How to create the ultimate outdoor kitchen on any budget

Want to take your al fresco cooking to a new level? Here’s how to create the ultimate outdoor kitchen and go from burnt sausages to haute cuisine

Barbecuing has long been a part of the Kiwi summer experience, but more and more people want to take their al fresco cooking to the next level with a built-in outdoor kitchen. So what elevates an outdoor space from basic barbecue area to kitchen status? According to James Higgins, general manager of Outdoor Concepts, it’s your cooking set-up.

“People who are shopping for outdoor kitchens are looking for the ability to cook outside in a more sophisticated way, not necessarily on your typical barbecue,” he says. “Although Kiwis are used to barbecue cooking, a standard barbecue doesn’t always create a great cooking dynamic. Low-cost models are prone to grease fires and they cook food poorly. Built-in barbecues look great and also create that smoky flavour and outdoor ambience you can’t get inside.”

Outdoor kitchens take the fun, open-air vibe of a barbecue and add the convenience and elegant cooking experience of preparing food indoors. If you have the budget to build one, they really are the best of both worlds.

The planning

Use these six questions to help you come up with a clear plan for your outdoor kitchen before you hit the shops.

1. What will your outdoor kitchen be used for? Is it simply to cook meals outside without continual trips inside for drinks, cutlery and plates? Or are you a passionate foodie and want to produce gourmet dishes for your friends al fresco while you all enjoy the garden?

2. What do you like to cook? One advantage of having an outdoor kitchen is that you can supplement the cooking appliances you have inside. Barbecues are the obvious choice, but you can also opt for outdoor ovens for pizza and bread, as well as rotisseries, smokers, wok burners and teppanyaki plates.

3. Where will your kitchen be located? If you have an existing outdoor entertaining area, the answer will be obvious, but if not, easy access from your indoor kitchen is key to minimise running in and out between the two. It will also cost less to connect to utilities such as power, gas and water.

4. How can you maximise the usefulness of your outdoor kitchen? Try to make it usable all year round. This means creating shelter from wind, sun and rain with screens and overhead canopies, especially for the cook (avoid combustible materials over the barbecue, though!).

5. How will your kitchen be organised? The same general principles apply for kitchens outdoors as they do indoors, with the size, position and proximity of refrigeration, hot areas (barbecues, ovens, cooktops), wet areas and dry areas (prep benches) all designed for maximum efficiency. One simple approach is to divide the outdoor kitchen into three main zones: preparation, cooking and serving. If you’re still unsure, talk to a kitchen designer.

6. What will your kitchen look like? For a really stunning effect, use materials and detailing that complement or repeat those inside the house, such as matching benchtops, door hardware and cabinetry.

What do I need?

A good, functional outdoor kitchen will include:

  • A built-in cooking appliance
  • At least a metre of food prep space

Plus, for added convenience:

  • A sink
  • An outdoor fridge (different from an indoor model)
  • Shelter from wind and ideally from rain or sunshine, too
  • Storage for pots, pans and utensils
  • Lighting – both task and ambient
  • A heater, for year-round comfort

The cooking

Decide what sort of cooking you want to do outside and everything else will fall into place. Outdoor cookers can vary widely in cost – a simple charcoal barbecue can be picked up for less than $50, whereas a top-end built-in outdoor stove will set you back around $7000, and that’s before installation. James from Outdoor Concepts says it’s worth spending a bit more for a really good cooking experience.

“You need to spend upwards of $1000 for a fantastic, good-quality appliance that cooks well and will last.” He recommends the Weber Family Q for a reasonably priced cooker that is good quality.

$ Standard

If you want to create a functional cooking space outside on a budget, a standard barbecue can still offer plenty of enjoyment, as well as that delicious smoky flavour. Look for a model that can sit on a benchtop so you can create the permanent, built-in look of an outdoor kitchen without the expense of hooking it up to power or gas.

$$ Special

A good mid-range cooking appliance will really take your outdoor kitchen to the next level. By investing in this piece of equipment and carefully planning your prep area, you’ll set yourself up for many years of outdoor cooking bliss, regardless of whether or not you also choose to install a sink or fridge.

$$$ Superb

If you’re serious about creating a functional, bespoke outdoor kitchen and money is no object, James recommends American brand DCS, which creates top-of-the-line outdoor kitchen appliances. “They offer high-quality materials and unmatched durability,” he says. “With regular maintenance, these appliances will last a very long time and look great.” Two types of cooking appliance – a pizza oven plus a barbecue – is the dream scenario.

Tip: set up an edible garden in pots or containers to make your outdoor cooking space feel welcoming and generous. Some lush mint and parsley for sprinkling on salads, a citrus tree for adding zest to food and drinks and a big basil plant for pizza are great, easy-to-grow options.

Rustic revival

Pizza ovens

The must-have accessory for many outdoor chefs these days is a wood-fired pizza oven. Depending on how geeky you want to get about your margherita, you can build your own oven from scratch or purchase a ready-made model. You’ll need to think about storing dry timber for your fire and ventilating it properly so that smoke doesn’t blow straight back into your house (or your neighbour’s).

The beauty of a pizza oven is that it creates atmosphere – the combination of the flames, the heat and the smoky aroma is pretty special, and you can also use it to cook a variety of foods, not just pizza. However, pizza ovens require plenty of prep (taking up to 1.5 hours to heat up) and cleaning to keep them working well. If you love pizza but don’t want the hassle of a full-size oven, a small charcoal or wood-fired pizza cooker, or a pizza-box attachment for your barbecue might do the trick.

