct a view that you have been enjoying from inside the house.
A capacious counter with lots of workspace and several cooking appliances makes sense if you think you will often host large outdoor parties. But bigger is not necessarily better. If large gatherings will be rare, a gigantic counter may make your family feel dwarfed during everyday intimate gatherings. In this case, setting out extra tables for work surfaces and dining to accommodate occasional big events may be the logical solution.
Be sure that the counter is large enough if you plan to do prep work outside rather than inside—especially if several people may be cooking together. A long, straight counter works fine for up to 6 or 8 feet. If you want more counter space than that, an L- or U-shape may work better so that you don’t have to traipse all the way to one end to fetch a bowl of food or utensils. Some rules of thumb:
- At least 2 feet of counter space on each side of a grill provides room for platters of cooked and uncooked meats, a medium-size cutting board, and an additional bowl for vegetables to be cooked.
- Plan on 2 feet of space next to a side burner.
- Allow at least 16 inches on each side of a sink for a drainer and bowls.
- Think of how much space you use in your indoor kitchen, and mimic that if possible. If food preparation will be elaborate, using lots of dishes and equipment, then the more counter space you can provide, the better.
When situating a grill within a counter, the challenge is to place it near the home’s existing kitchen for the sake of convenience but not so near that it infringes on the house’s interior. Some considerations:
- If you will install a sink, natural-gas grill, or electrical outlets or appliances, aim to place the counter where you can easily run plumbing pipes (both water supply and drain), a gas line, and electrical service. Consult with contractors.
- Think through the traffic patterns. There should be as straight a path as possible from the kitchen door to the outdoor counter without running into diners or loungers. You may be able to use a window as a food pass-through.
- Make sure that smoke and fumes will be carried away from the house. If the grill will be on an enclosed patio, plan to install a commercial-size range hood to remove smoke.
- Take note of prevailing winds and sunlight patterns during the times of the year when you will use the outdoor kitchen. If the proposed site is not well protected from wind or sun, either move it or plan to install an overhead shade structure or a fence or hedge to minimize wind.
- There are advantages to attaching the outdoor kitchen to a house’s exterior wall: utility lines are easy to run, and it is near the kitchen and protected from weather. On the other hand, a freestanding structure away from the house allows more leeway in designing the style and shape of the counter, enhances the outdoor feel, and ensures that cooking smoke will not be a problem.
- Avoid placing a counter or overhead where it will block the view of your backyard from the deck or from inside the house.
The owners situated this kitchen so that food and supplies can be conveniently passed through a kitchen window. The counter is low enough that it does not obstruct the view from the window, and the grill’s location along the side of the house allows smoke to easily escape.
Blending with the House
When deciding on how the counter will relate to the house, you may aim for
- A kitchen and dining area that blends seamlessly with the home, borrowing colors and shapes from the house’s exterior.
- An outdoor room that contrasts sharply with the rest of the house, thereby creating a sort of mini-vacation spot.
- A combination of the two, with basic “bones” that mimic the rest of the house, plus splashes of creative differences in texture, color, and style.
Builders often recommend borrowing from architectural details of the house, especially if the outdoor kitchen will be located adjacent to the home. If your new space will have a roof, for instance, try to match the shape and material of the home’s roof, or install the same siding in the outdoor kitchen as that used for the home. If the interior of the house is visible from the outdoor kitchen, consider colors and materials that complement the visible colors in the indoor flooring, wall, or countertop surfaces. Consider your yard’s landscaping, too. The site’s surrounding trees, rocks, and grasses provide a palette of natural colors that you can incorporate in your outdoor kitchen, often by using local stone or lumber.
This counter’s stone sides do not imitate anything on the house, but they do pick up on the bluegray color of the siding and coordinate with the base of a nearby column, making the kitchen look at home.
Brick detail work that coordinates with the home’s exterior lends dignity and formality to this foodprep counter. The stone countertop is of a different color, but its rounded nosing echoes nearby pillar bases.
Gray blocks used for the grill counter are also used as accents elsewhere in the house’s masonry construction.
The rugged stackable blocks and bricks used for this handsome counter form a pleasant contrast with the lighter-colored masonry and trim of the house.
Stucco painted to match the house color makes this small L-shape counter appear to be a seamless extension of the home’s exterior. Inset smooth river pebbles add interesting texture and contrast.
