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History of Outdoor Kitchens & Grilling in America

History of Outdoor Kitchens & Grilling in America

This Fourth of July weekend in 2024, Americans everywhere will huddle around outdoor kitchens and grills to cook themselves meaty, patriotic dishes slathered in sauce. Barbecuing is about as red, white, and blue as apple pie, and for true grillers, the only question is, do you have room for seconds? 

On Independence  Day, Americans will  enjoy 150 million hot dogs–enough to stretch from D.C. to L.A. more than five times. And if that sounds like a lot, during the peak hot dog season, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Americans typically consume 7 billion hot dogs, averaging 818 hot dogs every second.

Beyond the national holiday, an estimated 20 billion hot dogs are consumed every year, which, according to the council, carries a whopping price tag of $6.2 billion in 2019 (including sausages). 

In addition to hot dogs, popular estimates claim that Americans eat about 375 million burgers. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans consume an average of 2.4 burgers per day, totaling approximately 50 billion burgers each year.

The Fourth of July is the most beloved U.S. holiday for grilling. According to a 2020 survey of American families, 68 percent of respondents like to throw barbecue and cookout parties on that day. 

These incredible stats show that barbecuing is not just a popular activity but a cherished American tradition with deep roots. Below, we explore the history and significance of outdoor kitchens and grilling in the U.S. and show you some fun facts and trends that make this tradition so special.

Favorite Foods to Grill Outdoors

Traditionally, meats, such as hot dogs, burgers, and steaks, are the centerpiece of any American barbecue party. Among Americans who have recently attended a barbecue, 88 percent chose meat or steak as their preferred food of choice. In the two weeks leading up to Independence Day 2016 in the United States, beef sales reached nearly 804 million U.S. dollars. 

Outdoor Kitchens and Grills in the United States 

Grills are a fixture in many American households and backyards. They can be very rudimentary and small or huge and luxurious with dozens of special features. As of 2017, most of the grills owned by Americans were gas grills, with electric grills being the least common type. Pellet grills and smokers, which are less traditional than gas or charcoal grills, saw high levels of sales growth in the United States in 2016. 

Percentage of Americans that Grill by Holiday  

 

Fun Outdoor Kitchen and Grilling Facts

  • 7 out of 10 U.S. adults own a grill and/or smoker. 
  • In Canada, it’s 8 out of 10, and 64% of them own a gas grill versus charcoal or electric. 
  • Grill foods by popularity are in order: burgers (85%), steak (80%), hot dogs (79%), and chicken (73%). 
  • Did you know we have 2 National BBQ Days? May 16th and July 4th. 
  • Long-handled tongs are the most popular grilling utensil, followed by forks, long-handled spatulas, and grill cleaning brushes. 
  • For a smoky flavor, folks turn to hickory, mesquite, and pecan. For a milder flavor, popular fruits are apples, cherries, and pears. 
  • Leading the way, even over Texas, Oklahoma is said to have a BBQ joint for every 5,000 citizens. 
  • More than 65% of grillers say they learned from their dad. 
  • During a visit to the U.S. by British Prime Minister David Cameron, President Barack Obama gifted him a new BBQ grill. 
  • 34% of people surveyed say they will still grill even when it’s below freezing outside. 
  • 63% said they grill outdoors at least once a month.  

When Did Outdoor Grilling Begin?  

Ever wonder when the concept of outdoor grilling and cooking began? While it’s a favorite pastime for many humans today, during the Bronze Age, grilling was a novelty. Soon after the discovery of fire, some of the earliest “grills” were created. In fact, archaeologists found evidence of grills as early as 2300 BC.
 

Origins of Barbeque 

Let’s fast forward to the 15th century. The first accounts of outdoor grills in the Western world come from the West Indies. The natives coined the term “barbacoa,” which generally refers to meats or whole sheep slow-cooked over an open fire. Colonial settlers and explorers adopted this practice and brought the idea of barbecuing to the southeastern United States, so the era of grilling for pleasure and celebrating with family and friends was born. 

Southerners experimented with slow-roasting whole pigs and other types of meats bathed in sauces and cooked over wood chips, resulting in tender, flavorful meals. Even our nation’s first president, George Washington, recounted in his diary in 1769 his first barbecue social gathering in Alexandria, Virginia. Andrew Jackson planted “barbecue trees” on the Whitehouse’s grounds as fuel for his presidential cookouts. 

