There are many things to consider when designing the outdoor kitchen: appliances, style, functionality, entertainment & dining space, budget, climate, safety…
And it pays to think it through. The right outdoor kitchen design will result in a number of benefits. Not only will you have a new and great space to entertain family and friends, but you will have expanded the living space of your home, which can also increase your home’s value, with a high return on investment.
In this article, I’ll introduce you to a few approaches to those various considerations when designing an outdoor kitchen. And, as I find them, I’ll add links to a number of resources that will help you put everything you need together. Or, even to find prefabricated outdoor kitchens, and people who will design your outdoor kitchen for you.
Your Outdoor Kitchen Plans: Begin with the End in Mind
What are your ultimate outdoor kitchen plans? That is to say, how do you intend to use your outdoor kitchen? Plans might be as simple as cooking for your immediate family during the summer months, or as big as entertaining a hundred people on a regular basis.
Either way, the old adage, “Form Follows Function” applies here. Answering questions such as how often you grill, whether or not you’ll want regular access to your indoor kitchen, or how many people you plan to be cooking for, will help you determine things like additional outdoor kitchen appliances, grills sizes and types, seating arrangements, and safety precautions.
I find that it helps to think of your outdoor kitchen functionality in five broad categories, into which I’ve broken down the remainder of this article:
*I’ve added “Safety” as it’s own category here so that it will stand out, but you should actually consider outdoor kitchen safety as an important “sub-category” of each of the others.
Let’s look at these categories one at a time, and start putting together a list of must-have items and areas. For the more budget-conscious of you, organize your list into “necessities” and “extras” so you can be more flexible, and adapt as your outdoor kitchen plans take shape.
Cooking: Outdoor Kitchen Grills, Ovens, Smokers, & Burners
If you aren’t going to be cooking, then it wouldn’t be an outdoor kitchen! Grills are the obvious main staple appliance of outdoor kitchens. Grills, however, are not the only outdoor kitchen appliances available to you for cooking. There are plenty of options to set yourself up to cook just about anything you want in your outdoor kitchen.
Think about the size of your appliances—which is affected by how much food you’ll be cooking at once, and how many people you’ll be cooking for—and, convenience: what kinds of cooking you’ll want to do in your outdoor kitchen, and where in the designated space you’ll want to do it.
Outdoor Kitchen Gas Grills
The most common centerpiece of the outdoor kitchen, gas grills can be portable, to move around your patio or yard to adapt to different kinds of entertainment or weather conditions, or it can be built-in to your stationary outdoor kitchen island or counter.
Built-in gas grills can be larger, allowing you to cook for more people at a time, and heat control over more grilling space to cook several types of food at once. They also tend to look more stylish as part of a more permanently installed outdoor kitchen.
Whether you have a portable or built in gas grill, there are two types of fuel to consider: Propane, and Natural Gas.
Propane is the more popular of the two, and comes in small tanks that you keep near or under your grill. While the minor inconvenience is that you have to keep refilling or buying additional tanks to have on hand, propane can be convenient because you can move the tanks along with the grill, or use them in areas that don’t have natural gas piped in.
Natural gas is better suited to an immovable, built-in outdoor gas grill. The inconvenience is that you’ll have to add additional piping out to your outdoor kitchen gas grill, which can be on the expensive side. In the long run, however, natural gas burns cheaper, and won’t require that you keep track of any tanks—it’s there when you need it.
Outdoor Kitchen Charcoal Grills
While a built in gas grill gives the most control over your grilling with an even heat, some people prefer to stick with the traditional charcoal grill for their outdoor kitchen.
Charcoal grills come in various sizes and styles, and provide that age-old taste of traditional southern barbecue. But, you don’t necessarily choose between a charcoal and a gas grill. Many people choose to supplement one with the other. Usually, adding a smaller charcoal grill to accompany a larger built-in gas grill.
Here’s a popular auxiliary charcoal grill people like to add to their outdoor kitchen: kamado grills.
What is a kamado charcoal grill? “Kamado” is Japanese for a particular style of enclosed ceramic charcoal oven grill. They are shaped like a huge upright egg, and the enclosed design allows it to double as an oven, in which you might cook pizza, or bread — or even cookies!
Outdoor Kitchen Pizza Ovens
Speaking of ovens and baking, here’s another supplement to your outdoor kitchen: pizza oven.
Pizza ovens come in many types and sizes, and it doesn’t have to take up space on your outdoor kitchen countertop. Pizza ovens can be built into your outdoor kitchen island, or sit on the counter. You can also get a standalone oven and place it off to the side, or away from the main area.
They can be made of various materials. Stainless steel pizza ovens can match the rest of the appliances on your outdoor kitchen island, while ceramic, stone, or brick pizza ovens might make a stylized addition to your garden or yard.
