An outdoor kitchen can be anything from a bonfire ring or a fire pit to a professionally built kitchen for true chefs. It can include a grill, sink, refrigeration, and storage set up that is indeed a complete professional kitchen - only outdoors. There is something primal about cooking and eating outside, which melts away stress and gets us closer to nature.
Did you know that the first cooked meals were made not by Homo Sapiens but by Homo Erectus? Eating cooked meat marks our ascent into becoming modern humans, with larger brains and more survival skills. Cooking food makes it easier to digest, and nutrients contained within are easier to absorb by our systems. Outdoor kitchens are in our DNA - as proven by many archeological sites from ancient times.
Constructing an outdoor kitchen is possible even in the most rugged terrain and in the most sophisticated backyards and patios. It's possible in rural and urban settings alike. We can meet for an outside meal with a couple of friends or organize an outdoor party - just look at all the incredible weddings catered in the great outdoors.
Some of the bigger outdoor kitchens are made to handle such events. Smaller outdoor kitchens can be fitted into patios with only the most essential and carefully chosen accessories. A custom-built outdoor kitchen doesn't have to break the bank or take up all the space you have, even if you don't have a lot.
Learning from the true masters of outdoor cooking
If you look at all human history, indoor cooking is really only a blip on the radar. People have been cooking outdoors for eons - they still do. Street food - fast food prepared outside, often in the street, is popular in many places in the world and is especially going through a renaissance in many western countries.
There are large outdoor bonfires that are still tended to in some communities. And there are sleek, fully equipped outdoor kitchens - complete with gas burners, refrigeration, and storage. When it comes to cooking outdoors, it's best to learn and copy some techniques from the best of the best - usually, the best recipes come from cultures that still practice cooking outside as a part of their daily lives.
Below, we'll give you some tips and tricks that we've gotten from the best of the best.
Let's look at the hierarchy of what an outdoor kitchen can consist of - from the least complicated to the most complicated. Of course, what's easy design-wise might turn out a bit tricky when it comes to cooking techniques! Let's look at some mouth-watering food preparation methods - from the basic bonfire to a fully equipped outdoor kitchen.
A bonfire has been around since the dawn of time - and people still use it for cooking. And yes - they use it for cooking a lot more than marshmallows! You have probably seen many movies with bushmen and survival professionals roasting hunted game or fish at a bonfire. People cooked at bonfires in the large court kitchens in middle age castles - this is when the fire was brought inside into large masonry fireplaces, but still in a relatively untamed form.
What if you're not exactly in a survival situation and you'd like to experience the primeval taste of bonfire-cooked food? All you need is an outside fire pit and some cooking implements. What should you cook with an open flame of a bonfire, or the hot coals created as the fire burns?
Cast iron is the all-time favorite of real bonfire chefs. Cast iron pots and pans have been used worldwide - although most of us may identify them with cowboys, bacon, and beans - they were actually invented in 5th century China.
Cast iron is relatively cheap to produce, and it was a popular material for pots and pans. Today, the best woks are made with carbon steel, but some are still available in cast iron. They are much heavier and cheaper but durable and solid. Although cast iron made it to the Western world much later, it was widely used during the time of Henry VIII, and perhaps we know it best from tales of Cowboys and the Oregon Trail in the Wild West.
Tinfoil- if you are completely unprepared for an impromptu bonfire, but we have inspired you, and you'd like to test out your backyard fire pit right now - all you need is tin foil. You can wrap potatoes for baking and place them in the ambers - don't forget that things like corn, sweet potatoes, apples with brown sugar, fish, and chicken breast also cooks very well in tin foil - you can place them in hot embers, tightly wrapped in tin foil along with the marinade, spices, and the whole shebang.
If you have a few of the items on this list, you're in good shape for outdoor adventure cuisine, even if you don't have a grill or a barbecue. It's not quite an "outdoor kitchen," but it will do in a pinch and make for a fun night with friends. Remember to keep your cast iron well seasoned: coat it with oil and bake in high heat after using. Also, remember that stainless steel tends to burn on a super hot fire, especially on coals!
Where there's fire, there's smoke, and when it comes to outdoor kitchens, there's a chance that there's a great fire pit. There are several ways you can enjoy the fire in your backyard safely - after all, and we're not all cowboys on the prairie. What kind of a backyard fire pit should you get?