Layouts That Work
Our first tip for saving money may be of the “duh” variety, but it is well worth careful consideration: how much kitchen will you really use, and can you be just as happy— maybe happier—with less? If the indoor fridge is nearby, for example, you may want skip installing one outdoors and perhaps install a beverage well or drop-in cooler (which holds ice and drinks) instead. Similar consideration holds for a sink.
Things that others consider luxuries, on the other hand, like a stereo system, TV, or heat source, may be near necessities as far as you are concerned.
An L-shape kitchen is a more spacious design that provides two distinct areas, which makes it easier for two chefs to work together. It tends to draw a dividing line between the outdoor kitchen and the rest of the yard, neatly defining the space.
Two parallel islands is a popular configuration; the second island can double as work or eating space, while the first island is for cooking. The U-shape, a variation of parallel islands, will accommodate plenty of appliances and amenities.
A basic island built onto or next to the house is a convenient and efficient design that packs everything into one compact and attractive station. If you choose to run water, electricity, or gas lines to your outdoor kitchen, it will be simplest with this arrangement. Your house will also serve as protection from the elements from at least one direction. But you will need to avoid having the back of a gas grill against the house because heat escapes at the back. A charcoal grill that is too close can cause smoke damage, too. Most grills need plenty of room all around for ventilation.
Saving on Utility Costs
Talk with your building department or local contractors to learn about any codes that might force you to spend more money.
- If you will run electrical lines for receptacles, lights, and appliances, you may be required to install a new electrical circuit, and you may be required to hire a professional electrician.
- Plumbing can be inexpensive if you run only cold water and run the sink's drain into a French drain (or dry well), as shown on page 114. Local codes may require you to connect the drain to the housefs main drain, however, which can get pricy, depending on how far the drain must run and how difficult it will be to make the connection.
- If you attach a counter to the house, you may need to submit building plans and undergo framing and other inspections. You may be able to get around this by building a counter that is separate from the house. (In many areas, a counter that is not anchored to the house does not need to be inspected. Check with the local building department to be sure about this.) You may even be able to build right next to the house as long as you do not drive screws or other fasteners into the house.
Maybe this is all you want or need: a simple counter made of the same bricks as the house encases the grill and provides a bit of food-preparation counter on each side. You will probably need to hire a bricklayer for a project like this, but the cost should be modest.
A long, straight counter allows two or more cooks to work together side by side.
Two large curved counters, one for eating and one for cooking, add stylish flair.
Where no storage is needed, the countertop can simply span across supports, making ample knee room for stools.
A shape that uses two 45-deg. angles has an open feel yet keeps things in easy reach.
Dining Tables and Eating Counters
Creating a pleasant ambiance for diners in your outdoor space is similar to decorating the family room: it is a naturally more casual area, a place to kick back and relax that allows more creative latitude when adding personal touches, which can be fun. Whimsical art, colorful furniture, plants, or other decorations can cheerfully tie it all together. A few practical considerations follow:
- Plan a dining location that is out of the main traffic path and clear of smoke from the grill.
- If you have a pleasant view, orient the diners so that they can enjoy it. The vista does not have to be anything spectacular—a table that overlooks a few raised beds, the canopy of a nearby tree, or a trellis covered by a climbing vine or colorful plants will help everyone feel more relaxed.
- Consider a location that is entirely separate from the cooking area. You may choose to place the grill on a patio and the dining furniture on a deck, for example. The main thing is to define separate areas and to plan for traffic paths between them.
- Use several kinds of lighting fixtures and intensities for pleasant evening ambiance.
- Plan for protection from the elements to maximize the usability of the space by using overhead structures, curtains, and walls.
Here is a simple and inexpensive setup: this round table is perfect for a small urban space. You can always add another chair or two to the periphery.
This kitchen has a freestanding grill with a long counter that doubles as a food-preparation area and dining table, situating diners so that they can talk to the chef and enjoy the view.
A built-in bench is more inviting when you add cushions. To avoid the expense of custom-made cushions, buy off-the-shelf ones before building the bench to make sure that they fit.
This comfortable “living room” space doubles as an eating area for buffet-style dining.
Bolted to framing inside the counter, these stools swivel and can be tucked out of the way when not needed.
This stunning rustic picnic table is made of massive wood slabs. The chunky stools are simply blocks of wood. A picnic table is a good fit for an outdoor kitchen. The long bench turns a corner to clearly delineate the outdoor room.
