The outdoor kitchen is rapidly becoming the social hub of the home, much as the indoor kitchen is the favorite gathering place for family and friends. And with summer soon to retreat, it will be safe — and comfortable — to return to the yard.
"It's a hot item," said Scott Redmon, owner of Alfresco Living in Maitland. "And the outdoor kitchen is becoming a lot more than a grill and a sink in the corner of the porch. It's a whole entertainment system. People have a higher expectation for their exterior spaces since HGTV came around."
An outdoor kitchen also expands a home's living space and adds to its value, said Russ Faulk, vice president of product development at Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet in Kalamazoo, Mich. "The return on your investment is comparable to an indoor kitchen redo."
Since the economic downturn, "People have been unable to sell their homes, so they are starting to upgrade with better landscaping and outdoor kitchens, spending more time at home," said Sue Fern, manager of the Florida chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects.
The built-in grill was the start of the outdoor-kitchen trend, Faulk said. "Then came the sink, the refrigerator, a counter for food prep, cabinets for storage — pretty much what you'd have in an indoor kitchen."
As more equipment is added, outdoor "rooms" are becoming larger and more covered, he said. Seating areas are added, along with outdoor TV sets, fire pits and water features.
The grill — fired by gas, wood or charcoal — is still the heart of the outdoor kitchen. Especially popular are hybrid grills, which can be switched from gas to wood or charcoal, depending on what is being cooked, Faulk said. "There's nothing like grilling fish over an oak fire."
Pizza ovens are becoming more popular. Oven designs range from large, wood-fired brick and clay ovens that take several hours to heat up, to compact countertop models fired by gas that are ready for baking pizzas in 20 minutes.
Also gaining favor are keg-tappers, wine chillers, icemakers and warming cabinets.
Be sure to look for low-maintenance equipment, Faulk said, "or you defeat the purpose of carefree outdoor cooking."
Also, make sure any cabinetry is designed to keep the contents clean and dry in inclement weather; install good task and ambient lighting; and choose countertop material that is stain- and grease-resistant and stays cool in direct sunlight.
"Get countertop samples, leave them in the sun and see how hot they get," Faulk said. "Heat retention is not always related to color. Some light colors get hotter than some dark colors."
When designing an outdoor kitchen, "Consider how the space will be used: as a personal refuge or a place to entertain and be social; as a place to cook and eat, or to drink and socialize," said Eduardo Xol, exterior designer on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and celebrity designer for hayneedle.com.
And remember, he said, "Indoor-outdoor living helps balance the soul. It keeps you connected with nature and helps you become more aware of living green."