They use various types of fuel, too. There are gas pizza ovens, wood-burning ovens, coal, and electric.
With all the options, you can definitely find the right oven to fit your budget and space, and have that hot fresh pizza ready to eat!
Side Burners For Outdoor Kitchens
Heating sauces, boiling pasta or seafood, deep frying — these are not done so easily on a grill, and it would be convenient to have a burner or two on the side of your grill in your outdoor kitchen.
Side burners for outdoor kitchens can be built-in or portable. But, the portable kind will likely require their own fuel source separate from your grill. So, they are most convenient when built-in to your cooking area next to your grill, and can share the fuel plumbing with your grill. (Be sure to get one that is compatible with your grill’s fuel source: propane or natural gas.)
Power burners are another popular type for the outdoor kitchen. Power burner offers an increased heat output over the standard side burners, and make cooking greater amounts in larger pots a breeze.
Both portable and built-in grills can come with a smoker-box attached. However, chefs that are serious about the diverse methods of smoking their foods might consider a separate electric smoker.
Electric smokers come in many sizes and shapes, but your main consideration for your outdoor kitchen might be whether to get a smaller countertop model that you can put away and bring out when needed, or to build it into your kitchen island or under the counter.
Outdoor Kitchen Griddle
Going another step further, you might add a built-in gas griddle, or flat-top grill. Outdoor gas griddles can be used from breakfast to dinner for things bacon, pancakes, hibachi-style cooking, stir-fry. These tend to be wide, so you’ll need more counter space in your island. But, if your budget and space allow, your cooking options expand enormously.
Cooking Safety: Ventilation & Insulation
Ventilation and insulation are extremely important when working with fire. And don’t assume that, just because you are outdoors, you automatically have enough ventilation.
Gas grills require piping of the fuel to the grill. If any of that plumbing springs a leak, and the gas is trapped inside the island with nowhere to go, that buildup can prove to be quite dangerous.
Be sure your island or counter has vent panels in the access doors to your propane tank or natural gas pipe, or elsewhere along the path, so that gas can escape.
Smoke rising from your grill might easily blow away in an open air environment. But, once you add a covered area to protect your guests from rain or sun, you’ve built a trap for the smoke to collect. Consider adding a vent hood above your grill to suck up the smoke, and blow it away and outside of your entertainment area.
When building the counter or island that will hold all your cooking appliances, pay attention to the materials used. Building out of combustible materials such a wood means you’ll have to insulate it from the heat created by your grill and other appliances. Installing an insulated grill jacket between your grill, kamado, or burners and your island will protect your kitchen from a serious accident.
Food Preparation: Countertops, Storage Units & Trash
Food preparation. Will you prepare your food inside, then bring it outside to cook? Or, will you prefer the convenience of having everything in one place and within reach?
Perhaps I should have started my discussion with this section, since this is where the function and the look of your kitchen might begin to blend. As you consider the space and how it will be used, you begin to consider your island or counter style, and whether or not it will be portable or collapsable.
For your outdoor kitchen to truly substitute for your indoor kitchen, you will need plenty of storage, places to put items on, and counter space to prepare your food. Keep in mind that all of it must all be weatherproof and waterproof. Cabinets and countertops should provide enough space for everything to have a place, and to keep your kitchen uncluttered.
Just as with your indoor kitchen, storage cabinets and countertops can be coordinated with your flooring for a customized look. As you consider your counter space, think about what materials you’ll use for your countertops, and cabinet doors.
Outdoor Kitchen Countertops
While you’re thinking about the space you’ll need, and the shape your counter will take, start thinking about the materials you’ll use.
Your outdoor kitchen countertop should be both a good surface for working or dining, and easily cleaned and maintained. Easy to clean, weather and waterproof cabinets & counters will serve you well long-term.
Here is a list of the most common materials, with notes about maintenance:
Popular Outdoor Kitchen Countertop Materials
- Ceramic Tile
Glazed ceramic tile is pretty much the standard favorite for outdoor kitchen countertops. It is stain resistant, easy to clean, and you can get it in just about any color, shape, and size — covers, corner edges, and other finishing pieces. The tile grout, however, requires it be treated with a sealant to keep it water resistant and weather-proof. A weather-resistant substrate/subsurface must be used as well since water can potentially seep down to it and cause damage to any surface not designed to survive outdoors.
Granite kitchen countertops are probably the second most popular material. It’s solid and strong, so it won’t need an additional subsurface to support it. It’s also beautiful to look at, coming in a variety of colors, shades, and patterns to match your style. Because of its weight, however, it may require professional installation. You may also want to treat it regularly with a sealant to protect the surface from water and stains.