The word “backsplash” may refer to a short (perhaps 4-inch-tall) vertical piece at the back of a countertop, or it may refer to large wall section covered by easily cleanable material. An outdoor counter does not necessarily require a backsplash, but you may choose to add one because it helps define the space and can keep bowls and plates from slipping off the back of a freestanding counter.
Most grills have lids that catch all grease spatters when they are closed—and many spatters while they are open. In the flurry of food preparation, however, there will be some “friendly fire,” and a backsplash can help contain it and make the area easier to keep clean. If the outdoor kitchen is against a house wall, a backsplash will make cleaning easier and can add color and style to your design. A backsplash can also protect siding from bucking or warping due to high heat. You can use any nonflammable material for a backsplash. Stone and ceramic tiles are by far the most popular options, offering myriad design options. Brick and faux stone can also work, as long as you keep them well sealed.
If you install tiles in a sheltered place, you can attach them using mastic and standard grout. If they will be exposed to the weather, use professional-grade mortar and epoxy grout, and regularly apply grout sealer.
This backsplash picks up the counter’s natural brick and adds contrasting stone tilework.
Stacked bricks that travel up from the counter to the backsplash give this kitchen a monolithic, unified appearance.
Tiles in the backsplash and along the counter edge spice up the design of this spacious kitchen.
Mosaic tiles add an artist’s touch to this one-of-a-kind kitchen, while the counter siding, which blends with the house, helps tie it all together.
Inside a Porch
Most of the outdoor kitchens we show in this guide are open-air types. But a kitchen inside a porch (a patio or deck with a solid roof, rather than just a pergola) is also possible. Such a “semi-outdoor kitchen” has definite advantages: you can use it on rainy days and for a greater part of the year, and it may be so near to the kitchen that you will not need a sink, refrigerator, side burner, or much storage space.
If your outdoor space is totally enclosed, almost as if it were a room in the house, it is unsafe and probably illegal to grill because of fire and carbon monoxide hazards. If the porch has a roof but open walls, check fire codes in your area to be sure your type of grill is permitted. In dense cities, fire codes often prohibit grilling above ground level, especially for charcoal grills. If local ordinances permit grilling on your porch, consider whether you need a range hood. If you will situate the grill against a wall of the house, you may need a range hood and backsplash to protect the house and provide a safe escape route for smoke and heat. House siding—vinyl siding in particular— exposed to high temperatures can buckle, warp, or become discolored. The same goes for the ceiling area above the grill.
If your home’s exterior is made of wood or other combustible materials, the International Fire Code requires all grills, both gas and charcoal, to be at least 10 feet away from the house (though if you have an automatic sprinkler system, there may be an exception). Read and follow manufacturer literature for your grilling equipment. With a propane grill, for example, it is a good idea to check that the tank and hose are properly connected and not leaking. Other safety recommendations from the International Code Council (ICC) include the following:
- Place the grill away from wooden deck railings and out from under eaves and overhanging branches.
- Periodically remove grease or fat buildup.
- Do not leave a hot grill unattended.
- Store a fire extinguisher nearby.
Though modest looking, this vent hood has a powerful fan to suck out smoke.
This grill has plenty of open space around it, so the owners need the vent hood only when things get really smoky.
Walls and Curtains
Outdoor walls may, indeed, not be walls at all but rather fences or other structures designed to provide privacy. A trellis covered in climbing plants or even a row of bushes or short trees may provide the privacy and wind protection you desire. If you have a nearby neighbor, a trellis with small openings may be a good compromise, providing privacy without the unfriendly feeling of a solid fence.
Wood lattice and weatherproof fabric panels provide privacy and protection from the elements. If your outdoor space has a structure, like a pergola, you can add style and color by hanging curtains or blinds. It also helps define the dining area as separate from the cooking area. If you do not have a structure, consider draping fabric over a garden trellis or whatever is available. Adding an outdoor rug and a few pillows makes the outdoor space feel cozy and inviting.
Standard low-budget lattice panels, made of thin pieces of rough-cut wood crisscrossed at a 45-degree angle, tend to look tacky and cheap (in the worst sense of the word) when used in areas other than their intended purpose: hiding the structural area below a deck or porch. It may be worth the extra cost to buy more expensive panels or to make the trellis yourself. If you do not object to a trellis with wide spaces, you may choose to use 1x2s. For a lighter look, perhaps use a table saw to rip-cut pieces of 5⁄4 decking (which is 1 inch thick), and fasten the thinner pieces in an ornamental design.