Metal wood burning (portable)- there are amazing metal fire pits out there - they have many things going on for them. First of all, they are movable. If you're renting your house or you don't want your fire spot "set in stone," then a wood-burningmetal fire pit is perfect for any outdoor kitchen, even if you're not thinking about actually roasting something on it. A fire pit sets the mood for outdoor dining - you can relax around it on chilly nights with hot cocoa in hand whether you're having a quiet night in with your family or if you're entertaining. These are the ultimate mood setters, and they come in many shapes and sizes. When you're designing an outdoor kitchen, make sure you leave some room for a welcoming open flame.
Brick, concrete, or stone wood-burning - if you're set on a permanent place for your backyard bonfires, you can make it safe by surrounding it with a campfire ring or building a brick ring with a sitting area. It's safer to have the bricks be in an actual "pit" - dug into the ground. This will keep the fire safe from the wind, and you'll have an easier time putting a grate over the fire. A popular solution at most campgrounds is a metal ring that's permanently built into the ground. This is durable and also keeps the fire from unwanted gusts of wind. This might be something we all remember if we ever went camping.
Gas Fire Pits - of course, if you don't have the room or patience (they do take some cleaning) in your kitchen design for a full-size fire pit or you're worried about wood smoke and wood-burning outside - maybe your HOA isn't fire-friendly - a gas fire pit is a perfect solution. They do not run as dirty as a wood-burning fire pit, and they can be much smaller. Some gas fire pits become centerpieces in backyard tables, and they become amazing places to gather and talk on cold evenings. Of course, gas fire pits aren't used for the kind of food preparation we've been talking about, but they are an important addition to outdoor kitchen design. They create a cozy atmosphere and set the mood - you can gather around it on warm summer nights or cooler autumn or even winter evenings.
Symbolic fire feature - When you're building an outdoor kitchen, it's worth it to plan out a space for open flame - gas or wood. Fire adds atmosphere and coziness to any outdoor dining setting - no wonder that restaurant heaters are becoming designed so that the flame welcomes guests with its friendly glow. Black "mushroom heaters" are going out of style in favor of visible flame features. Fire becomes an important design characteristic - even if it's in the form of a smaller torch, a decorative gas firewall, or a fire bowl.
Before we go any further, let's divide these two into two types: gas and charcoal. Now we can proceed.
There are definitely different schools of grilling and barbecuing. Some prefer the no-mess and sheer speed of a stainless steel gas grill. Others like to make a ritual of waiting for the charcoal to burn through, getting enveloped in the rich smoke, and choosing the right type of seasoned wood that will add maximum flavor to their meal. Some like to adjust to the situation.
If you have the room, you should go with the third option when designing your outdoor kitchen. It's about versatility - you don't always have the time to spend the whole day at the grill. But sometimes, you not only have the time, but you want to tackle something bigger - there are pros and aspiring backyard chefs that could spread their wings if only given the right tools. Let's take a look at what options are out there and maybe get rid of some preconceptions and fears so you can live your best outdoor chef life.
Let's start with the big guns. If you're ready to design your outdoor kitchen, you might want to do it "once and for all" - make it a permanent fixture of your garden or patio. If you love entertaining, and you know you're going to use it, it's an investment that will keep on giving back.
What's a full outdoor kitchen? An outside kitchen that has all the features of an in-house kitchen. This means having a whole second kitchen available to you in the warmer months, and if you love the outdoors, maybe you can move all your meals outside. After all, most full outdoor kitchens are equipped with gas burners and are quite convenient.
If you're working remotely from home, switching to eating outdoor meals can give you a mental break, you need to be creative and productive. Not to mention that instant "vacation" feeling you get when you sit to an outdoor meal after you get back from a brick-and-mortar workplace.
What are the pros and cons of a full outdoor kitchen?
As you can see, an outdoor kitchen can be an investment but also the beginning of a whole outdoor lifestyle and entertainment possibilities. Full outdoor kitchens usually come in a few important "areas" - a big kitchen island, grilling area, smoking area, charcoal grill area, or an open fire zone and the dining area.
Dining and cooking areas can be mixed if you want to mingle with people while you bustle around preparing food.
If you're used to hosting bigger parties with catering staff, you'll want to keep these areas more separate.
When investing in a full outdoor kitchen, there are a few "extras" that you may want to include in your design. If you already have an outdoor kitchen, it might be worth it to think about these accessories for the next outdoor cookery season.