Kingsford & Briquettes 

In the late 1800s, the first “briquette” was patented by Ellsworth B.A. Zwoyer, but it didn’t turn heads until E.G. Kingsford, a relative of Henry Ford, created the modern-day charcoal briquette in the 1920s. From there, various versions of the charcoal grill were created.  

First Outdoor Gas Grill  

However, in the early 1950s, the first outdoor gas grill was invented (by Don McGlaughlin, owner of the Chicago Combustion Corp., known today as LazyMan) and in 1958, the first natural gas grill was manufactured. It was then that backyard grilling and entertaining became the norm with Americans.  

Since then, many grills and cooking station brands have emerged, from propane barbecues to fire-clay smokers. All the while, outdoor gatherings continued to play a role in everyday life. 

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that outdoor kitchen cabinet manufacturers hit the scene. The idea of creating a built-in system that could house all the grilling products appealed to homeowners. It meant that they could enjoy socializing with friends and family while preparing a meal without having to cart utensils and other grilling products back and forth from the house.  

First Modern Backyard Gas Grill

Modern Home Products created the first backyard gas grill for consumers in 1960, and the company remains an old-fashioned American standard. While other grill companies outsource production to China, MHP continues casting its units in the Midwest and crafting each grill at its factory in Antioch, Illinois.

Walter Koziol, a US Marine Corps staff sergeant who served in WWII, founded Modern Home Products in the 1950s and shot to success with gas products–residential lighting and eventually grills–under the names Charmglow and Perfect Host. Those early grills pioneered elements still in use today. The round steel shape gave way to MHP's rectangular design with a hinged lid (better for efficient heat distribution). The painted cast aluminum made the units weather resistant.  

Through the years, the company has added improvements like an H-shaped steel burner for even cooking and exteriors that are impervious to rust. After Koziol's death in 2000, a new generation took over, and the Koziol family still runs the company to this day, running day-to-day operations and design. 

First Portable Gas Grill Has Jersey Roots (Daily Record)  

Long before the LazyMan barbecue grill became a perk of the rich and famous, the New Jersey product made history as the first-ever portable gas grill. The grill made its debut at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City and was called The Broilburger; when Louis McGlaughlin's company, formerly known as the Chicago Combustion Corporation, displayed it with a plumber's propane cylinder providing the fuel. The original was a commercial grill with a rotisserie designed for use with charcoal. When a burner was placed inside a bed of lava rock, the first gas grill was born. 

Homeowners first got the chance to buy LazyMan grills in 1954, and today, they are made entirely in the Belvidere plant owned by Hopatcong resident Brian Sadowski. 

"These barbecues last anywhere from 15 to 30 years, or more," said Sadowski, who purchased the $2.1 million company from the third generation of McGlaughlins about five years ago. "They're designed well. They're built out of thicker metals than you'd find in Home Depot or Lowes." 

Some might consider the grills pricey—the most basic backyard portable model costs nearly $1,700—but the sturdiness appeals to commercial industry and high-end clientele as well. And the company prides itself on its ability to stand behind its products—forever. 

The gleaming stainless steel creations dot the grounds of elegant Caribbean resorts and upscale condominium complexes around the world. Several U.S. embassies have LazyMan grills, as do Disneyland and the U.S. Air Force, Army and Navy. 

Advancements in Grilling 

The next change didn’t come until the 1980s, when a man by the name of Bill Best added ceramic burners to barbecues. The idea was that the tile was heated by the propane, creating infrared radiation to cook the food directly. This is the design commonly used in restaurants for its ability to more evenly cook food while also locking in the juices, keeping the meat tender and flavorful. 

By the 1990s, people were becoming more health-conscious and began to view excess body fat negatively. Then came the invention of the George Foreman grill, known for reducing fat. The design grilled from both the top and bottom while allowing the fat to drain off. Sales were in the hundreds of millions, and the name is still well-known today. 