A pergola provides overhead shade and the option to hang curtains, blinds, lights, or decorations as desired. Here, a set of bamboo blinds, pulled down, adds an appealing wall of privacy and sun protection for the adjoining “room.”
Colorful fabric artfully draped over clotheslines in this urban courtyard frugally supplies sun protection while imparting a festive party mood.
Stained to match the home’s cedar shingles, this privacy wall extends the warmth of wood tones to the patio; the owners use the counter as a buffet table for casual entertaining.
Curtains can provide a privacy, shade, and a splash of style, but the cook may need to tie back the one in the cooking area when the grill is hot.
This wall-size trellis, created using custom-made lattice fashioned in a square pattern, brightens up a neutral seating area with climbing greenery and dappled sunlight.
Over Your Head
Protection from the elements makes an outdoor kitchen more pleasant and longer lasting. A pergola, an arbor, an awning, or a simple overhang from your home’s roof each provides shade and protection from the elements. The canopy of a big tree or a few judiciously placed patio umbrellas protect you from the sun. If you add lights and a heat source for cold nights, you will transform your outdoor space into a comfortable and charming evening hangout, perfect for relaxed entertaining.
When choosing overhead elements, consider your home’s architecture, landscape, and sightlines. You should not obstruct a valued view from inside the house with an overhead structure, but try to capitalize on a pleasant view from within the structure itself. You may want to use umbrellas to add color. A range of sizes is available. Even if your table has a hole in the center, choose an umbrella with a heavy metal stand; the weight adds stability, which helps when the wind kicks up. A tilting feature is worth the extra cost because it enhances your ability to keep diners comfortable. Look for an umbrella that is easy to adjust and retract.
Awnings can be a major investment, especially if you choose a motorized retractable version. Temporary fabric shade options include pop-up canopies available at home centers. New products are always emerging; check online sources. Making your own temporary awning with fabric and poles possibly anchored by tent stakes can be fun for occasional entertaining.
An outdoor kitchen in a sunny setting is more comfortable when you provide overhead shade. Its canvas awning makes this kitchen space inviting. Many awnings are retractable; manually operated models are more affordable than motorized options.
Sometimes just a little shade is needed. An umbrella that swivels can be angled as needed to block rays. This kitchen has some shade from an overhang, and the umbrella is a nice supplement for the chef.
To extend the shade for this kitchen, rustic beams attached to the roof eave support top pieces made of two 2x4s fastened in an L-shape. The combination of wood, stone, and painted concrete block (on the house) is warm and playfully eclectic.
This cedar pergola with widely spaced lattice on the sides neatly frames and brightens up the kitchen area. The pergola also makes it possible to discreetly run wiring for the lanterns at each end.
If bugs are a problem, a screened-in gazebo like this is one solution. Gazebos are very difficult to build from scratch, but a skilled homeowner can assemble a reasonably priced kit in a few days.
For the City Folk
Urban homes may not have the spacious backyards of their sub- and ex-urban counterparts, but lately city-dwellers are adding more amenities that make cooking, dining, and entertaining outdoors more inviting. A countertop island can hold a number of amenities. If space is tight, it may work best to place a portable grill on the island’s countertop when you need it and stow it underneath when not in use. That way, the countertop can serve a number of purposes—a buffet surface, a place to show off plants, perhaps a place for children to create messy concoctions.
In the city, it is more important to minimize the effects of noise, smoke, and light from or on neighbors, and if you are going to spend more time outdoors, you may need to add privacy features like fences, trellises, or hedges. Fire prevention and protection from falling are particular concerns for city rooftop decks, so check codes and regulations for grill-placement recommendations. There should be a solid railing all around so that children and tippling adults cannot fall off the roof. The local fire department may offer a checklist of guidelines that will keep your home and your neighbors’ homes safe.
Local codes can be strict: in some cities, rooftop grilling is not permitted. You will need to be sure that the roof structure is strong enough for the kitchen, and you must install it in a way that will not damage the roof. Small, lightweight units are the norm because you can easily move them when the roof needs repairing.
This compact open U-shape, which hugs the adjoining wall and part of the roof space, takes the place of a railing and frees up territory for dining and other activities.
