The Ins & Outs of the Outdoor Kitchen

To maximize this crowd-pleaser, start by choosing the right spot to build an outdoor kitchen with a quality grill and other supporting appliances

outdoor kitchen (Above) This Kalamazoo outdoor kitchen features a built-in grill, weather-tight cabinets, refrigerator drawers, and a pizza oven sitting on the countertop.

If you want to eat out more often but hate to spend a fortune on restaurants, it’s time you considered an outdoor kitchen. While you can lay out almost as much on the al fresco version as your indoor cook space, you’ll recoup most of it in added value to your home. In a recent study, the National Association of Home Builders reported that outdoor kitchens add at least 100 percent of their value to a home.

To make the most of this investment, consider carefully these five points:

Enhance your space: Work with your contractor on finding the ideal location to build out your kitchen. Materials such as brick, stone or stucco are classic and can be compatible with many architectural styles of a home—particularly if it’s an older home—and appear integrated.

Make it comfortable: Allow room not only for dining but also for lounging before and after the meal. This means you need a shady or covered area that is paved with stone or wood so that it can support furniture. You also want lighting for the dining and seating area, as well as the kitchen, so you can enjoy the living space well into the night, and an open plan that keeps the cook(s) close to the rest of the gang.

Pick appliances carefully: Buy only what you know you will really use. Avoid appliances that serve only one function, unless you will operate them regularly. If your family loves pizza, by all means, add the pizza oven. If you entertain frequently, you can use a warming drawer. But do you really need that smoker?

Invest in quality: Everything that goes into your outdoor kitchen should be made to work outdoors. But, still, the stone countertop, the outdoor grill, the appliances…everything you have installed will remain outside year-round, so it needs to be able to stand up to swings in the weather. Buy from manufacturers with national reputations so you can get a customer service person when you need one, including on the weekend. Also, check the warranties to make certain the company will back up their products.

Expect the unexpected: At some point, an appliance or pipe will have to be repaired or possibly replaced. Work with your contractor to design installation so that electrical, gas, and water can be easily reached for repair or adjustment, if necessary, without breaking down that beautiful stone surround or concrete foundation.

Plan the setup and location

Your setup can be built-in or freestanding, depending on its location in relation to the structure of your house. Freestanding is quicker to get up and running, and you can take some of it (the grill, for instance) with you, should you move. However, built-in gives a more designed look and allows for optional but important features like a sink. ”If they are relatively close together, an outdoor kitchen can utilize the indoor kitchen’s capabilities, such as prep space and storage,” says Russ Faulk, chief designer and head of product for Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, a manufacturer of outdoor kitchen appliances. “Conversely, a fully independent outdoor kitchen with refrigeration, warming cabinets and cabinetry is more self-reliant, but will require more space and connections for gas, water, and electricity.”

There are also outdoor kitchen “kits” that include everything—the grill, cabinets, countertop, and even bricks for the surrounding structure, as well as a sink—from companies like EP Henry. You need to be an experienced DIYer to put this combo together, and you will need to pull all the permits for construction and utilities.

As for the location of a built-in kitchen, if you place it against an exterior wall of your house, you won’t have to run water and gas lines as far as if you were to locate it some further distance within the yard. You will, however, likely need a ventilation hood to prevent cooking smells from drifting into your house. Work with an experienced contractor who can help you maximize your budget by figuring out the best location for easy access to utilities. He or she will also be able to tell you if you need that vent hood.

Location (and climate) will also be a factor as to whether your outdoor grilling station should be sheltered or exposed. Even appliances and materials made to be used outdoors should not be exposed to driving rain, pelting snow, or prolonged, sub-zero temperatures.

“Always check to see if a permit is necessary before starting your outdoor kitchen project,” advises Russ. Your contractor can handle this, as he or she should be highly knowledgeable about local codes, including easement, permeable surface requirements, water restrictions, and height restrictions.

