Almost everyone who's ever flipped a burger or grilled a steak has dreamed of having the ultimate outdoor kitchen setup, a grill station that will be the envy of the neighbors and make it possible to turn out mass quantities of flame-kissed delicacies with speed and flair.
According to Bernard Ott, of Ott Masonry, an outdoor kitchen complete with electrical wiring or even an unwired grill station set up for gas or charcoal can enhance your home's value and, depending on the amount of work you can do yourself, doesn't have to break the bank.
We'll start with the main piece of equipment: the grill. The biggest decision, of course, is whether you want to go with gas or charcoal. If you choose charcoal, be sure your grill design allows for easy ash disposal, either through a removable ash pan or a cleaning chute. Depending on the design, it may even be possible to have a warming plate mounted that uses heat conduction to keep sauces warm or for other purposes.
If you choose gas, whether propane or from your house natural gas line, decide in advance what you want the gas to do. Do you want just the grill top, or a couple of stove burners also? Perhaps a flat-top grill for that short-order cook experience? The more elaborate you get, the larger your budget will become.
Ott advises hiring a professional to handle the gas setup, especially if you go farther than a simple gas grill installation. However, with a little study and elbow grease, you can build your own framework from your choice of materials. Be sure and check your local ordinances, though, as the project may require multiple permits and inspections depending on its complexity.
When choosing between charcoal and gas, the decision really is up to the griller. There are books and articles touting the benefits of each, so its a personal decision that should be researched before making a purchase.
Cast iron grates are the cream of the crop for durability, heat control and ease of cleaning. Properly seasoned, cast iron grill grates will last almost indefinitely and shed stuck-on food easily. You'll need to make sure they stay out of the rain and be sure to clean and oil them after use, but in return for that small amount of work you'll be rewarded with years of great grilling.
If your budget allows, you can go the deluxe route and buy your outdoor kitchen ready-made. There are simple rigs that are basically a grill and a work surface, midrange ones that include a refrigerator, and top-of-the-line setups with marble countertops, sinks and built-in stoves and flat-top grills.
Things like sinks and refrigerators will, of course, require plumbing and electrical work, which should most often be left to professionals unless you are a highly competent and well-trained do-it-yourselfer.
Something much easier for the average backyard griller to put together is a truly top-notch set of grilling tools. With the right ones, even the most humble charcoal chamber can be made to turn out works of grilling greatness.
I recommend avoiding kits or sets of grilling tools. While one of the tools included may suit you, it's likely they won't all be ideal. Pick and choose and put together the set that truly fits your needs.
Chimney: If you're still using lighter fluid to start your charcoal, consider this an invitation to join the 21st century. A charcoal chimney, a metal tube with briquets loaded into the top and newspaper wadded in the bottom, is a more efficient and much more eco-friendly way to get your fire going. If you need a little extra boost, use some waste kitchen oil and drizzle a little bit on the paper before wadding it up. It will create a torch effect and make the ignition phase longer. Remember to clean out the chimney and reload it before each use.
Tongs: Beware tongs that are very stiff to open and close, as one moment of inattention or a slipped grip can send your food through the grate and onto the coals. I prefer a long pair of spring-loaded tongs. You won't often find them included as part of grill tool kits, but they are worth their weight in gold and definitely worth buying separately. I keep two of them on hand in case a long grill session leaves one crusted with barbecue sauce or the like.
Fork: Nope. Don't buy one of these. Forks lead to poking holes in your food, which leads to yummy juices dripping out and being wasted.
Thermometer: What, you use a probe thermometer when you're oven roasting but not when you're grilling something thick like a pork loin? Why not? Stick the probe in the end of the meat, and that will allow you to turn it as necessary. My current favorite is one that transmits the temperature info wirelessly from the probe to the base unit.
Squirt bottle: Have one, but know when to use it. A little bit of flame-kissing on a steak or chop is a good thing, but don't let it go nuts. And flame-seared shrimp or vegetables aren't likely to please anyone's palate.
Turner: You'll want a long, heat-resistant handle and a platform large enough to cradle the beefiest burger.
Whatever your budget, spend your money wisely. Don't buy cheap grills or tools if you can avoid it. Spend a few more dollars to get good equipment that will last and perform well, and you'll be well-rewarded.