Some people set up complete, permanent cooking centers as the focus of their outdoor spaces. Others content themselves with a simple grill. In either case, practical planning makes outdoor cooking efficient and more enjoyable, whether it is for the family or a host of guests.
Decide exactly what features you want in the cooking area. Aside from the grill, do you want an elaborate setup with a sink or a refrigerator? Perhaps a dishwasher? If so, these appliances need to be protected from the elements; place the cooking center in a sheltered location. If you prefer to keep it simple with just a grill, this option still requires some decision making. Do you want a charcoal, liquid propane (LP), or natural-gas grill? Charcoal grills are the least expensive; natural gas ones are the most expensive. The number of burners and features, such as a push-button ignition, increase the cost, too. You can also choose from a number of accessories, such as rotisseries, side burners, smoke ovens, and warming racks.
Then choose a site for the cooking area. It can be placed either nearby or far away from the house. Both locations have their advantages. A cooking area that is near the house benefits from easy access to the indoor kitchen, but one that is positioned away from the house keeps heat and smoke from diners. Remember, elaborate outdoor kitchens need gas, electric, and plumbing lines; it is easier and less expensive to run lines when the cooking area is near the house.
In general, when arranging any outdoor cooking area, make sure that all accoutrements-including serving platters, a spatula, a knife, and a pair of tongs-are readily at hand for the cook by providing plenty of surfaces and shelving. You need to accommodate both raw food and the finished product; a roll-around cart may suffice. Keep the pathway clear from the kitchen to the cooking area. A fire extinguisher nearby is an excellent safety precaution.
Any countertop material should be able to withstand varying weather conditions. Rain, snow, and bright sunlight will fade, pit, and rot some surfaces, so choose carefully. Tile, concrete, or natural materials, such as stone or slate, are good options. (Seal porous stone to prevent grease stains.) Avoid using a laminate countertop, unless it’s in a well-protected area-an enclosed porch, for instance-because exposure to the weather may cause the subsurface to deteriorate. Solid surfacing is more durable, but may also need to be in a sheltered location. Think twice about using teak or other decay-resistant woods for a countertop, as they stain easily and may harbor bacteria.
Decay-resistant wood, such as redwood, cedar, teak, or mahogany, is the right choice for cabinetry, however. Other types of wood should be sealed and stained or painted. Oriented-strand board (OSB), which is made of bonded wood fiber, is also weatherproof enough for outdoor cabinetry.