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How to Cook Up Plans for a Deluxe Outdoor Kitchen

Here’s what to think about when designing your ultimate alfresco culinary space.

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As summer approaches, you may be thinking about turning your backyard barbecue into your dream cooking and entertaining center. There’s an abundance of outdoor options, from simple surrounds for a basic grill to islands so tricked-out that you’d have trouble telling them from indoor ones unless you looked up and saw the sun or moon. Where to start? We break down the decisions to help you determine what would best fit your lifestyle and budget.

Project: An outdoor kitchen that complements how you cook and entertain in your backyard

Lifestyle considerations. Before you start planning where to put your outdoor kitchen, you should think about how you’ll use it, says Chris Sothen, a project manager at Coppercreek Landscaping in Spokane, Washington.

Sothen finds that people often have big plans and ask for more than they need, then end up not using some of the accessories, such as warming drawers and side burners. But if they first evaluate how they’ll use their outdoor kitchen, many end up simplifying, he says.

To help you construct a space that makes sense for your lifestyle, ask yourself such key questions as:

Do you regularly entertain outside and have a climate that permits it? For instance, if you barbecue outside only on the Fourth of July and maybe for one other social function a year, it doesn’t make sense to have a fancy, large outdoor kitchen with a lot of accessories.

Do you see yourself still using your indoor kitchen to do your prep? If you’re looking just to cook outside, then something simple is best, says Kate Wiseman, owner of Sage Outdoor Designs in San Diego. All you need is a little counter space for prep plus easy access to your indoor kitchen.

But if you’re truly interested in entertaining and using your outdoor kitchen as a full-service operation, then you’ll want to consider a bigger prep space and features like an outdoor refrigerator, sink, storage space and a bar or proximity to an entertaining or eating area.

Budget. After how you’ll use the space, the second most important thing to consider is how much you have to spend. You can buy prefab outdoor kitchens from big-box retailers for about $5,000. They generally feature an enclosed barbecue unit with doors to hide components and counter space on either side of the grill.

The cost of a built-in kitchen depends on where you live. Greg Perger, owner of Sunset Construction, a California-based company specializing in outdoor kitchen construction, says a 10-foot-long island with a spot for a barbecue generally costs about $10,000. If you include a midlevel barbecue and a refrigerator, you add another $5,000 to that price.

This doesn’t include any work that may need to be done to the patio or spot where you put the kitchen. You’ll need a base for the unit and, if you’re going for a built-in look, Perger suggests pouring or building a new patio. The cost for that depends on the size of the patio.

More elaborate or custom kitchens cost $30,000 to $100,000, depending on where you live and how many accessories you add.

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This outdoor kitchen was just one part of a $70,000 to $80,000 backyard landscaping project, Wiseman says. It includes a brick-lined fire pit for camp-style cooking, a barbecue and a sink. The homeowners did most of the work, which took almost a year to complete and included a new patio and landscaping.

Locating the kitchen close to the house will reduce the price of pulling electrical, water and gas lines to a more remote part of your yard, says Russ Faulk, chief designer and head of product at Michigan’s Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet.

Expect to pay about $12 a foot to bring a gas line out to the site and another $8 a foot for electrical, Perger says. If you want a shade structure, such as a pergola, Perger estimates that could run about $12 a square foot.

DIY versus hiring a pro. Handy homeowners, like Wiseman’s clients, may be able to create an enclosed barbecue with counter space themselves.

However, most projects —especially if you’re dealing with gas, water and electrical lines — require a professional. Look for landscape contractors and designers who’ve done outdoor kitchens.

Permits. You need to check with your city to determine whether you need a permit. Some places have requirements regarding how far the kitchen has to be from the property line, while others don’t have any rules regarding its installation, Faulk says.

Timetable. The length of the project depends on its complexity. A basic kitchen involving masonry, a barbecue and an outdoor refrigerator could come together within a week, Perger says. But most projects are more complicated and involve a patio, shade structure or more. You may need to get permits too.

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Spring is also a very busy time of year for outdoor kitchen contractors, who typically start getting calls in April or May. Perger currently has a six-week wait for new clients but usually sees demand start to slow in September, just before the weather turns.

Layout. Once you’ve established your needs and budget, you’re ready to think about location and layout. If you envision the area as a full kitchen and stand-alone entertainment hub that you’ll use often — and you have the money — there’s no reason that it needs to be next to the house.

So that the cook can be part of the party, consider having bar or counter seating and a dining table near the prep area.

Just be aware that the chef needs to be able to move around, so don’t cram the space with too much activity, Perger says. He also recommends considering prevailing wind direction — make sure you put the barbecue downwind of your guests so that they aren’t shrouded in smoke.

It’s best to have at least 2 to 3 feet on either side of the barbecue for staging on and off the grill, Faulk says.

If you have the luxury of space, an outdoor kitchen island that’s 8 to 10 feet long provides the optimum amount of countertop space for prepping and serving.

Appliances and fixtures. You’ll be building your kitchen around the appliances you intend to use, so you’ll want to select those early because they’ll determine the length and height of the space.

In addition to a barbecue, options include side burners, warming drawers, pizza ovens, storage drawers and refrigerators.

Unlike indoor ranges, barbecues vary greatly in size, so replacing it once it’s installed may prove difficult. That’s why you should really love the grill you pick and be confident of its longevity, Faulk says.

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Every good outdoor kitchen should have a sink, Faulk says. It increases the functionality by allowing cooks to wash their hands after handling meat, and makes the prep and cleanup easier.

If you don’t want to run a water line to the kitchen, Faulk says there are systems like those in an RV where the water is pumped in and out. You have to refill and dump the canisters, but they work well, he says.

You can also rudimentarily hook up a hose to your tap. The water won’t be potable, but it’ll be good enough for hand-washing and basic sanitation.

Countertops and enclosures. You want materials that are meant to weather extreme heat, cold and precipitation, and that won’t discolor with sun exposure. Natural stone, such as the granite on these countertops, is a good choice.

Concrete, which Wiseman used in this project, is a popular countertop material, though it tends to develop hairline cracks over time, she notes. Although small cracks aren’t structural, they bother some homeowners.

For enclosures to hide the plumbing and propane tank for your barbecue, you can use manufactured stone veneer set in mortar.

You can also do concrete or wood, shown here, as long as it’s treated to withstand the elements.

Lighting. Many homeowners forget about lighting, an important component if you’re usually cooking in the evening. Note the spotlights on the beam here.

Sothen usually places outdoor kitchens under a structure, such as a pergola, so that it’s easy to attach lighting.

Pergolas are great, Perger says, but consider ventilation when building one over a kitchen. It’s best to have open beams or a hood, shown here, to help remove smoke.

Consider having task lighting on a different switch so that when the cooking is finished, you can shut it off and let the ambient lighting take over to create a relaxed mood for diners.

You can also purchase barbecue lights that attach to the grill, but Wiseman has found that they don’t do a great job of lighting the area.

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This article is from Houzz, not the Kiplinger editorial staff.