The 2000s saw more advancements in grilling. Infrared grills became cheaper as the patent on them expired; however, they still cost enough that they are not available to everyone. In 2004, the world’s largest grill was created on "Big," a show featured on the Discovery Channel. At over 15 feet high, it could barbecue a 10-foot-long hotdog. And finally, in the last ten years, small portable gas grills have become popular for picnicking.

Over the years, there have been many changes to the way that people cook food, and specifically the way that people barbecue their meat. Grills have gone from being inefficient and messy to being a popular and relaxing method of cooking used by Americans today. 

History of American Grilling Technology 

Firing up the grill and cooking a meal outdoors is one of the few primal pleasures still left to the modern cook. No pots, no pans, no electricity, no complicated techniques–it's just you, some fire, and some food. 

Oh, plus the grill you're cooking on. And the charcoal briquettes you might be burning or the can of propane you picked up last week. And the metal grill itself, forged in some giant factory, and even the newspaper you might use to light your charcoal chimney. 

Even though it might seem pretty primitive, grilling involves as much technology as anything else we do–even fire counts as "technology," when you get right down to it–and most modern cookout equipment was only invented in the 20th century. Heck, even the idea of cooking outside on a regular basis only became popular once people started living in the suburbs en masse after WWII. 

In the early 1950s, when backyard grilling really took off in the newly suburban America, Kingsford increased production by 35 percent to keep up and even limited advertising "for fear of not being able to meet the demand,". 

More on Barbequing  

The Rise of Kamado Cookers

Traditional Japanese ceramic kamado cookers started coming over to the US after WWII, brought by servicemen who had tried them out while overseas, but it wasn't until 1974, when Ed Fisher (himself a Navy vet) started the Big Green Egg company, that the style really took off in BBQ purist circles. 

Regional Barbecue Styles

Barbecue varies by region, with the four main styles named after their place of origin: Memphis, Tenn.; North Carolina; Kansas City; and Texas.

Memphis is renowned for pulled pork-shoulder doused in sweet tomato-based sauce (eaten on its own or as a sandwich). North Carolina smokes the whole hog in a vinegar-based sauce. Kansas City natives prefers ribs cooked in a dry rub, and Texans … well, Texans dig beef. Eastern Texas’ relative proximity to Tennessee puts it in the pulled-pork camp, but in the western segment of the Lone Star State, you’re likely to find mesquite-grilled “cowboy-style” brisket. Locals defend their region’s cooking style with the sort of fierce loyalty usually reserved for die-hard sports fans. Just as you’re better off not mentioning the Yankees to a Red Sox fan, it’s probably best not to proclaim your love for Texas beef to anyone from Tennessee. 

African American BBQ History

Because barbecue doesn’t require expensive cuts of meat—why bother when you’re just going to slather it in sauce and cook it ’til it falls off the bone?—it became a dietary staple for impoverished Southern blacks, who frequently paired it with vegetables like fried okra and sweet potatoes. The first half of the 20th century saw a mass migration of African Americans from the rural South to Northern cities, and as they moved, they took their recipes with them. By the 1950s, black-owned barbecue joints had sprouted in nearly every city in America. Along with fried chicken, corn bread, and hush puppies, barbecue came to be known as a “soul food” dish. To this day, there is a strong connection between the cuisine and the African-American community. 

Global Barbecue Traditions

Other countries barbecue in their own style. Korean barbecue features thin slices of beef or pork cooked and served with rice. Argentina has asado, or marinade-free meat cooked in a smokeless pit. And of course, there’s Mongolian barbecue, which is neither barbecue nor of Mongolian origin but rather a type of stir-fry recently invented in Taiwan. 

But true barbecue is distinctly American. So this Fourth of July, when the parades have ended and the sun starts to go down, throw some meat on the grill and cook yourself a true American classic. Patriotism never tasted so delicious. 

Wood Pellet Grills  

It all began over a century ago, when an entrepreneur named Henry Ford was producing over a million Model T cars annually. These vehicles included wood that was used for the dashboard, steering wheel, and other parts. Ford was going through a considerable amount of wood in vehicle production, and he was frustrated by not controlling his supply destiny. He contacted his cousin’s husband, Edward Kingsford, a real estate agent in the Detroit area to help him find land with plenty of wood and suitable to build a sawmill.Such a plant was soon built in Iron Mountain, Michigan, to serve Ford’s vehicle needs. 

