The History of the Summer Kitchen

Cooking during the summer is a pain. It's hot and you'd rather be outside, plus doing any serious cooking means running up air conditioning bills inside. Too often, we end up doing the least cooking necessary for meals during hot weather. While that's not a bad plan, sometimes you want more than cold salads or sandwiches. There's a way to handle summertime cooking and all you need to do is look at historic homes and their summer kitchen.

Back before air conditioning and indoor plumbing, the summer kitchen was an important part of the living space for many homes. In fact, if you visit open-air museums that highlight life in the 18th and 19th centuries, you'll probably find a summer kitchen on the tour.

This seasonal kitchen was usually an outbuilding, set apart from the main house, with a coal or wood cook stove or a large open fireplace used for cooking. Because if you think cooking with your stove or oven warms up the house now, imagine using a wood-burning stove or open fireplace to cook! The summer kitchen also had the advantage of keeping cooking smells out of the main living space and of preventing a house fire (one of the dangers of cooking with an open flame).

While separate kitchens did keep the main house cooler, there was a social aspect to their use as well. On country estates and in larger houses in the city, summer kitchens helped to keep enslaved people or paid servants separated from the estate owners. These kitchens were large, often two stories, with space for cooking, storing food, and doing other household work like laundry. Food was prepared and then carried through a specific entry out of the way of the family and their guests.

But summer kitchens weren't limited to big houses and wealthy families. As people migrated west across the growing United States, they took the idea of an outdoor kitchen with them. It was useful for cooking and canning or preserving food on large farms.

With advances in running water and indoor cooling, the summer kitchen fell out of favor. It was easier to do the cooking and serving meals without going back and forth to another building. But the idea of outdoor cooking has always been appealing; just ask anyone who loves grilling.

If you watch home design shows, you've probably seen a family gush over the potential for outdoor entertaining. You don't need a giant covered patio to create your own summer kitchen, though. It helps to have water and a source of power, plus a table or counter for workspace and room for storage. You can create your own summer kitchen in the corner of a screened-in porch, on a deck or in your backyard (one caveat: always check local guidelines and rules for any permits you might need). Add a charcoal or gas grill for cooking, or go wild and build your own pizza oven.

If you've been looking for a way to get back into cooking during the hot months, try a summer kitchen for some cool living.

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