This is an intimidating topic for any writer, even one that has barbecued all their life. There is no hiding it - there is a family feud going on in America over what BBQ should be and how to make it perfect. It's enough to make any person self-conscious about their skills, equipment, and morals. For us, it's a short story - if it's delicious, we'll eat it!
Backyard barbecue doesn't need to be stressful and put you on the spot. Look at regional differences in American barbecue later on in this guide - first, let's talk about the right equipment! If you have the right tools and techniques, getting your barbecue skills up to speed and perfection will only be a matter of practice.
Of course, if you're a skilled pitmaster, having a backyard workspace will help you go to the next level.
What's the difference between a barbecue and a grill?
These two words have become synonymous in some states, while the difference could not be clearer in others. The contrast in techniques used for these two types of food preparation has a huge effect on what kind of equipment you're going to need and the layout of your outdoor kitchen.
Let's take a closer look.
Barbecue, as we know it, according to the Smithsonian Magazine, takes its roots from the Caribbean. Over the years, it has evolved into a few separate Barbecue traditions. Now, these are known as the "Barbecue Belt":
They use different cuts of meats, beef, pork, or mutton - but the one thing that unites them all is how the meat is prepared - slowly, over a carefully controlled flame, or far enough from the flame to receive steady indirect heat. Of course, there are "purists" that argue that the only real BBQ is pork because that's how it all began; however, it's probably safe to say that food is an evolving art and BBQ simply developed to fit locally available meats. In Texas, for example, beef is the meat of choice because of the gigantic cattle industry that has been around for what's now centuries. Cattle drives in Texas can be dated back to the Spanish times three hundred years ago.
Although we could write a whole book about the different recipes, let's concentrate on the BBQ equipment, you will need to complete your outdoor kitchen design.
This is a method of barbecue that is done in a pit that's dug below the ground. It's not only done in the South - this type of BBQ was also done in California and Mexico. You can prepare any type of meat in a pit - beef, pork, goat, or mutton. Pits can be dug in the ground or built out of bricks above the ground, a popular solution in the South.
In a backyard setting, it's best to build an above-ground pit that's away from any other kitchen island or sitting area - we don't mean on the other side of the yard, but be careful and consider hot embers and smoke getting in the way of guests and any wooden or heat-sensitive surfaces.
This can be easily built by a contractor or even on your own if you want a DIY project that you can be proud of. You can get free BBQ pit plans here, thanks to Louisiana State University Agriculture Center.
Remember constructing a BBQ pit may fall in the jurisdiction of some local fire codes and laws. Check with your fire department if you're not sure.
A BBQ pit uses wood charcoal and requires a lot of preparation. It's best to include wood storage in your design. The grill should be movable to at least two levels - closer and further away from the heat.
TIP: Don't use conifer wood for BBQ! Pines and firs contain too much sap and will ruin your meat. Try these instead:
Other woods that you should use if you can get your hands on them are Pecan, Olive, Peach, or Pear.
While BBQ pits create a bit of smoke and flavor over time, a popular way of doing BBQ is in a smoker. They take a long time - it's not something you'll use every day. But when building a fully functional outdoor kitchen, it's something worth having in your repertoire.
There are a few types of smokers - BBQ smokers that look like big oil drums - drums like this were a part of their original design. They will have a separate compartment for aromatic wood. These are amazing, classic multitaskers that you will see at any street fair, weekend brunch, or festival. Most people get a Pavlovian response just from seeing one on the horizon.
Even if you already have a gas range planned for your outdoor kitchen, consider getting a powerful smoker for those all-day events.
TIP: When getting a barrel smoking grill, consider getting a double one that can perform both smoking and roasting simultaneously. You can divide your tasks into the hard-core BBQ on one side and grilling sausages, corn, and fixings on the other. This is ideal for larger parties.
Smoking with a gas grill- if you don't have enough room for a big mean smoker on your property, or if the fire codes aren't in your favor, you can still have some smoke without the fire. Consider getting a smoker box that can sit inside of your gas grill, right on the grate. The heat from the gas flame will make the wood chips inside the box create flavorful smoke, giving your food that unforgettable taste. You can even make one out of tinfoil - simply put your wood chips in a tin foil packet and make some holes on top with a fork!