Henry Ford was also an avid outdoorsman and nature lover living by the motto, “reduce, reuse and recycle.” While camping in the early 1920s, he realized he could live up to his motto by taking the leftover branches and sawdust, compress them with tar and cornstarch, and create a briquette suitable for use in campfires and outdoor cooking. For the next three decades, these were sold as “Ford’s Briquettes.” It wasn’t until 1951 when a group of investors purchased the charcoal business from Ford and decided to rename the product “Kingsford Briquettes.” 

In 1952, George Stephen, a welder at Weber Brothers Metal Works, took this a step further. He invented the infamous domed Weber grill, which utilized charcoal. Then in the 60’s, two gentlemen from the Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. built the first gas grill that could use propane as a fuel source. While expensive at the time, it became the most popular way to grill and remains that way today. 

At the close of 2021, sales of gas grills equated to approximately 55% of the overall industry dollar volume. Charcoal grills account for about 22%. What’s the hot “new” fuel type? For the first time in history, charcoal will move into third place behind pellet grill sales, which will account for over 23% of the grill industry, according to the latest forecasts.  

The younger generation is also starting a new trend that will help build future pellet sales. They’re treating their pellet grill ownership like owning a phone. After two or three years, they’ll want to go out and buy the latest innovative product. All these facts are providing a very rosy forecast for wood pellet grilling. According to some estimates, it could grow by 50% over the next 10 years. 

Is a Charcoal or Gas Grill Better? 

In meat-loving circles, few topics get argued more intensely or more often than charcoal vs. gas grills. Stumble onto any barbecue or carnivore-centric message board, and you’re sure to bump heads with any number of gas-fiends and charcoal-fanatics. The problem–as with most of these debates–is that one isn’t actually better than the other. Instead, each is better at a few particular things. 

Gas grills are much cleaner, more convenient, and easier to cook with. Charcoal grills are cheaper and, in the hands of an expert, can achieve certain results that gas grills can’t. 

Of course, gas-proponents will tell you that charcoal’s added benefits are narrow.  

But is the perfect steak one of those benefits? And, if so, exactly what difference can a charcoal grill make to your T-bone or ribeye? Check out these pros and cons to find out more. 

Gas Grills – Pros & Cons 

Pros of Gas Grills

Gas grills are cleaner to handle, take less time to warm up, require less babysitting, and are less prone to flare-ups. In the broadest terms, gas grills are faster and easier to cook with. 

Even more importantly, two-burner gas grills allow for easy two-zone grilling. Two-zone grilling involves bringing one side of the grill to its hottest possible temperature and keeping the other side at a lower temperature. For steaks, this means you have one area for searing and another for bringing your steaks to the desired temperature. This is widely considered one of the best ways to grill a perfect steak. 

Gas grills are also better for any recipe that doesn’t require searing or smoking. 

If ease, convenience, and amateur-friendly grilling are your primary concerns, a gas grill is your best bet. 

Cons of Gas Grills

On the other hand, most gas grills struggle to reach the temperatures charcoal grills are capable of, and are poor at searing meats as a result. Only a small range of expensive gas grills deliver the same searing power as charcoal. 

And while most claims about charcoal’s aromatic, flavor-enhancing properties are untrue, charcoal grills are better for smoking meats, and there is at least one aromatic compound released by burning charcoal that sets it apart from gas. 

Charcoal Grills – Pros & Cons 

Pros of Charcoal Grills

In terms of smoke and flavor, charcoal grills not only smoke meats better than gas, they also release a chemical called guaiacol. Guaiacol is an aroma compound that gives meat a smoky, bacon-like flavor, and it only comes from wood and charcoal. 

In terms of temperature, the average charcoal grill heats up to around 200 degrees hotter than your average gas grill. This is the biggest selling point for charcoal over gas, as certain recipes and dishes demand that extra heat.
Since a good sear is essential to a well-grilled steak, your ribeye or porterhouse is one of the dishes that benefit from charcoal cooking. 

If high temperatures and smoked meats are important to you then the charcoal grill is where you need to look. 

Cons of Charcoal Grills

Charcoal is messy and can be a pain for clean-up. It takes longer to get up to temperature, which means waiting two to three times as long to start grilling. 

