Al Fresco Cooking

Nothing evokes the feeling of summer bliss like the smoky scent of kabobs searing on the grill and the sound of laughter coming from the back patio. Quality time can be spent anywhere, but the ability to enjoy a garden-to-table meal in your backyard brings a special kind of joy.

Now there are more ways to do exactly that, with a range of innovative outdoor kitchen designs catered to the kind of cook, entertainer or family you are. Whether you’re a grill master or homemade pizza lover, be inspired by these trends and tips to prepare your next meal outside.

Outdoor cabinets with rain glass and floating shelves above a stone countertop.

Advanced appliances

Today’s outdoor kitchens are much more than a standalone grill pushed up against the side of the house. They feature a range of high-end appliances—grills, griddles, smokers, warming drawers and pizza ovens, to name a few—that are seamlessly integrated into durable countertops, according to Jeff Stone, co-owner of the Denver-based outdoor kitchen and patio furniture store Creative Living. His team provides luxury outdoor kitchens for trade professionals who build custom homes and remodel houses in Northern Colorado, Denver, Boulder, Vail, Aspen and other mountain towns.

The latest built-in grills are available with many add-ons, including sear burners, fryer baskets and griddle plates. Additional appliances, like power burners exceeding 65,000 BTUs and side burners resembling stovetop burners, can also be built into countertops. Large, circular flattop griddles are often used to create communal spaces Stone attributes to the “advent of social grilling,” a movement toward shared cooking experiences outdoors.

An L-shaped outdoor kitchen complete with a grill, warming drawers, sink and island.

Pizza ovens became trendy a few years ago as more homeowners wanted to have DIY pizza nights on their patios, sparking the idea for stone islands where friends and family gathered to roll out their pizza dough. Now peninsulas are more popular than standalone islands, according to Georgia A.P. Perry, director of design at Lindgren Landscape in Fort Collins, and she’s seeing large, one-level countertops as opposed to elevated bar tops. Those have a more modern aesthetic and are easier to clean, she says, and they allow for more interaction between the griller and their guests.

Many outdoor kitchens also incorporate refrigeration methods, such as built-in fridges, kegerators, wine coolers, icemakers and ice buckets. Kegerators are especially trendy in Northern Colorado due to the community surrounding craft beer, Perry says.

Of all the outdoor appliances available today, experts say built-in pellet smokers are the next big thing. Some can reach 700° F in addition to going low and slow at 225° F, Stone says, allowing you to cook food at a high heat without using propane. They’re also attractive.

“There’s a huge meat smoker community here, and Traegers are ugly,” Perry says. “As a design team, we incorporate [built-in smokers] elegantly into a space that feels important and intentional. They look just like a grill does.”

The outdoor kitchen and patio at Lindgren Landscape.

Comprehensive design

Many homeowners are concerned with the sustainability of their outdoor kitchens in terms of how they’re made and their ability to withstand changing design trends as well as the weather. Some of the best outdoor cabinets are made of the same material as high-end grills—recyclable stainless steel with a powder topcoat—and they’re built to endure the elements, Stone says.

When it comes to countertops, Perry recommends granite and other natural stones that are appropriate for Northern Colorado’s freeze-thaw cycle. Another important consideration is being able to tie the architecture together between the outdoor kitchen and the rest of the house “so they aren’t speaking different languages,” she says.

“It’s not one or the other,” says Tim Lindgren, owner and founder of Lindgren Landscape, of modern outdoor kitchen elements and traditional architecture. “You can have a really elegant stainless steel kitchen and a fireplace next to it that has some natural material, or a pizza oven that has been built out of masonry.”

The vast range of appliances means you can incorporate many different cooking techniques in your outdoor kitchen. You can even go so far as adding a TV, fireplace and other elements to expand the area into an “outdoor great room.”

Lots of elements make up an outdoor kitchen, Lindgren says, including the patio material and surrounding shade structure to keep the area cool. Lighting, heat lamps, sound systems and outdoor fans can be integrated with a covered roof or pergola, he says, which can make the difference between a space that is used regularly and one that bakes in the sun all day or is too dark and cold when the sun goes down.

Having robust furniture also matters so that it doesn’t blow into the neighbor’s yard on a windy day, Perry says. Wind is a big consideration in this area, especially if your outdoor kitchen faces west.

“If the wind is hitting the back of a grill, that can blow the heat toward it, or it can melt the knobs,” Perry says. “Proper design is important to make sure the kitchen is going to function well and not have challenges. We have wind, temperature swings and fire risk in different places, so we need to be very aware of certain elements in outdoor kitchens to make sure they comply with building codes.”

Wooden panels, bushy vines and narrow trees can help to block the wind while creating privacy, Lindgren says, so you don’t have neighbors looking in on your outdoor dining experience. Plants also soften the metal and stone, making your outdoor kitchen feel like it’s part of the landscape rather than just sitting out in the backyard.

An outdoor kitchen designed and installed by Lindgren Landscape. Photo by Glass Photography.

Bringing color outside

Modern home design—inside and out—has been characterized by minimalism and neutral color palettes over the last few years, but that seems to be changing. Perry calls it the “Joanna Gaines moment,” a period of time when homeowners incorporated lots of white, black and gray in their living spaces. Now many of her clients are willing to experiment with different colors, especially when it comes to their outdoor kitchen.

Playing with cabinet colors on your deck or patio is easier than in your main kitchen, Stone says, because they complement the outdoor environment. He’s seen blue cabinets by swimming pools, and his clients are increasingly willing to incorporate bolder colors, like yellow. One of his most memorable projects was a 40-foot-long outdoor kitchen with bright orange cabinets in the Ptarmigan Country Club neighborhood.

“They were a huge Broncos fan, so it was a fun opportunity to show some of their personality,” Stone says. “When you have flowers, plants, a garden and green grass, all of a sudden the color makes a lot more sense. It adds to the backyard as opposed to looking strange in an interior kitchen.”

Bold colors that don’t appeal to everyone may limit the potential buyer pool if you decide to sell, but that isn’t necessarily the point, Lindgren says. These types of home improvements have increased since the COVID-19 pandemic because more people are staying put.

“When everyone was stuck in their houses and it looked like the [work from home] model was going to be around for a long time, people became aware that they could do better,” Lindgren says. “That’s when outdoor living, swimming pools, new patios, shade structures and fireplaces all blew up, and it hasn’t really slowed down much. It was, ‘This is my home office, so I want it to be the best it can be.’”