Summer kitchens used to be common in Midwestern homes. They were a practical, energy-efficient solution to the problem of cooking meals and canning produce in the stifling heat of July and August without heating up indoor living spaces.
Air conditioning killed off summer kitchens, which makes no sense, really: Why would you generate heat and steam in the house and then pay to get rid of it? It’s like bucketing water into a rowboat.
I choose to not have air conditioning, so I try to migrate heat-generation from indoors to outdoors in the summer by drying clothes on the line and cooking outdoors.
I have always cooked a lot outdoors in summer, and living without A/C has expanded my grilling repertoire. A cast iron skillet turns the grill into a range top. A deep-side skillet on the grill can be used for frying. And with a little practice controlling heat, a grill with the lid down can be used like an oven for baking flat breads and skillet pies.
But a grill doesn’t boil water very well, and the surface isn’t large enough for my enamelware canner. So this summer I decided my Green Acres house needed a summer kitchen.
A true summer kitchen is different than the outdoor kitchens that have become popular over the past decade, with their stonework islands, barstools, built-in appliances and maybe a pergola for shade. Outdoor kitchens are mainly spaces for entertaining, and the sky’s the limit on what you can spend on them.
A true summer kitchen is a place for work, not entertaining. The key components are a cook top large enough to accommodate a canner, some counter or shelf space, access to water, and shelter from the wind and rain.
Mine took a couple hours to set up and cost a dollar.
My companion mounted a two-burner propane camp stove that a friend gave us for free to a wood and metal shelving unit we got for a dollar at an auction. The shelving unit has sides that block the wind and open “counter” space to the left of the burners. It sits on a covered porch off the kitchen, so I’m just steps away from my kitchen cupboards and pantry, minimizing the need for outdoor storage and duplicate tools.
The gas grill is adjacent to the porch and serves as an extension of the summer kitchen.
In July and August I prepare entire meals outdoors, using the grill for meat or fish and marinated veggies, and the cooktop for boiling corn on the cob or frying potatoes in a skillet.
It’s pleasant to make dinner outside, with the chickens patrolling the yard for insects in the early evening and birds supping on sunflowers and hanging feeders.
I can chat with friends who stop by to visit on the gazebo a few yards away while tending to my burgers and sauteing the fresh beans with bacon and onions.
But my main motivation in creating a summer kitchen was canning.
Now that the tomato crop is finally in, my basil-garlic tomato sauce, heirloom tomato ketchup and red enchilada sauce can simmer for hours without heating up the house.
And once the sauce or jelly or pickles are finished and packed into jars, they need to be processed in a hot-water bath. And believe me, a 32-quart canner full of water belching steam is not something you want in your indoor kitchen.
The water source in my summer kitchen is the hose. The sink is a metal washtub, and utensils are stored in a cracked crock.
My summer kitchen is accessorized with a webbed aluminum folding chair and a cooler full of various beverages on ice, because it’s important to stay as comfortable and hydrated as possible while putting in long hours on hot days packing jars and processing them to enjoy on midwinter days, when I’d give anything to be outside sweating over a stove again.