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Tammy Hansen
Special to The Record
Published Thursday, Apr 6, 2006

Swanky outdoor barbecue kitchens

Outdoor kitchens are starting to live up to their names. Once little more than a grill and some counter space, new outdoor islands boast a collection of features that make outdoor living more than just a catchphrase. Now you can grill some steak, boil a few lobsters and bake biscuits in outdoor kitchens that offer everything from high power burners to convection ovens. Manufacturers inspired by the continued popularity of outdoor kitchen islands are focusing on customizing the outdoor cooking experience, says Gene Morrow, manager of Barbeques Galore in Elk Grove.

The whole idea is to step out the back door and not have to step back in, he says. New power burners for example are tough enough to handle a huge pot for frying a turkey. Even some standard side burners have been beefed up to make the outdoor kitchen cooking area more powerful than some indoor kitchen stoves.

Some new options may not even be found inside the house. Warming drawers are popular for islands, especially for grillers seeking more flexibility in serving large meals the outdoor party. If you're trying to feed a large group or serve several courses you aren't having to cook anything in the kitchen, Morrow said.

Smoker ovens continue to gain fans and can be incorporated in an island or may be a free-standing unit. Less-common convection ovens make outdoor baking possible. You can bake a pie in the backyard. Built-in stainless steel coolers are another new offering.

Adding such options means building bigger islands, Morrow said. A standard setup is about 9 feet, but many outdoor kitchens are much larger.

I've seen islands as big as 25 feet, he said, adding that 85 percent or more of his customers want seating along with the cooking area. Some improvements aren't as obvious. Cabinet units with three drawers for more tool and dish storage; metal rather than plastic handles; and pullout, top-loading propane cabinets are examples of new features that don't change the footprint of an island. Still, they improve usability in the outdoor kitchen. Another trend is modular sets that allow for different layouts as well as future expansion. Some modular sets allow for purchase of a high-end, stand-alone grill that can be built into an island later. Some newer islands are modular. They're like Legos, Morrow said. Just because you start small doesn't mean you have to stay small. Aesthetics haven't been ignored. New this year are fire areas, planters and separate seating to coordinate with the outdoor kitchen island. Countertops are available in durable, low-maintenance acrylic tile or granite. There are several color options for outdoor kitchen finishes. All those new accessories and features are great, Morrow said, but it's still important to look for quality and a knowledgeable sales staff when making an investment in an outdoor kitchen. Expect better equipment to cost a bit more, but also expect it to last many years, Morrow adds.

Look for stainless steel components with a better grade and gauge for durability and less chance for rust. A lower number denotes higher quality for both grade and gauge. Stainless with a gauge of 14 to 18 and a grade of 304 is preferable. Grill and side burners can be stainless or cast iron, but cast iron will require more maintenance.

Sales representatives should be able to discuss these numbers as well as BTU's (British Thermal Units) and surface cooking temperatures. Also, look for a grill with a good warranty. With those basic guidelines met, the best outdoor kitchen is one that allows you to cook as you would in the house, without stepping foot inside.

Look for amenities that will make it like an indoor kitchen,Morrow said.

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