Take Your Kitchen Outdoors

Savor the peaceful pleasure of your rural property with an outdoor culinary center.

Outdoor Kitchen adobe bread oven

This lovely outdoor setting includes an adobe bread oven.

David Cavagnaro

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Ask Deborah Maneval about her outdoor kitchen and she immediately responds with great enthusiasm.

“I love my outdoor kitchen and cook everything there, including bacon and eggs for breakfast, as well as lunch and dinner. I use it throughout the year, even in winter,” says Maneval, who lives on four scenic acres surrounded by farms and country roads in Hawthorn Woods, a rural community in northern Illinois.

She extols the benefits of her full-service outdoor kitchen, which is complete with grill, refrigerator, sink, bread warmer and bar counter that seats six.

“It’s so gorgeous out here, I don’t want to leave,” she says. From her outdoor kitchen, Maneval can see pine trees, rolling hills and her two ponds – one features a pair of waterfalls and is home to a school of koi. She also enjoys her flowers, cultivated in the English garden style and mingled with her favorite herbs, including rosemary, lavender and basil.

Feast your eyes

If you love living in the country, you don’t have to be stuck indoors at mealtimes. With an outdoor kitchen you can cook and dine, grill and chill, all while feasting your eyes on the beauty around you and immersing yourself in nature’s best. What better way to relax with family and friends than to prepare and share a meal as the sun sets and the stars rise?

With a fully equipped outdoor kitchen, you needn’t leave guests unattended. And with sufficient counter, grilling and cooking space, meal preparation outdoors can be pleasurably shared. Here are practical tips for creating an outdoor kitchen that’s perfectly suited to your lifestyle, climate, landscape, cooking needs and budget.

Cooking up a trend

Why are outdoor kitchens so popular today and particularly suited to rural lifestylers?

Americans spent approximately $50 billion on outdoor living spaces in 2005 alone, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association (HPBA). And the trend is continuing. A 2007 HPBA study shows that 43 percent of grilling consumers surveyed view their outdoor grilling area as a functional area to entertain and cook.

“Americans always have grilled outdoors, but the trend toward outdoor living and entertaining developed after the national tragedy of September 11,” says Deidra Darsa, HPBA spokesperson. “People want to stay at home more and remodel their backyards for a resort feel.” Also fueling the trend is flavor.

Many believe that nothing tastes better than when it’s cooked outdoors – whether by grilling, smoking, roasting, barbecuing or planking.

“Flavor is an incredible advantage,” Darsa says. “You can’t duplicate these tastes with the broiler in your indoor stove.”

“We not only grill meats, seafood and vegetables, but also pizza and breads,” Maneval says.

People living on rural property have an advantage over urban dwellers when creating outdoor kitchens.

“You can build to overlook a forest, field or garden. The landscaping can be unbelievable,” says Don Johnson, HPBA’s director of market research. An outdoor kitchen can augment the square footage of usable living space. Although there are no guarantees, an outdoor kitchen might also increase your property’s resale value and its appeal to potential buyers.

Not your dad’s barbecue

Today’s outdoor kitchens are much more than a simple charcoal grill and a picnic table. Weather-resistant outdoor kitchens can include sinks, refrigerators, counters, stoves, high-tech grills, bars, keg coolers, shelving, cabinet space, fireplaces, tables, decorative tiles, lighting, torches and more. All are designed to withstand the elements.

Prices range from a couple hundred dollars (for a basic free-standing grill) to six-figure extravagance. Upscale outdoor kitchens can incorporate luxurious dining areas, fountains, swimming pools, whirlpools, statuary, flowered trellises, weatherproof artwork and etched-glass dividers.

Fire your imagination

Before building or expanding your outdoor kitchen, first carefully examine your own needs.

“What do you want from an outdoor kitchen? What are your cooking habits?” says Amanda Lecky, author of Outdoor Kitchens. Here are 10 considerations:

1. Lifestyle. How large is your family? How many people will you serve? How much will you cook outdoors? Once a week or on weekends? Every evening? Do you frequently entertain? How many people will be using the kitchen at once? Will you host catered events?
2. Dining. Will you eat outdoors? How much seating do you need?
3. Cuisine. What do you like to cook outdoors? Basic fare such as grilled hamburgers and hot dogs? Pizza? Or full gourmet meals? Do you want to smoke foods? Need a warming oven?
4. Beverages. Do you need a way to keep beverages cold? An ice maker? A coffee-maker? A full-service bar? Manufacturers offer many sizes of weather-proof refrigerators, freezers and ice makers.
5. Weather. Will you use your kitchen year-round? How many months? Do you need to protect your outdoor kitchen and dining areas from excessive winds, rain or the beating sun? Want to winterize your kitchen?
6. Space. What are the precise measurements of the space available? Where are the locations of existing trees, shrubs, pillars and other elements?
7. Location. Do you want your outdoor cooking facilities to be adjacent to your indoor kitchen? Near your patio or deck? Or free-standing? “It’s great to have an outdoor kitchen near your vegetable garden,” says Lecky.
8. Landscaping. What plantings or landscape features already exist? What do you want to add when building your outdoor kitchen?
9. Lighting. Proper lighting can provide cooking visibility and a relaxing mood for dining. Homeowner Deborah Maneval has weather-proof fiber optic lighting all around the grill and seating area. Other options include spotlights, torches, lanterns, pendants, low-voltage fixtures and candles. “Solar-powered fixtures are environmentally friendly and don’t require cables,” says Lecky.
10. Design. Styles that create atmosphere are traditional (including classical, Americana and country), as well as rustic, contemporary and exotic, Lecky says. “There are so many great weather-proof fabrics and furniture available for the outdoors,” she says. “The style can make a space warm and inviting.”

The “grate” outdoors

An outdoor kitchen has special considerations:
• Fire safety. Consider which direction heat and smoke will rise, and all other aspects of fire prevention.
• Food handling. Keep higher-risk foods, such as meats, seafood and dairy products cold until cooked.
• Plumbing. If you live in a climate where pipes freeze outside in the winter, consider installing a simple sink with a garden hose attachment. You need only remove and drain the garden hose when cold weather comes. The downside is that you can only get cold water with a garden hose sink. “We use our kitchen in the winter and have a hot-water heater,” says Maneval.
• Uninvited guests. You don’t want voracious wildlife and insect pests to regard your outdoor kitchen as their own all-you-can-eat diner. You also want to keep your own livestock at bay. “Don’t store food outside, and be careful to remove garbage and any scraps. Sweep up,” says Lecky. (For more detailed advice on critter control, see “Deerproof Your Garden” in the July/August GRIT, and “Masked Marauders” in the November/December issue.)

A nourishing life

“We frequently entertain family and friends in our outdoor living area and celebrate New Year’s there,” says Maneval. “I even cook Thanksgiving turkey in our outdoor kitchen.”   

Freelance writer and journalist Letitia L. Star has written more than 1,000 published articles, including features on country and rural lifestyles.