A ledge behind the grill doubles as a buffet area for drinks and food and takes up almost no additional patio space. The high wood fence at the edge of the property creates privacy.
A privacy wall is often essential for comfort in an urban outdoor kitchen. This custom-made horizontally oriented wall is a classy alternative to traditional lattice.
Food seems to taste better when it is cooked outside: it tends to be hotter right off the grill, and the splash of meat juices on neighboring vegetables improves the flavor of the whole meal. The grill is the centerpiece of an outdoor kitchen, and experts advise splurging to the extent that your budget permits.
The grill tends to be the focal point of an outdoor kitchen. If you plan to build it into a countertop, you will want a grill that will last because replacing it can be a major project. Experts recommend using a minimum of Type 304 stainless steel or a powder-coated grill with a solid warranty.
Gas or Charcoal? The debate continues to rage in the backyards of outdoor chefs. Gas grills have the advantage of speed and convenience, making it easy to prepare a fast meal after a long day at work. Cooking with charcoal imparts a smokiness that many people consider a necessary part of the barbecue experience. (At barbecue contests, you will usually see far more charcoal than gas grills.) You can achieve great results using an inexpensive round or rectangular charcoal grill, but a built-in grill may be easier to keep clean. Make sure you can easily clean out the ashes. Some grills are sold with both gas and charcoal options, and some kitchens incorporate both types.
This gas grill includes “flavorizer” bars beneath the grate, which enhance flavor and make gasgrilled food taste more like charcoal-grilled fare.
Many grills include extensive shelving for keeping cooked food warm while you grill the second course. This is especially valuable for vegetables.
What to Look for in a Gas Grill
You want burners rated at 12,000 Btu or more; an 8,000-Btu burner may not heat as fast as you like. Avoid plain steel grates. They crack and develop pits, which make food stick. Stainless steel is better but will eventually lose its non-stick qualities. Porcelain-coated (or enameled) steel grates perform well but can crack if you use metal utensils. Many chefs prefer plain cast iron, which never cracks but requires regular cleaning and oiling. The best homeowner choice is probably porcelain-coated cast iron, which resists cracking and is easy to keep clean.
Tracing its origins to ancient Japanese earthenware ovens and stoves, the kamado-type cooker today is marketed as a multifunctional outdoor grill. People who own a kamado grill often wax rhapsodic when describing it because it can cook like a stovetop, oven, or grill. A number of companies make kamados, and prices vary widely. Inexpensive metal types are not as effective as ceramic models. With this kind of grill, you use a miserly amount of chunktype charcoal. When closed, the grill can quickly heat up to 650 degrees F and hotter, or you can turn the controls for slow cooking. If you buy a unit that includes both a heat disperser and a pizza stone, the kamado grill can function much like a pizza oven for cooking homemade bread or crunchy-crust pizza.
These grills are round, so building around them calls for a circular cutout.
The Evo is a gas-fired flattop stainless-steel grill with a controllable flame that is enclosed beneath the cooking surface, so food does not get charred as it would with direct fire. It has the versatility of a griddle, and many people believe that it is a healthier alternative. It has two temperature zones, which can vary from 250 to 700 degrees F. Its circular spill-collection system around the periphery funnels drippings into a drawer that can be cleaned in the dishwasher. It can use propane or natural gas as its fuel.
Most drop-in countertop grills are stainless steel, but black is also a popular choice. If you have several stainless accessories, it can break up the monotony.
An enormous grill— 48 in. or wider—may seem an extravagance, but it allows you to cook everything at once, without crowding.
A grill that includes ample storage space simplifies the task of building a counter, and built-in storage space like this will be easier to keep clean.
A Grill Cover is a Good Investment
Your grill may come with a cover, but if not, a winter cover will protect the finish and prolong the life of the grill. This custom-made cover also covers the entire cooking counter.
- It is often best to buy a grill that is a little better than you think you need but not a whole lot better.
- Shop carefully. Some grills with high-profile brand names actually deliver on features, grilling power, and durability. But then again, other high-cost and well-known grills may be disappointing. Any time consulting with homeowners, builders, and grill dealers will be well spent because it can steer you away from bad deals. Some really well-made grills are surprisingly inexpensive. The grill dealers mentioned in the "Resource Guide" at the back of the guide all have good records.