Choose the features

The outdoor kitchen can be as large and tricked out as your space and budget will allow, but to make it fully functional, you will need to outfit it like you do the indoor kitchen, with designated areas for prep, cooking, and clean-up, as well as dining and hanging out.

Cooking on the grill

At the center of any kitchen is the stove or, in this case, the grill.  Outdoors, it can be as sophisticated as you want, with two, three, or five burners plus an accompanying warming drawer, side burners, and that pizza oven. Whatever type of outdoor grill you choose, make sure it’s from an established manufacturer that specializes in grills and offers a solid warranty.  If you’re in the market for a freestanding version, companies like KitchenAid, Dacor, and Monogram, long known for their indoor cooking appliances, also offer outdoor gas-operated products with sophisticated combos of multiple burners and side grills, which allow you to cook several items simultaneously.

Manufacturers devoted just to grills, like Weber, also offer plenty of choice for both freestanding and built-ins. Be sure that the area below the grill can handle both the weight of the equipment and the heat the grill will give off, as well as any sparks that might fly out. The counter or workspace should be adjacent to the grill and burners. Make sure you can sanitize it for food preparation. “Keep a buffer zone between hot grills, ovens or cooktops and any people,” says Russ, who recommends a minimum of 9 inches of countertop extension behind and to the sides of all hot appliances.

Keeping it chill

You probably don’t need a full-size fridge outside. An under-counter version will do the trick to chill meat and fish till it’s time to cook, and keep drinks cold, too. If you have the room, you could enjoy two fridges, one for food and one for beverages. The most common width for under-counter models is 24 inches, but 21- and 18-inch versions, as well as drawers, are available from major commercial fridge makers like Summit. Expect to pay $1,000 to $2,000 (for a double-drawer version)—as much as a grill. Make sure the model you buy is UL-listed and rated food-safe for outdoor use.

Cleaning up

A sink, while not mandatory, makes outdoor entertaining a whole lot easier, whether it’s rinsing hands, washing dishes, so you don’t have to drag dirty dishes back into the house, or even filling up a water pitcher. This requires a water line connected to your home water supply or it can be hooked up to be fed through a hose if you just need cold water. You’ll want weather-resistant 16-gauge stainless-steel for the sink. Then ask yourself, single or double basin? Splurge on a bar station that includes a sink as well as condiment trays and an insulated ice bucket from Home Depot. Or supplement your cook station with a modular side burner and sink combo from Master Forge. Wondering about a dishwasher? Demand is low so they are hard to find. Best to rinse dishes in that sink and cart the load to the house to finish inside.

Turn on the lights

For comfort and aesthetics, outdoor lighting is a no-brainer. It’s also necessary for safety. As with the indoor kitchen, you want the prep and grill areas well illuminated. Dining and seating areas can get by with softer, ambient lighting, but make sure pathways are lit so no one stumbles on pavers at night. Your contractor can help you determine the appropriate outdoor options for spotlights focused on task areas, as well as pendant, post, or string lighting to illuminate the dining and lounging areas, and lantern or path lighting for areas underfoot. Again, you want fixtures made to be operated outdoors but look for LED versions. This option is preferable because LEDs give off little heat, can handle temperature swings from -40F to 180F, and last up to 10 years or for 100,000 hours of continuous use. You’ll find the widest range of selection at box stores where you can see the lights illuminated to help you decide if you like the effect.

Convenience within reach

Since your contractor is running lines for utilities, ask him or her to include some electrical outlets for small appliances such as a blender, a portable stereo, and a space heater for chilly nights. Your contractor will know the correct type of outdoor outlets, which should be ground fault circuit interpreter (GFCI).

Cooking on the grill is a great American pastime, whether entertaining friends or feeding your family. Maximize your enjoyment by adding some sizzle to al fresco dining with a beautiful, super-functional outdoor kitchen.

Besides getting help with all those permits, learn about the benefits of working with a licensed contractor on your outdoor kitchen project.

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, and scope, helping until project completion. Follow the blog for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.