Slate is a less common, but equally sturdy option. It may not be as pretty as granite, but it’s just as solid and strong, so it won’t require a subsurface to set it on. It resists water and stains better (because it’s less porous), making it easier to clean. It’s also heavy like granite, so you may want to have it professionally installed.
- Stone Slab
Besides slate and granite, popular materials include bluestone and limestone. Just like the above, no substrate is required. You can get a smooth slab cut at the stone yard, and then shaped to fit the contours of your counter.
- Flagstone, Brick, & Stone Tile
Though more commonly considered for walkways and paths, all of these materials provide a strong, solid working surface suitable for a countertop. They provide a nice rustic look that may match the style of your home or yard. Due to their porous nature, flagstone and brick need to be treated with regular applications of a sealant for stain and water resistance. You can also choose a stone that is stain-resistant enough to require less maintenance later. Remember that the resulting assembled surface is not a “single component,” so you will need a weather-resistant subsurface to support the stones or brick tiling.
Concrete has been recently discovered to be useful for decorative surfaces — it can be poured, textured, and colored in a variety of ways. Concrete requires a sealant for water and stain resistance, but it does not need a substrate for support. You might be able to pour it in place over a substrate yourself, or pour it elsewhere and lift it into place without a substrate. You might want to hire an experienced concrete-counter artist who can create a unique counter design for your outdoor kitchen.
A polymer is a plastic composite. The main advantages of a polymer countertop is stain and weather resistance, and you do not need a substrate to support it. While they are relatively inexpensive and readily available, you might find a more appealing look for your outdoor kitchen countertop using other materials.
Outdoor Kitchen Cabinets & Storage Units
Pantry, cabinets, appliance and utensil storage, trash-bins… your outdoor kitchen’s cabinets should account for all of these so you can keep everything at hand, and don’t have to run back to your indoor kitchen for the things you need.
But, there are some other considerations specific to outdoor kitchen cabinets.
Weatherproof & Waterproof. Even if you have a covered outdoor kitchen area, storms and winds can throw rain and snow at your cabinets. If so, they’d better be designed to handle that water. If you live in an area with drastically different seasons, the materials should also be resistant to dramatic changes in temperature, from hot to cold. Common waterproof materials include stainless steel, marine-grade polymer, and teak (wood used in shipbuilding).
Sun-proof. Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun can have a bleaching effect on the colors of your cabinets. Obviously, this won’t be an issue with stainless steel, but colored wood or plastic polymer will be susceptible to this color fading. Be sure the cabinets include a UV inhibitor to protect against fading, keeping the colors of your cabinets beautiful and consistent with your original design.
Stain-resistant & Easy to Clean. Not only should your storage cabinets and drawers resist food stains, but stains from the many other things you might be storing in the. Metal containers that might rust, cooking & cleaning supplies and chemicals, and the like can stain both the inside and outside of your cabinets. Make sure the surfaces are manufactured to resist such things, and provide for easy clean-up.
Pest-Free. Being outdoors means being exposed to bugs and other critters that are looking for things to eat. And not just your food! Organic materials like wood will serve as food for termites and other bugs. Non-organic materials like stainless steel and polymer will be safe from these pests.
Safety for Counters and Storage
As mentioned in the previous section, make sure you consider your storage and counter space to the exclusion of your cooking safety.
Putting a storage unit directly under your gas grill or sink might mean you will not have access to the plumbing for those appliances. This can be dangerous if you do not have access to fix water or gas leaks, or if it prevents proper ventilation of gas for grills.
Drinks & Sinks—AKA: “The Wet Zone”
Now that you’ve got your eats, you’ll need to wash it down with something. You may also want to wash up after all that preparation.
There are a number of appliances and fixtures you’ll want to consider if your outdoor kitchen is to be complete as a replacement for your indoor kitchen.
Bar centers, refrigerators, and sinks can help for serving up drinks as meal complements or for entertainment.
Outdoor Kitchen Sinks – ALL sinks are designed to be in and around water, so even an “indoor” sink will work outdoors. However, when selecting a sink for your outdoor kitchen, size, function, and style will be your main considerations.
Outdoor Refrigerators – Save yourself trips to your indoor kitchen. Keep food and condiments cool and on-hand, and beverages chilled and ready-to-drink. Outdoor refrigerators are usually compact in size for under-counter installation, and are designed to withstand the elements.
“Kegerators” – Short for “keg refrigerator” a Kegerator insures the beer coming out of your keg is always ice-cold. These can sometimes be used as compact refrigerators, giving you some versatility if you’re short on space. And, you’ll have to provide your own keg.
Outdoor Wine Coolers – No need for a cellar. These specialty refrigeration units keep your wine at the optmium temperature even while outside. They come in a variety of sizes and some even accommodate multiple temperature zones.
