Outdoor cooking has taken on a whole new meaning. Many remember their parents squirting lighter fluid on charcoal briquettes each summer weekend to grill up some hamburgers, hot dogs or, occasionally, steak for a family meal. It was only one step up from a campfire and controlling the heat source was next to impossible.
Today, true outdoor cooking aficionados have options when it comes to preparing a meal outdoors and many of them use those options almost year-round instead of just in the summer.
There are smokers that use wood pellets for indirect cooking like in an oven. There are gas-powered infrared grills that cook steaks and other meats to perfection. There are charcoal grills that offer their own unique flavoring. There are even outdoor pizza ovens that burn wood or charcoal and Mongolian grill and fondue sets for cooking over gas firepits.
Some homeowners are so excited about cooking outdoors that they have constructed entire outdoor kitchens complete with refrigerators, warming drawers, cabinets, counter space and more, knowing full well that their use in the Midwest is probably limited to three seasons, according to Daniel Mayer, owner of Northwest Metalcraft in Arlington Heights.
The kitchens being built in backyards around the Northwest suburbs are even getting larger (ranging from $10,000 to $150,000), complete with bar sets and bar stools so that guests can enjoy a drink while watching the homeowner prepare dinner.
"Granite countertops hold up well outside, so we supply them to the landscapers that actually construct the kitchens. We also supply refrigerators, built-in ice buckets, cabinet doors, warming drawers and concealed trash cans, among other things. Keep in mind that during the winters, the refrigerators generally need to be unplugged and brought inside in this climate, however," Mayer said.
Even purists are supplementing their traditional grills with ceramic smokers and cookers that slow cook items like roasts and chickens year-round. Northwest Metalcraft sells Kamado Joe cookers, which burn lump charcoal, as well as pellet grills like the Black Olive and some from Smokin' Brothers, which burn compressed apple and hickory wood pellets.
"These pellet grills come with electronics that let you set a timer and just leave it. They make you an awesome cook and sell for between $1,500 and $1,600," Mayer said. "They are great for slow-cooking whole chickens, ribs and beef briskets. This is what you buy if you want 'down home' barbecue. It is very simple and the flavor is great."
Kamado Joe slow cookers work on a similar principle, but they burn lump charcoal.
Of course, there are also the traditional charcoal-burning Weber grills and propane or natural gas-fueled infrared gills that sear in the juices, thus preserving the flavor of meats. Those are indispensable when you want to devour a grilled steak or burger. The gas-powered grills make cooking quicker and easier because there is no waiting for the coals to be ready. But there are some people who refuse to give up the unique flavor that comes from cooking over charcoal, Mayer said. So these types of grills continue to be popular.
Those who love the idea of eating pizza they made themselves and cooked outside in a pizza oven are gravitating toward both portable and built-in versions of these outdoor ovens. The alfresco pizza ovens can be wheeled around wherever a homeowner wants, them while other homeowners love the look and ambience of a built-in brick pizza oven that uses either wood or charcoal to bake delicious pizzas, Mayer admitted. If you expect to move in the near future, the portable option obviously makes more sense so that you can take it with you.
Those with gas fire pits also have the option of purchasing fondue sets and Mongolian grill sets for novelty cooking over them, Mayer said.
And when you are finished cooking, it is customary to also consume that delicious food outdoors, so dining tables are also important. Dining tables made of everything from aluminum to teak to all-weather wicker, wrought iron, cast aluminum, stone and recycled plastic, also continue to be very popular. The large ones that seat 10 or 12 people are particularly hot sellers, according to Mayer.
"If you have a big house and a big family, you want everyone to be able to sit down and enjoy a meal at the same table. It is like Thanksgiving. You don't want people sitting around eating in their laps," he explained.
Mayer said he has more than 150 medium to high-end sets available at all times.
Northwest Metalcraft is located at 413 S. Arlington Heights Road, Arlington Heights. For more information, call (847) 253-1905 or log on to www.nwmetalcraft.com.