A lot of people make a dedicated smoker a part of their complete outdoor kitchen design. You can have it close to your outdoor kitchen island simply because small dedicated smokers (like egg smokers) don't run as hot as barrels or pits, and they usually keep the smoke well contained, letting out appetizing wafts.
Some of the least common outdoor kitchen appliances are not as popular as the grill or smoker - but they're gaining popularity. We're talking about one of the most social pieces of baking hardware ever built - the pizza oven.
If you make a pizza oven part of your outdoor kitchen, the chances are that your popularity is going to jump up a few notches. In the olden times, not everyone had an oven - people used to gather around the neighborhood oven to take turns baking bread - and taking this opportunity to gossip and catch up with neighbors. It's not a tradition particular to any particular region - it happened in many countries as late as the twentieth century.
Today, we all have an oven in our kitchens - but if there is a fire and a chance to cook together, people will gather just the same. There are several types of outdoor pizza ovens. This wouldn't be an outdoor kitchen guide without giving you a good idea about pizza oven options.
Keep in mind that even the smallest pizza ovens are suitable for so much more than pizza - this is why we think they're one of the most amazing multi-taskers in an outdoor kitchen. They can tackle roasting meat, vegetables, baking bread, pies, and so much more.
Wood vs. gas pizza ovens - there are both types available for your outdoor space. There are even pizza ovens that fit on your counter space, and they can be easily adapted to your kitchen design in the planning stages. Let's start with the smallest pizza oven and work our way to the biggest.
Portable table/countertop pizza oven - these small contraptions can be bought after your whole outdoor kitchen design is complete. They don't take extra construction and are essentially plug-and-play. They are relatively inexpensive and can run on propane, and their small size means they can be transported when you go camping or to the beach - or to that neighborhood get-together in the park. They are usually made with stainless steel and are pretty easy to clean - and in most cases, they will work indoors.
Classic wood-fired pizza ovens - if you're looking for a permanent solution for your outdoor kitchen, and you know you are committed, classic wood-fired ovens are definitely for you. While it's expensive to hire a contractor that will build a working pizza or bread oven from scratch brick by brick, it's much easier to get a DIY kit. With a kit, you get the "heart" of the oven - the actual part where the wood-burning and pizza baking takes place. The rest is up to you, your designer, and your contractor. You can choose how to build around your oven and make it fit the rest of your kitchen layout and design, making the materials match the rest of your kitchen, whether it's stone, brick, organic straw bale, or stainless steel. These bare-bones "inserts" will run you less than $3,000 and leave the design open to your imagination - you can make it fit whatever outdoor living style you prefer, from rustic to sophisticated.
Freestanding ovens -these are movable (they usually come with wheels), but they are as large as a brick pizza oven and can take the same heat. They are perfect if you want the whole pizza oven effect, but you don't want to commit to a permanent outdoor oven. Such structures are, after all, permanent. A freestanding pizza oven can be either wood-fired (highly recommended!) or gas-powered. Freestanding pizza ovens have storage space for wood underneath the oven or a gas canister in the case of a gas-powered grill.
Whatever type of pizza oven you're ready for, get ready to invite many people over - it's rewarding to see individually engineered pizzas come out of the oven - this type of cooking is outstanding for social events and is a great ice breaker activity.
If you have decided to make a pizza oven a part of your outdoor kitchen space, make sure you have these accessories to make your life easier and your baking more creative:
When it comes to kitchen designs, serving drinks is at the forefront of great entertainment. Let's take a moment to see how you can take care of your guests in the most important icebreaker moment -
"Would you like anything to drink?"
If you are used to entertaining large crowds or making your outdoor kitchen into an entertainment area for adults, consider a fully functional bar space. It can be used for informal dining when not in party mode, and
On ice - there are a few ice makers designed especially for outdoor living - especially if you have a full outdoor kitchen planned. Most of them can be built into your design. If you don't have space for an actual ice maker, you can get a special ice cooler for countertop ice storage. You can easily work both into a bar-style layout. In fact, ice storage or an ice maker is a part of most modern outdoor kitchen designs.
Well-conditioned- sometimes ice isn't the answer. Especially when it comes to wine. Wine has to be kept in the range of 45 F to 65F. If you have large parties outside, it's worth noting that there are outdoor-ready wine storage units that offer specialized wine storage options for 20+ bottles. Most of them come complete with locks and temperature control, and sleek stainless steel interiors.
