While statistics from the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association show that gas grill owners outnumber charcoal grill owners almost 2 to 1, the debate over gas vs. charcoal grilling surely won't be resolved any time soon. In fact, as consumers continue to expand their outdoor living spaces, the quest for the ultimate outdoor kitchen is escalating.

Playing With Fire

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While statistics from the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association show that gas grill owners outnumber charcoal grill owners almost 2 to 1, the debate over gas vs. charcoal grilling surely won't be resolved any time soon. 

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“We anticipate this will continue to be a huge trend going forward,” says Dave Coulson, national advertising manager for Napoleon Fireplaces & Grills. “Instead of moving up in housing, people are fixing up their existing homes. Even in colder climates like we have in Canada, built-in grills, patio heaters, and hot tubs are very popular. Homeowners are making their own backyard oases.”

And when it comes to outdoor kitchens specifically, “the grill is just the beginning,” Viking outdoor product manager Taylor Calhoun says. “People want to do everything outside, so they want to construct an outdoor kitchen to match what they do inside.”

Outdoor kitchens let homeowners maximize what they can do in their outdoor living spaces, and properly lighting these spaces will increase the amount of time they can spend using them.Photo: Lynx

Indeed, a range of cooking appliances, refrigeration, and storage options are giving homeowners and their contractors opportunities to all but replace their indoor kitchens. With so many options, manufacturers and outdoor kitchen designers offer some insight into creating spaces that maximize functionality.

Heavy Equipment

Outdoor kitchens let homeowners maximize what they can do in their outdoor living spaces, and properly lighting these spaces will increase the amount of time they can spend using them.
Lynx Outdoor kitchens let homeowners maximize what they can do in their outdoor living spaces, and properly lighting these spaces will increase the amount of time they can spend using them.

In agreement with Calhoun, Pete Georgiadis, president of Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet says, “the anchor for an outdoor kitchen is always the grill,” so choosing the right one for the user is essential. “When it comes to performance, what matters is power per square inch, and the number of zones you can control separately,” he says. To that end, and perhaps alleviating some of the charcoal vs. gas debate, Kalamazoo and other manufacturers offer “hybrid” grills that incorporate both types of cooking. Moreover, infrared technology is also emerging on many models, giving grillers the opportunity to sear meats in a way that grills have not been able to do before.

While cooking technology has evolved to include more burners and higher BTUs, manufacturers also have expanded their product lines into the cooler side of the outdoor kitchen. “When someone is really investing in an outdoor room, they want to have all the products and accessories to finish that space,” says Bryan Eskew, director of marketing with Lynx. Eskew says ice makers and refrigerators are among the most popular outdoor kitchen accessory appliances. “These are the most important additions because it means the griller will be able to not only keep beverages cold for guests but also be able to keep meats and other foods cold before they go onto the grill,” he says. “Not having to run back inside to the main kitchen to retrieve all the food is a matter of convenience and helps enhance the outdoor kitchen experience so grillers and their guests really enjoy their time outside.”

Other cooking appliances let outdoor cooks move far beyond burgers and kebabs. “Most people can really appreciate and have fun with a powerful burner next to the grill,” Georgiadis says. Auxiliary burners can work for everything from warming sauces to boiling water for pasta or corn on the cob, and can even be used with woks. Moreover, Georgiadis says pizza ovens are becoming available for outdoor kitchens as well.

“The warming drawer is another huge item, and a lot of times people don't think of it until they visit their product dealer,” Calhoun says. “When you're grilling steaks, for instance, you can take the rarer ones off first and hold them in the warming drawer until the rest of the meal is ready to be served.”

With the grill as the center of attention, plan plenty of prep and dining space into an outdoor kitchen layout so the griller and guests can enjoy the space.Photo: Viking

With the grill as the center of attention, plan plenty of prep and dining space into an outdoor kitchen layout so the griller and guests can enjoy the space.
Viking With the grill as the center of attention, plan plenty of prep and dining space into an outdoor kitchen layout so the griller and guests can enjoy the space.
Stainless Suites Replicating an indoor kitchen outdoors isn't out of the question — even outdoor dishwashers are available — but don't make the mistake of using indoor appliances outside.

“Manufacturers have to change the wiring and other internal components for outdoor appliances so they hold up in the elements,” Calhoun says. “Any appliance you make for an outdoor setting must go through a different certification process by CSA,” he adds, referring to an international third-party product testing and certification agency. Installers may also be familiar with the UL label offered by the well-known organization Underwriters Laboratories.

The traditional “work triangle” can easily be applied to outdoor kitchens. Weathertight-stainless steel cabinetry keep utensils and all other kitchen gear handy and protected.Photo: Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet

Additionally, Eskew suggests looking for products made of high-grade stainless steel and with strong welds and protected fastening points. “Seams are a perfect place for grease or moisture to collect, and that's where you'll see deterioration over time,” he says. This holds true for both appliances and stainless steel outdoor cabinetry.

Function al Fresco

The traditional “work triangle” can easily be applied to outdoor kitchens. Weathertight-stainless steel cabinetry keep utensils and all other kitchen gear handy and protected.
Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet The traditional “work triangle” can easily be applied to outdoor kitchens. Weathertight-stainless steel cabinetry keep utensils and all other kitchen gear handy and protected.

With so many decisions to make, designing a useful outdoor kitchen involves “crawling into the client's head,” says Jon Van Allen, a landscape architect with McHale Landscape Design, in McLean, Va., and winner of Kalamazoo's 2007 Oasis Award for outdoor kitchen design.

“There are a number of questions to ask with regard to what the client is looking to do and the space they want to use,” Van Allen says. “You need to know everything from how many people they want to have in the kitchen at one time, to how the cook wants to be situated with respect to the guests, to the outdoor pavilion's proximity to the house.” If the outdoor kitchen is close to the house, he says, gas and water lines may be easier to run, and it may also eliminate the need for extra refrigeration or other appliances outside.

This outdoor kitchen pavilion from McHale Landscape Design features cooking and entertaining areas, wine storage, and a fireplace.Photo: McHale Landscape Design

Designer and experienced remodeler Nicole Sassaman has created outdoor kitchens everywhere from her own home to the set of the TV show Extra. On residential installations, Sassaman says she sees an impressive return on investment. “I'm getting two dollars back for every dollar spent,” she says, noting that for a well-designed kitchen, size doesn't matter. “Some homeowners may have the space and the budget to go really big, but most of the time an outdoor kitchen is only about half the size of an indoor kitchen,” she says.

This outdoor kitchen pavilion from McHale Landscape Design features cooking and entertaining areas, wine storage, and a fireplace.
McHale Landscape Design This outdoor kitchen pavilion from McHale Landscape Design features cooking and entertaining areas, wine storage, and a fireplace.

Georgiadis says that Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet has an area on its Web site highlighting 10 outdoor kitchen design tips, and he offers some reminders: “Inside, lighting usually isn't an issue, but outdoors, it can often come as an afterthought,” he says. “You've also got sun, rain, wind, and bugs. People want to enjoy their outdoor space year round, so it's helpful to think about how to create shelter, extend the seasons, and create a really functional space.”