The budget

We break down the structures, fixtures and the extras you can add to your outdoor kitchen at three price points.

Up to $5k: Cheap & cheerful

With a little creativity and a DIY attitude, you can easily create a great outdoor kitchen on a budget. Invest in a good cooking appliance, then browse Trade Me or the hardware store to build your food prep space. “A good cooking appliance and a good design takes you a long way,” says James from Outdoor Concepts. “If you do a little DIY and have a mate to help you, you can bring it in under $5k.”

  • Shelter This budget most likely won’t extend to a permanent shelter, unless someone close to you is a builder, so you’ll need a cooker than can be brought indoors when not in use or a good cover to keep it dry.
  • Food prep Hit the op-shops and Trade Me to find a sturdy old work bench that will stand up to being left outside. A concrete or stone top is ideal, but steel or hardwood would be fine too – you’ll need a cover to keep the rain off, though. Look for something of a generous size, at least a metre long and 60cm deep, with a storage shelf underneath. Alternatively, you could get on the tools and build a table to suit your space. It doesn’t have to be perfect – the rustic look is ideal for an outdoor kitchen with character.
  • Paving Ideally, your outdoor kitchen will already be situated on a paved surface, but if you’ve only got grass to work with, go online and find instructions for how to lay a few simple pavers or a gravelled area. This will make your kitchen feel more established for relatively low cost.
  • A sink might be possible if your outdoor kitchen is close to the house and the plumbing is relatively easy to access.
  • A fridge is probably out of the question as you’ll need a safe power supply (extension cords are a no-no if you want to create a beautiful space) and a standard fridge won’t cut it – outdoor fridges cost more. Try bringing an ice bucket out to your cooking space to keep drinks and ingredients cool.
  • A heater if you have a bit of money left in the budget, make your outdoor kitchen work hard all year round with a freestanding gas heater or chiminea for midwinter pizza nights.

$5-$30k Functional & fabulous

In order to avoid doing DIY, you’ll need to hire a professional to build your outdoor kitchen and possibly design it as well. Many landscape architects now specialise in outdoor kitchens, and by hiring a specialist you’ll ensure a great design that’s tailored to your home and to how your family likes to live.

  • Shelter if you’re working at the upper end of this budget, you should consider building a freestanding pergola to offer shelter from rain. If your outdoor kitchen is adjacent to your home, you might be able to get away with an awning attached to the side of the house. Even a shade sail will make your kitchen more user friendly during hot weather. Don’t forget to shield your cooking area from the wind, either with a permanent fence or some hedging plants in containers or raised beds.
  • Food prep You can likely afford either a bespoke bench to suit your space or a modular outdoor kitchen bench with built-in storage. If you’re having something built, look to the materials inside your kitchen to create a cohesive look and feel.
  • Paving create a simple paved area or deck that includes space for dining as well as cooking. Talk to your landscaper about creating a good sense of flow between your cooking space and adjoining garden or indoor spaces, and use existing trees, plants and structures to make your kitchen feel like part of the landscape.
  • A sink and a fridge should be part of your kitchen plan, but will likely influence where it can be located as you’ll want to minimise plumbing and electrical costs.“Lots of people overlook a sink, but if you want a proper functional kitchen, you need a sink,” says James. “And a fridge isn’t essential, it’s more like a next step. But a proper outdoor fridge isn’t cheap.”

$30k+: Al fresco luxury

With a high-end budget, your outdoor kitchen is limited only by space and your imagination. A custom-made kitchen is likely to be on your wishlist, as is a broader landscaping plan that may include an outdoor living and dining space, as well as a kitchen.

  • Shelter If you’re not already planning a built-on extension to your home to accommodate an outdoor kitchen, you’ll definitely be looking to create a permanent covered area for cooking and entertaining. A louvred roof that can be opened and closed to repel rain or keep the sun off is the shelter of choice for many outdoor chefs.
  • Food prep You’ll be looking at commissioning some built-in cabinetry or possibly deploying a high-end modular solution with a good-quality benchtop. If space allows, you may wish to design your outdoor kitchen as an extension of your indoor space so that when doors are opened, you and your guests can enjoy that seamless flow.
  • Paving and decking Think about your whole space and what you want to do there. Cooking is a given, but do you also want to serve and entertain? And perhaps retire to a lounge area for a digestif? Your deck or patio will need to be large enough to accommodate all your needs. Also think about building smooth transitions between spaces by using sympathetic materials and planting.
  • A sink and a fridge A sink is a must-have, as is at least one fridge. One fridge for food and another for drinks will give you that luxurious convenience only a high-end budget can buy.
  • Bells and whistles Still got some budget to spend? Think about all the ways you can make your outside space look and feel amazing. Install a separate outdoor sound system or extend your indoor set-up so it can play music outside, too. Talk to a lighting designer about adding appropriate lights for both food prep and more ambient functions (especially if you like hosting parties). As well as your cooking set-up, you might wish to install a fireplace just for heat and atmosphere, or simply a gas fire or heater for winter evenings. Love sports and movies? It’s time to think about an outdoor TV set-up. Get creative and have fun!

Words by: Sally Conor and Carol Bucknell. Photography by: Bauer Syndication, The Virtue, Todd Eyre, Jackie Meiring and Christina Kayser Onsgaard/Living Inside.

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