- How big is big enough? If you usually cook only for your family, a modest 26-inch-wide grill with two burners may be just fine. If you have plans for occasional parties and large events, it may be worth spending more for a 36- or even a 48-inchwide model with four, six, or more burners.
- How hot is hot enough? A grillfs Btu number will tell you how much the whole unit will generate but will not tell you how hot each burner gets. A good rule of thumb: try to get 100 Btu per square inch. A 500-square-inch grill, for instance, should be rated at 50,000 Btu from the main burners.
- The stainless steel used for the body should be 20 gauge or better. Thinner gauges (say, 26 gauge) are easily dented. There are many types of stainless steel, but the two most common options are Type 201 or 202, which may corrode and rust after some years, and Type 304 (also called A2 stainless), which is more likely to stay great-looking for decades. The manufacturerfs literature may not tell you the type of stainless used; you may need to go online and look at the specs or consult with a salesperson.
Aficionados will tell you that the ultimate way to cook pizza is in an outdoor wood-burning pizza oven that reaches very high temperatures. These ovens are also great for baking artisan breads with a crunchy crust.
A true Italian-style pizza oven’s chamber is made of Italian clay or refractory concrete, with firebricks on the floor. These masonry components provide the right humidity to produce the crustiness of Old World breads. A stone or concrete pizza oven insert has a domed roof, which radiates intense heat evenly so that the pizza or bread loaf cooks the same throughout, with no burned spots.
Cooking with a wood-burning oven is not easy. You first build the fire, then tend it until the oven reaches the desired temperature (as high as 750 degrees F). This can take ½–2 hours. Once you have attained the heat level, you push the fire to the side and slide in the pizza. It will cook in a couple of minutes and emerge with a crispy crust and distinctive smoky flavor. If you have a crowd to feed, you can cook a dozen pizzas in rapid succession.
Pizza ovens are often as good looking as they are good cooking. The oven itself is supported by a structure that raises it to chest height, with a stucco surround and a roof overhead containing a chimney, which you should keep well away from the house. Stucco and roofed ovens (page 184) look like charming little houses for your baked goods, but metal models also have appeal. (See pages 102–03 for a metal pizza oven.)
A charcoal-fired churrasco grills meat rotisserie style. It is different from a standard rotisserie because the heat radiates from the walls, which is said to seal in juices for tender, juicy results. This is a somewhat expensive option (though reasonably priced kits are available), but if you have been to a Brazilian churrasco restaurant, you may very well consider it worth the price.
Before you spring for an actual pizza oven, consider some other options:
- Although it is not in the same class as a pizza baked in a genuine wood-fired oven, many people enjoy grilled pizza. With practice, you can cook pizza on a standard charcoal grill. (Spread a bit of olive oil on one side of the dough; cook it on the grill; turn it over; spread toppings on the cooked side; then cook the uncooked side.) The result does not have the same genuine texture, but it is crunchy and has a pleasant smoky flavor.
- Other outdoor-cooking enthusiasts bake pizzas in a kamado grill. If you use a pizza stone and get the temperature up to 650 degrees F or so (which happens much more quickly than in a pizza oven), you can achieve much of the same crunchiness and texture, though the smokiness may not be quite the same.
- Some companies sell all of the parts and provide instructions for building a real pizza oven set on a stand with space for firewood below, and with a weatherproof roof.for a total price of less than $3,000. They are designed to be do-it-yourself friendly, so you can build one as long as you have basic handyman skills.
A pizza oven opens up culinary vistas and can give your backyard a sophisticated Tuscan ambiance.
Fire Pits and Fireplaces
An open fire draws people together and makes for a campfire experience. Traditional wood-burning fire pits are perfect for roasting hot dogs or marshmallows. (Although many kids these days do not like marshmallows, s’mores still seem to be universally adored.) Often fire pits are used as a second gathering spot away from the main grill, with seating arranged in a circle around the fire.
An in-ground fire pit is simplicity itself: dig a hole in a safe location, and line it with bricks or stones. After a few wood campfires, you will need to dig out the ashes. Or purchase a lightweight metal fire pit, which you can easily move as you see fit. Some units have a wide rim that can hold small plates. Quick-firing gas options are also available. You will need to run an underground gas line to it. These come in a variety of styles and materials, from metal to masonry. The fire itself may include ceramic stones or colorful fire glass or fire beads, which add sparkle to the flames. These units are not practical for cooking, but they are beautiful to look at and provide warmth with a unique contemplative style.