Ice Bins & Coolers – This special bin on your countertop allows you to keep ice handy for your bartender and guests, and even store condiments and keep them cool.
Bar Centers – If you like bartending for your guests (or providing a bartender), this will be a great addition to your outdoor kitchen. Some units include a top-rack for bottle storage, ice bins, and a sink in one.
Ice Machines – Never worry about running out of ice. These can insure an ample supply of clean ice and automatically detect when the bin is full or in need of replenishment.
Blenders – Blend that ice into frozen drinks! Nothing like blended cocktails or ice cream shakes outside in the warm sun. One of these will keep your bartender happy, too.
Electricity & Plumbing
Many appliances will require electricity, so you’ll want to have enough electrical outlets installed. It’s a good idea to hire a licensed electrician to make sure your wiring complies with local codes.
Keep in mind that adding sinks will require that a water line be extended from your home to your kitchen. Or, that water is supplied to the sink from a hose. Drainage will also have to be considered, and comply with local codes.
Make sure the appliances you purchase are outdoor rated. Particularly if they require electricity. And, pay attention to the placement of your various appliances and fixtures.
For example, you shouldn’t install your cooking and cooling appliances next to each other. Not only do they each give off heat that might affect the other, but you wouldn’t want to be hunched over and tugging on the fridge door with a hot grill hovering above you.
Check the installation instructions for your appliances carefully, and make sure you provide enough space between your appliances and within the counter for ventilation and cooling.
Where will your guests be spending most of their time eating, drinking, and socializing? Will there be a separate dining area? Or, do you want a more intimate setting where they are dining close to you while you cook, or drinking at the bar while you serve up drinks.
Of course, you can have a combination of these scenarios, but it’s important to prepare the options in advance.
If you want to keep everyone close by in your outdoor kitchen, make sure you create designated dining and seating space on or near your cooking island. If you want everyone at one island, you might lengthen or widen the island counter so that guests have room for plates, and are at a comfortable and safe distance from your grill and cooking appliances. Again, if the area is covered, make sure it is properly ventilated.
Perhaps you’d prefer to have a separate area altogether. Consider the atmosphere you’re trying to create. Many people would prefer to dine at a table with other guests, but maybe some want to be more laid back—literally—on a patio lounge chair or sofa. A combination of dining sets and lounge furniture will give your guests options, and allow you to adapt to different types of gatherings.
If you’re going to have a dining area separate from the cooking area, think about how guests will be served food—or serve themselves. You can serve food up straight from the grill onto plates, or include a self-service station complete with food warmers and a garnish station for ultimate convenience.
There are a few things that will insure your guests’ safety while they are moving about your outdoor kitchen and dining areas.
Be sure that paths are clear of obstructions, and well-lit: especially if you’ll be entertaining at night. Slip-resistant flooring is also a good idea—particularly if you’re near a pool, or in an uncovered area after a rain. Spilled drinks or food can also add to slip risks.
Covered dining areas can allow continued dining and partying should it rain, and also provide protection from harsh sunlight. You’ll want to be sure they’re protected from the heat of the cooking zone in your kitchen, using proper arrangement of counters and ventilation.
Prefab Outdoor Kitchen Kits
If you find all of the above considerations a little overwhelming, don’t fret: The recent popularity of outdoor kitchens has created a new market for modular, prefabricated (or “prefab”) outdoor kitchen kits that provide you with a fully-functional outdoor kitchen, without a lot of do-it-yourself skills and know-how.
There is such a wide variety, in fact, that it might seem as easy as picking a style and shape that will go well in your outdoor space. Prefab and modular outdoor kitchen kits will often include the refrigerator, cabinets, options for countertops, bar centers, dining space, and more!
While prefab outdoor kitchen units will cut down on the time and cost over a custom design, and make the planning and assembly processes significantly easier, you will still want to consult with a contractor to incorporate things like electricity, gas, and plumbing. A contractor can also help with selecting the best location and alignment of your kitchen to account for these things.
And, after having read this entire article, you will be well prepared for that discussion.
The Best Outdoor Kitchen Design
I know that was a lot to take in, but I think you now have a very good sense of what goes into creating the best outdoor kitchen design.
The best outdoor kitchens put the experience first. A pleasing look and aesthetic is important important to the experience, but so is functionality, convenience, and safety—for you, the host and chef, and your guests.
I hope that this article has provided you with a good overview and understanding of designing the outdoor kitchen, and that YOUR new outdoor kitchen provides you and your loved ones lots of enjoyment and long-lasting memories.
If you have any questions, or any additional info or comments that you’d like to provide for other readers, please leave them below.
Thanks for reading,