Also, it’s much harder to get to the right temperature (unless that temperature is blistering hot). It’s also more prone to flare-ups than gas, risking charred foods chock full of carcinogens. 

Finally, two-zone grilling, while possible, is harder to manage, as you can’t control each zone’s temperature as precisely as with gas.

    The Verdict?

    All these issues can be dealt with or managed. How much clean-up and wait-time you’re willing to tolerate is a matter of personal preference, and your grill’s tendencies are something you get used to over time. Charcoal grill supporters even suggest practicing with cheap food or no food at all so that you can get used to your grill’s personality.

    It should be said that some premium gas grills can reach temperatures comparable to charcoal grills. They’re expensive, but they may be worth it if you’re attached to propane as much as you’re attached to great steak. If, on the other hand, you need to sear or smoke your food and you can’t afford a premium gas unit, it may be worth it to master a charcoal grill.

    Does Propane or Charcoal BBQ Taste Better? 

    Charcoal grills typically provide a smokier and more intense flavor due to the combustion of the charcoal, which creates a distinct flavor profile in the food. The heat from charcoal grills is also more concentrated, which can result in a crispier exterior on meats and vegetables. 

    Propane grills, on the other hand, tend to produce a more consistent and even heat, which can result in more evenly cooked food. 

    Ultimately, the choice between a propane or charcoal BBQ comes down to personal preference and cooking style. Both can produce delicious and flavorful meals, so it’s worth experimenting with both to find what works best for you. 

    Is Propane Healthier Than Charcoal Grill? 

    One concern with charcoal grilling is the potential for the formation of harmful compounds, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs), during the combustion of the charcoal. These compounds can form on the surface of meat when it comes into contact with high heat and smoke, and are considered potentially carcinogenic. 

    However, there are ways to reduce the formation of these compounds when using a charcoal grill, such as by using leaner cuts of meat, avoiding charring or burning the food, and using marinades or rubs that contain herbs and spices. 

    Propane grilling, on the other hand, does not produce the same harmful compounds as charcoal grilling. However, there is some concern that propane gas can be potentially hazardous if it leaks or is not used properly, which could lead to fires or explosions. 

    Can You Sear Steak Directly on Charcoal? 

    Yes, you can sear a steak directly on charcoal by using a technique called “direct grilling.” Direct grilling involves cooking the steak directly over the hot coals rather than using indirect heat. 

    To sear a steak on charcoal, first, you will need to preheat your grill by building a hot fire in one area of the grill. Once the coals are hot, use tongs to place the steak directly over the hot coals. You should hear a sizzle as the steak makes contact with the hot grates. 

    Sear the steak on one side for 2-3 minutes, then flip it over and sear the other side for an additional 2-3 minutes, or until the desired level of doneness is reached. Use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of the steak to ensure it is cooked to your liking. 

    After searing, you can move the steak to a cooler part of the grill to finish cooking with indirect heat, or you can continue to cook it over direct heat, depending on the thickness of the steak and the level of doneness you prefer. 

    Popular Dishes for Taking Your Grilling up a Notch 

    The following are some recipes to look into to become a master griller:

    • Tri Tip Roast
    • Smoked Baby Back Ribs
    • Sweet and Savory Flank Steak
    • Orange Thai Beef Skewers
    • Honey Mustard Pork Chops
    • Garlic Flank Steak
    • Spicy Honey Chicken
    • Pulled Pork BBQ
    • Grilled Pork Tenderloin
    • Pineapple Chicken Skewers

    Take Your Grilling Game to the Next Level 

    With a great selection of islands and top of the line grills, you can customize your dream outdoor kitchen in no time.  

    A beautifully built outdoor kitchen can help you make the most of your outdoor space for years to come. If you want to create a modern outdoor kitchen that wows you every time you see it, you need the experts at Stone Outdoor Living Co. Look at our photo gallery to see some of our recent work!   

    Let the experts at Stono Outdoor Living help create your dream outdoor kitchen. Start building your kitchen with our 3D configurator; it's simple and easy to use. Or schedule a no-obligation design consultation to tailor a custom outdoor kitchen design that combines comfort, functionality, and style.  

    We guarantee a perfect fit, free shipping, and easy assembly. Shop Islands or Schedule a Consultation today. 

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