A fireplace will make an outdoor room feel like a comfortable living room and will lure people outside. A traditional masonry fireplace is probably out of the price range for a person looking to economize: it must rest on a massive reinforced-concrete footing and be built by an experienced mason, which would probably run you $8,000 or more.
But there are other options. A lightweight masonry fireplace in kit form can be assembled quickly and then covered with stucco or veneer stones, much the same as the churrasco project. The fireplace is light enough to rest on a firm patio or a deck with beefed-up framing, and the total cost is less than $2,000.
Another option is a metal fireplace insert. This may cost a bit less for the fireplace itself, but you will need to build framing around it and sheathe the framing with cement backer board covered with stucco or stone veneer. A wood-burning fireplace needs a chimney, which must extend higher than nearby structures and which drives up the price. A gas-burning unit often does not need an elaborate chimney.
The Gel-Fuel Option
A gel-fuel fireplace costs about $400 and can be placed almost anywhere. The flames produced by the gel have variations that appear more natural looking than those of most gas units.
An open-hearth fireplace becomes the focal point of many patios, creating a natural gathering place for family and friends.
This gas-fueled fire pit shoots flames through lava-stone gravel. It can be turned on, up, down, and off remotely.
An old-fashioned, open wood-burning fireplace like this is easy to build using flat stones and mortar.
Comforts of Home
Furnishings and textiles are often the finishing touches for an outdoor kitchen, and this is where splashes of color really enliven the space. More and more weather-resistant materials have come on the market in recent years, but check the fine print on products before you buy to make sure. Accessories like an outdoor rug, a colorful shade umbrella, chair cushions, and a coat of paint on salvaged wood pieces can work together to create a space that is uniquely yours.
Side tables like this ensure that guests have plenty of places to set dishes and drinks and make the outdoor space seem more like a living room.
This wicker chest, which doubles as a table or sideboard surface, stores furniture cushions when they are not needed.
This set of soft, comfortable chairs, which rock, encourage guests to linger on the patio.
A comfortable hammock like this freestanding unit is just the place for a short snooze or some quality time with a book.
This retro-style chaise longue is just the place to flop after a busy day.
Lighting the Night
There is something magical about soft night lighting outdoors; an outdoor room has a romantic appeal when gently illuminated. Too much light will dampen the effect and possibly annoy neighbors, so try low-wattage options first and gradually increase the light level if you need to. The best lighting is subtle and natural looking.
You can put low-voltage landscape lights (usually used for highlighting yard features and lighting outdoor traffic paths) to good use in an outdoor kitchen. They come in a package that includes a string of connected lights and a power pack that plugs into a regular outlet but steps down the electricity from 110 volts to 12 volts. Path lights have metal stakes that you pound into the ground; you can also buy deck lights made to be mounted on deck posts. Higher-quality low-voltage fixtures will cost more but will last longer and are better for withstanding the elements.
Solar lights have no wiring needs; they just need to be exposed to bright light during the day. Then they automatically come on at night (with most models, there is no way to turn them off). The level of illumination varies depending how much solar energy they absorb and how good the battery is. You can buy solar path lights, deck lights, and security lights, and they are usually inexpensive.
If you require brighter lighting, you may need to run cable and install standard-voltage lights. You can control these lights using switches, photocells that turn them on at night, or both. For task lighting, consider clamp-on barbecue lights. Similar to reading lights with goosenecks, barbecue lights grab onto a grill. Also consider wall-mounted low-voltage lights. You have several festive and fanciful options, too: rope lights that are artfully strung add sparkle; twist rope lights can be wrapped around a pole or tree; and candlelit lanterns have their own special appeal.
Various light sources at a variety of levels work together to brighten this outdoor space; the hanging string lights add a festive atmosphere.
Low-voltage lights added to deck posts automatically come on when the sun begins to fade and add a soft glow to ensure that traffic paths are visible. Grill lights come in handy for nighttime cooking.
Rope lights installed along the countertop keep the food-prep area illuminated. You can hard-wire lights like these using a switch or plug.
You will need standard-voltage electrical lines for this kind of lamp, which brightens the counter and surrounding area.
Gas candles like this gives off a mesmerizing glow of warmth and light to make the sitting area more inviting.