Refrigerated- full outdoor kitchens are designed with built-in refrigerators that can store cold drinks and cold snacks. Don't forget that some alcoholic drinks like vodka or tequila love colder temperatures, and a freezer might be a good idea if you're opting for a full outdoor bar. It's not a good idea to keep bottles on ice in the same ice that you're going to be using for making drinks as it risks contamination.
Piping hot - this is one of the reasons why strategically placed outlets are critical for your outdoor entertaining space.
You might want to hire a few contractors that specialize in different aspects of building a fully equipped outdoor kitchen. Why? Because a company that specializes in woodworking and construction might not be so good (or authorized) to deal with gas installation, electricity, or water hookups.
There are some things to make sure you check off before hiring a contractor:
Here are the steps in designing an outdoor kitchen all the way to getting it done and having a meal:
After you find a list of contractors, make sure you choose the right one:
If all goes well, you will have a tight working calendar and a reliable deadline before the warm days of spring and summer take off.
An outdoor kitchen is usually a big part of your backyard architecture. When you design it, you do it with entertaining in mind. There are some great ideas to make your backyard more chef-friendly and a great conversation starter. We're talking, of course, about the kitchen garden.
A lot of Michelin-star restaurants boast of their own gardens. Chefs like Thomas Keller, Sam Beall, or Alice Waters have been pioneers of garden-to-kitchen cooking, and their whole businesses are based on seasonal and locally farmed food. Yes - some chefs have gone as far as purchasing their own farms.
If you're planning on a full outdoor kitchen, it means you're dedicated to amazing food. While it doesn't have to mean that you turn your whole backyard into a sustainable farm, you might want to consider surrounding it with well-landscaped herbs that you can use in grilling, salad making, and garnishes.
If you happen to have children, an edible landscape is a great way to teach them about where food comes from and what it takes to grow something and take care of it from seed to plate.
Here are some ideas for your edible landscaping:
Fruit trees are a great back yard option - they not only give shade but provide healthy snacks! If you don't have room for a full-size fruit tree, consider column threes. These are engineered for easy-to-pick fruit and as little space as possible. You can plant them around your kitchen area or keep them in large pots.
Other trees you can plant and keep potted, depending on your climate, include olive trees and citrus trees. Fresh lemons and limes are one of the most amazing things you can have around a grill, and you can keep the potted kinds outside even if you live in a colder climate - simply move them inside once the season is over.
Shrubs like rosemary are perfect companions for outdoor cooking - rosemary is often used in landscaping. It is drought-resistant and fairly maintenance free.
These can grow into large shrubs, releasing essential oils into the air on hot days, perfect for plucking for your meat and vegetable dishes.
There are edible flowers that can be used as garnishes or in salads - they look great in a flowerbed or a potted landscape! Try these for kitchen blooms:
These are easy to grow and make for more colorful outdoor living - adding color and nature to your outdoor kitchen space.
Herbs can be added to marinades and add a kick of flavor to salads or roasted vegetable or meat dishes. You can add them to mixed drinks or refreshing summer lemonades. Here are some classic herbs you need to make a part of your common outdoor kitchen area - they don't look too shabby as a potted centerpiece on your kitchen island, either!
Fast-growing salad greens can provide for all of your weekend salads when in season. They are easy to grow in pots or directly in the ground.
Outdoor storage space is what makes outdoor get-togethers easy. You don't have to lug everything from your indoor kitchen, but keep it outside where it's easy to take out. Storage is easy to fit in when planning a full outdoor kitchen design, but it can be a bit daunting when you're short on space.
Consider putting hidden storage in your patio seating, built-in underneath planters, narrow storage sheds built against walls, hanging storage boxes on walls and fences. Ensure your storage is waterproof, and you won't have any mold problems in the long run.
A basic list of how to stock your outdoor kitchen storage space and never be surprised by guests should look something like this:
Take a look at this awesome cleaning video by Tori Toth - she uses all the right tools and minimum effort to make an outdoor kitchen sparkle:
In this guide, we tried to touch on most of your outdoor living needs, from open flame to portable gas solutions. An outdoor kitchen is a space to relax, have fun, and entertain friends and family. It's a space for staycations, warm afternoons, and chilly fall evenings by the fire.
If you're planning on upgrading your grill area into something more functional, you have come to the right place to start. We hope we inspired you.
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