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What’s new in ‘cue? Trends in backyard grills and outdoor cooking

Trends in backyard cooking
Maskot/Getty Images
Trends in backyard cooking
Maskot/Getty Images

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Summertime, and the cookin’ is easy: Burgers, hot dogs, steaks on the grill — and don’t forget the veggies, too! It’s a hit year after year and worth looking forward to. But just because the backyard barbecue an old favorite pastime doesn’t mean that it can’t change or keep up with the times.

Here’s what’s happening in al fresco food-preparing and dining trends so you can make sure your cookout is the hippest and most delicious around.

What’s new in equipment

Though outdoor cookouts almost always have grills (more on that later) there are plenty of other options these days for your outdoor cooking experience.

One of the most popular new tools for outdoor cooking is a smoker. Unlike a grill, which uses direct heat from underneath to cook your food, a smoker surrounds your food with a hot smoke that cooks it all the way through. The process is slower, but it provides a unique, smoky flavor that goes well with a summer day. Horizontal smokers are the most popular of the bunch because of their ease of use, but vertical smokers offer a useful alternative for folks who have less space.

Deep fryers have also been gaining steam in terms of popularity, though they also get a lot of attention for the wrong reasons. People misusing deep fryers — particularly on Thanksgiving — has become a viral trend that you don’t want to be a part of.

The outdoors is becoming increasingly accessible for more varied types of cooking methods, too. Pizza ovens were one of the most popular equipment options in the last few years, according to marketing agency NDP Group. It’s not hard to understand why, either: Who doesn’t love a good pie?

Different types of grills

We all know the old standby for the outdoor cookout: the grill. Whether it’s gas or charcoal, all you need to do is get the flame going and start tossing your meal on the grates to cook them up. These types of the grill are a favorite for a reason: They are familiar and they just plain work.

That hasn’t changed, though we’re seeing way more gas grills than we used to. The coronavirus pandemic led to more people cooking outdoors, and nearly two-thirds of new cookers sold were either gas or charcoal grills — with the gas option slightly ahead, making up 54 percent of sales in 2020, according to data collected by The NPD Group.

But there is a new kid in town on the grilling front: pellet grills. These alternatives burn using small pieces of hardwood like cherry, mesquite or hickory and they are capable of producing a steady temperature for hours on end, making them particularly appealing to use for slow-cooked meats like ribs or brisket. Behind gas grills, pellet grills were the second-fastest-growing grill option, NPD Group says.

Another trend: the addition of smart technology to appliances. Yes, alongside those smart ovens and stoves, we now have smart grills — that is, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-enabled devices that, via apps, allow you to connect with and operate the grill through a smartphone or tablet. Applications include adjusting settings like temperature, cook time and cook intensity. You can even use presets based on the type of food that you’re cooking, so the grill automatically sets itself perfectly to deal with the dish you have.

What’s new in food prep and storage

Capitalizing on innovations within the camping sector, outdoor cooking at home has seen some vast improvements, too — both in the way food is prepared and stored.

Outdoor kitchens on the whole are getting more popular. Back in 2018, nearly half of all architects surveyed in the American Institute of Architects’ Home Design Trends Survey said they believed outdoor kitchens would become one of the most popular home design choices in the coming years. They were right. The latest AIA survey, for the first quarter of 2022, finds that over half of respondents (55 percent) are reporting increases in outdoor kitchen requests.

These kitchens are typically smaller than your standard indoor option, but they include a lot of familiar features — just about everything you’d need to prepare a meal, from sinks to fridges. Typically, the grill is at the center of them.

Outdoor cabinets have become a popular option. These are typically more durable than your indoor cabinets, with stainless steel often being a popular choice for material. They make it easy to store essentials outside and be just a short reach away when you need them instead of having to trek back into the house for them.

Outdoor countertops are also on the rise, with materials like concrete, granite and marble popular choices, as they are durable and provide a natural look. Sintering, or sintered stone, is an alternative. It mimics the look and feel of natural stone but is weatherproof and often a little cheaper than real stone options.

Refrigeration is another key for an outdoor kitchen, whether it’s to keep your food cooled during preparation or to stash a few cold drinks or bottles of vino. Mini fridges and under-counter refrigerators are a popular option for this purpose, as they are functional, save space and integrate easily into the rest of your outdoor kitchen setup.

What’s new in dining

All of these trends have made the good old backyard barbecue feel more like a dining room than a picnic. Many outdoor kitchens, aping open kitchens, come equipped with eat-in counters, making it easy to congregate around the cook.

And — no surprise — the space itself is getting spruced up. People are adding pergolas, enclosing porches, and enhancing their decks and patios with elaborate lighting, all in the interest of making it more practical and enjoyable to eat full meals outside.

Final word on outdoor barbecues and cooking trends

Quick-grilled hot dogs and burgers are classic barbecue items, but smokers and pellet grills, which cook food over a longer period, make slow-cooked delights like ribs and pulled pork a tasty alternative. Pizza ovens also expand the possibilities for your outdoor kitchen, allowing you to make a pizza to share with friends and family right in your backyard. Even smart technology upgrades have made it easier to manage more complicated meals, including variable heat levels for different types of cooking that lets you cook just about anything right on your grill perfectly.

Written by
AJ Dellinger
Contributing writer
AJ Dellinger is a contributing writer for Bankrate. AJ writes about auto loans.
Edited by
Senior homeownership editor