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  The great outdoors is the next frontier for cooking, which includes everything and the kitchen sink. More homeowners are building kitchens outside that have the amenities of the kitchen inside their house.

        Outdoor cooking spaces are topping the list of kitchen trends for the second year in a row, according to 2019 Home Design Trends Survey results conducted by the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

        "People are tending more toward outdoor living," says Russ Faulk, chief designer and head of product at Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet. "Firing up a grill and cooking outside feeds a human primal urge." Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet is a high-end outdoor kitchen designer and manufacturer based in Michigan.

        Outdoor or alfresco kitchens have evolved into permanent structures built to emulate the indoor kitchen, Faulk says. "People are investing money into their house, and an outdoor kitchen can improve a home's value and make it more desirable," he says. "Also, with the trend toward emulating restaurant or artisan cooking, having an outdoor kitchen with a grill is like having dinner and a show from the comfort of your backyard."

        According to 2019 research conducted by the National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA), a majority of outdoor kitchens:

        -- Cost at least $13,000, with 25% of homeowners considering very high-end kitchens of $30,000 or more.

        -- Have an average size footprint of 100 to 400 square feet, including a sitting area in the meal preparation space.

        -- Are directly linked to the home, often sharing an exterior wall, which allows for an easy transition between indoor and outdoor kitchens.

        "Cooking in the backyard has come a long way from the post grill on the patio," Faulk says. "Now, an outdoor kitchen has key components that include not only a grill, but also refrigerator, sink, cabinets, food-prep surface and task lighting."

        While dreaming of an outdoor kitchen, it's important to create a complete patio picture, which entails laying a solid foundation. Before pouring concrete or laying flagstone flooring, make sure you're working with competent contractors who have experience installing patios. After an outdoor kitchen design is drawn, the site needs to be prepared so that the patio slopes away from the house and drains properly.

        A patio should be built with outside-rated bricks, tiles and pavers because these materials have less than a 3% water absorption rate, which means they won't crumble during numerous freeze-thaw cycles in colder climates. In addition to using outside-rated materials, it's important to use waterproofing membranes, especially if materials are bonded to concrete. Fixed overhead structures or pergolas are also popular and give a sense of an outdoor room by creating atmosphere, privacy and protection from the outdoor elements.

        Any appliances, countertops or cabinetry in an outdoor kitchen must also stand up to both steaming and/or freezing temperatures. "When designing an outdoor kitchen, the first things people consider are what kinds of grilling implements they want installed," Faulk says. "But just as important is having an adequate sink and countertop space to handle a hot and heavy rack of smoked ribs coming off the fire."

        Faulk says a galley kitchen setup is the most efficient use of cooking space outdoors. Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet fabricates cabinetry and appliances from stainless steel, which is a material that is smooth, durable and resistant to the elements; however, stainless steel scratches easily and conducts heat, which makes it impractical as a countertop. Custom-made cabinet countertop options can include outside-rated granite, soapstone or porcelain tiles.

        While today's custom-made outdoor kitchen has cabinetry that can house a sink, refrigerator and countertop space, the outdoor kitchen can only get cooking when one brings the heat. "Before you invest in a certain type of grill, know whether you will use the outdoor kitchen for traditional grilling or smoking. Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet offers a hybrid grill that can use gas, charcoal and aromatic wood," Faulk says. "People can also invest in a pizza oven, an Argentinian-style 'gaucho' grill, or a Japanese-inspired Kamado grill."

        Be certain that any appliance installed outdoors is manufactured to be used outside and marked with a UL (Underwriters Laboratory) seal approving it for outdoor use. "Standard indoor appliances are not rated for the kinds of conditions in outdoor kitchens," Faulk says. "Also, outdoor cooking appliances aren't to be used indoors either, since they become so hot and can pose a fire hazard."

        For many who entertain, "eating out" simply means walking into their backyard outdoor kitchen. The secret to a successful cookout is to coordinate between the indoor and outdoor kitchen, doing most of the prep work inside and stocking the outdoor kitchen for entertaining, Faulk says. "An outdoor kitchen can feel more authentic and be a less pretentious way of hosting," he says. "Someone drops their plate or spills a drink in the outdoor kitchen? Clean-up is just a hose-down away."

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