Build an Outdoor Cooking Area

Make an outdoor cooking area the focal point of all your get-togethers.

Backyard fire pit

Simple log-and-plank benches give this stone fire pit a nice look.

Photo by Jerry Pavia

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Maybe it appeals to your primal instinct, or you simply enjoy being outdoors. Maybe it’s even that you get better results for a variety of reasons, plus cleanup is easy. Whatever the case may be, everyone seems to love cooking outdoors. It seldom gets any better than firing up the grill and tossing on a couple of quality burgers or steaks and maybe roasting up some fresh veggies from the garden. Whatever your culinary passion, savory smoke and fresh air just seem to make food taste better. Many of us dream of adding to the tradition of charcoal or gas grill on the back patio, and taking it a step further by building an outdoor space — where family and friends can gather, laugh, cook, eat and share. It may be as simple as a sturdy backyard fire pit for cooking hotdogs and s’mores and for warming the gathered bodies on cool fall evenings. Or you might be looking for the full accompaniment of grill, fireplace or pizza oven and outdoor dining area. Luckily you’re only limited by your imagination and willingness to do a little research and hard work.

Location

Any of these projects can be built to just about any size and shape desired, and out of any sturdy fireproof materials. That’s the easy part. Deciding which to use and where to place it may be more difficult. From my experience of moving a fire pit because it just wasn’t working where it was, I learned that the first and foremost thing to do in getting started, with any of these projects, is to determine where you’d like to locate it on your property.

Most cities have ordinances regarding minimum setbacks from yours and your neighbors’ homes and structures, so make sure to talk to your local ordinance officer or fire department before digging in. You also may be required to submit a diagram for approval before building.

It helps my wife and I to do a little brainstorming whenever we try to determine where we want to locate a new structure or feature item in our yard, considering all the ways we intend to use our property in the future. Do you want a getaway fire pit that’s away from the house and, figuratively, away from all concerns of the world, or are you looking for a social gathering place right off the main entertaining area? Is your space limited, or do you have young children who still want to be able to kick a soccer ball around the yard? Perhaps you need the pit offset, or covered so as to make as much yard available as possible.

Walk the property and imagine you’re entertaining friends and family. Now try to imagine the flow around your proposed installation. It also helps when you try to imagine any future structures you may have in mind, such as a pergola or a deck. You may not plan for them in the next few years, but if they are an option, keep them in mind at least.

As I mentioned earlier, these projects can be built from nearly any fireproof material. From stone to clay to steel or brick, the options for materials that can be used to build your outdoor fire pit, fireplace or oven are never-ending. Most commonly you will find rings made of steel, rock or prefabricated concrete pavers of some sort, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get creative. Maybe you have access to recycled concrete or urbanite (broken pieces of unwanted concrete) from a driveway that was torn out, which makes perfect building material. Another quick fire pit can be made from the cutoffs from large 2- to 3-foot-diameter concrete piping, and construction companies are usually very generous with this waste material.

Recycled bricks can also be used to create a beautiful rustic fireplace that will stun everyone. Depending on where you live, you may even be able to use your own soil — if it’s heavy enough with clay — to build a durable and functional clay oven. The point is, thinking a little outside the box can not only save you a few dollars, it can help you create a functional and unique outdoor focal point.

Design and build

While you’re designing your outdoor fire-feature, think of how you want to be able to use it. If cooking is going to be a consideration, and really it should be, then this is a good time to plan out how you will want to do that. As with campfires, there are a number of simple solutions available that can be placed over a pit to allow for grilling or cooking. Some are removable, others permanent and adjustable, but all should meet the requirements that you most commonly will be using them for.

I always like to look into a recycled, reused or homemade option when I am planning a project like this. Frequently you can find used barbecues at thrift stores or in community bulletin boards online that come with perfectly serviceable cooking grates. With some simple modifications, these can make for perfect removable cook surfaces for a number of outdoor cooking applications. A simple tripod constructed of 1/2-inch rebar could easily suspend a grill or cast-iron pot for instance, transforming your fire pit into a vintage “western” cowboy cookery.

If a fireplace is the option that you’ve chosen to go with, there are designs and products available that allow you to insert a grill for use in cooking that can be removed afterward to allow the fireplace to be used purely for ambience and enjoyment. You may even want to design your fireplace to be used more as a stone, brick or even clay oven for cooking pizza, breads or overnight slow cooking of meats or beans. Because these methods and materials have been in use for thousands of years, there is a wealth of information available for many methods of constructing them. (For outdoor bread oven plans check out our article Backyard Bread Oven).

Probably the single most popular feature of this sort is the fire pit or outdoor fireplace. These serve as a focal point of any backyard get-together and can easily be taken to the next level and become an enjoyable addition to an outdoor cooking area. Creating one can be as simple as re-purposing an old cast-iron manhole frame (I’ve done this, and it works wonderfully) or as elaborate as a masonry or slate pit with intricate designs; the details are limited only by your creativity. After determining what material you will use, you’ll naturally be guided to the correct way to begin your installation. Simple ring-over-earth fire pits like my manhole frame require little more than ensuring the ground is level and the site is a safe distance away from flammable objects. No special treatment is required of the ground beneath the fire area; it will essentially just become a permanent campfire of sorts and will require only the occasional shoveling out as ash begins to pile up.

On the other hand, a brick, rock or paver type construction — because it is built from many pieces — requires a somewhat more intense approach to ensure that it is built on stable ground so it will last for many years to come.

Much like laying pavers, you will want to trench out a ditch and line it with a course drainage grade rock. In this case, dig to approximately 12 inches deep and the width of your pavers or bricks, and then fill the bottom of the ditch with a good 6 inches of rock. This allows for drainage around the stone base, preventing settling in rainy areas or winter heaving in cold climates, as well as giving you a stable base to build the first layer of bricks on below-ground level. This will help to maintain the form and shape of the pit or fireplace as you continue to build. You could also choose to pour a cement base rather than laying your first course of stone below ground level. This is generally a good guideline for starting most outdoor hardscape construction, but more detailed instructions can be found at your local hardware store or online — it all completely depends on your budget and skill.

What if you don’t have room for a large feature in your yard space, or you simply don’t want to dedicate the space you do have to something permanent, but you do want to take advantage of cooking outdoors or enjoying a fire with friends and family on occasion? There are always a number of portable fire pit options available for fairly reasonable prices. While they do easily solve the problem, all of the ones that I have come across are either lacking in size, durability or cooking features. That said, there’s no reason you couldn’t build a temporary fire pit or outdoor cooking area that could easily be stored until needed.

Bricks can make great small, open fireplaces or fire pit rings by simply stacking them in a safe area. Even old 55-gallon drums can be cut down to 12 to 15 inches high, layered with brick or rock on the bottom, and used as temporary fire pits, and standard circular barbecue grills can easily be placed over the top to cook on. By elevating the ring on double bricks placed on three or four sides, you can even use it over your lawn with little if any damage to the grass. Watering the area below is a good idea as well to keep the ground from overheating. I’ve even seen old wheelbarrows used as fire pits by placing a layer of bricks across the bottom (not recommended unless fixed to prevent tipping). Talk about multi-use!

So as you can see, there are numerous ways to go with an outdoor fire feature: large or small, permanent or temporary, and limited only by your desire and creativity. Whichever way you choose to go — fire pit or fireplace, granite or urbanite — as long as you take the time to plan thoroughly and you think about the ways you want to use the feature, and then build appropriately for the materials being used, you are sure to enjoy your outdoor cooking area for many years to come.


GRIT Blogger Paul Gardener lives on a small acreage, Homescale Farm, just outside of Ogden, Utah.