Once, on a late September day, my dear hubby came home, opened the side door, and jumped back with a yelp. A dense mass of steam erupted from the open door, dissipating into curling fingers that wafted up the side of the house and collected under the eaves. Anxious for my safety, he charged inside ready to rescue me from a burst pipe or boiling vat. What he eventually found in the thick mist was me, happily blanching, jamming, and canning the last crop gathered in from our front-yard garden.
I was oblivious to the fog around me. Steam is good for the skin after all, and my growing stash of ground-cherry jam, tomato sauce, hot-pepper sauce, and pickled beets so engrossed me I didn’t notice the peeling wallpaper or streaking paint on the walls around me. It was only after hubby and I opened windows and banished the steam that we saw what a bad idea canning in a tiny, closed kitchen was.
Our modest house was built in 1936, apparently in the days before the idea of a vented kitchen was born. The house is only 1,200 square feet and the kitchen is tiny. The walls are plasterboard and, at one time, someone thought wallpapering above the chair rail would be an excellent idea. We’d often thought about removing it, but once paper is stuck to plasterboard there’s no going back. Now the steam had lifted the edges and streaked the eggshell-painted walls in adjoining rooms. Any more canning done in this kitchen meant we’d have to invent some steam-proofing.
We bought a two-burner outdoor stove for canning and that was a good idea, but only if covered by a tarp to protect against the bird droppings, bugs, and leaves that continually drop from the giant tree that dominates our backyard. A better idea has been to ensure every window in the house is open when canning. This creates a cross-draft to ventilate any steam. It’s a stop-gap measure only. The more time we spend preparing and preserving the food we grow, the more we long for a summer kitchen.
The first summer kitchen we’d ever seen was at a local pioneer village. In the doctor’s house—a lovely Victorian rambler—the large kitchen at the back opened onto a smaller functional summer kitchen. This is where the weekly laundering took place, where the children were bathed, and where all cooking was done during the heat of summer.
Casks crowded the space beneath a long heavy wooden work table. As in any pioneer kitchen, the wood stove in the corner dominated the room, and a double dry-sink stood beneath a set of large open windows. It seemed this room was handy as a storage area, too. Corn brooms, clean rags, and utensils hung on the walls and dried flowers and herbs festooned the ceiling near the stove. Two sets of windows on either side of the room and a door to the outside created a cross-draft.
I dream about this kitchen. I am determined to have one very much like it. I may not launder or wash children out there, but, to my mind, no homestead is complete without one. It’s an essential workroom. If you have a range hood to draw out heat, steam, and smells, you may not benefit quite so much from a summer kitchen, but I believe the reduced reliance on electricity that a summer kitchen offers can only be good. The extra storage and cooking space, working in the fresh air, and honoring tradition are all richly rewarding.
The benefits of a summer kitchen are many. Besides avoiding steaming off wallpaper or melting paint, the most obvious is keeping the heat out of the house. Summers in Canada can be surprisingly hot and humid, and with global weather patterns changing, Hubby and I have also noticed that September is no longer as brisk and dry as it was in the long-ago days of our youth. Autumn is also the time the kitchen is used the most as the harvest comes in, and we are loath to turn on the air-conditioner in September.
Our predecessors had no a/c and so taking the heat outside made a lot of sense. When wood or coal was the main source of fuel for cooking, the risk of fire was also a consideration. Some kitchens were actually separate buildings, many not even walled in—more like a covered patio with stove or fireplace and a worktable. In the doctor’s house, the brick exterior of the house acted as some protection against any fire that might happen in the attached kitchen.
Summer kitchens were used for myriad tasks including processing poultry and small game, making sausage and rendering lard (at one time, the main source of fat for cooking and baking). Homesteaders brined hams and pork bellies in the fall, keeping them in wooden casks until ready for smoking in the spring.
Many cooks know processing food can create a little stinkiness. I tried making sauerkraut last year for the first time; Hubby has Ukrainian ancestry on his father’s side, and I wanted to surprise him with healthy, homemade, fermented cabbage. What we ended up with wasn’t quite what his Baba used to make, but it was still delicious. We still have some in the freezer. However, there was no way I could keep my little culinary experiment a secret. That large cheesecloth covered crock of shredded, salted cabbage needed to sit for about six weeks and hubby swore he could smell it no matter where I tried to hide it in the house. I like to think it made the place feel homier, but after awhile, even I could stand it no longer. Out to our tiny shed it went till it was ready. I kept my fingers crossed that one of our genius neighborhood raccoons wouldn’t be drawn in by the scent and break in to sample some.
I also love hot and spicy foods like curries but Hubby does not (if you haven’t already guessed, he’s a bit of a culinary wimp, bless him). We’re resolved to the fact our palates are quite different. I often brew up a batch of something truly stinky when he’s out of the house and then freeze it for later. A summer kitchen would be ideal as I wouldn’t have to push him out the door every time I wanted to make my beef and curried eggs. Garlic, cabbage, onions, fish, and even boiling eggs can also emit a not-so-sweet perfume when cooking. With no vent over the stove, it would also be nice to keep those odors out of the house.
Of course, we could spend the money to get the kitchen we have vented, and we just might do that before we sell. That will be to add value and avoid any raised eyebrows. Kitchen hoods are ubiquitous in new houses around here and ours seems quaint without one. But we don’t want to spend the money on upgrades until we’ve saved enough to pay cash for them. We have only three years to go before we uproot and head for the country. We’re determined to start debt-free. But that’s another story.
With an outdoor kitchen, you can cook meals in the summertime that you might not bother with if you had to make them inside. Imagine being able to boil vats of pasta for a spaghetti party in August. After you’ve roasted your chicken dinner outside, keep the bones and make stock without concern for steam. Make cheese out there, or even candles or soap. We make our own liquid laundry soap by boiling the berries of the Sapindus tree in a large but shallow pot. The water has to reduce by about a third to concentrate the saponins. That creates quite a bit of steam!
It can also be a charming place to eat. Almost everyone with a house and a backyard has a barbeque. It’s the modern interpretation of a summer kitchen, in a way. We no longer cook outside to avoid heat or steam, we do it for leisure. If you choose to eat at the summer kitchen, you’re outside in the fresh air, just like a picnic or a barbeque, but without the bugs. If you have a lot of guests, this extra room not only doubles your cooking capacity, it provides more seating area.
On some of the early homesteads where several generations lived under the same roof, the summer kitchen was often used as a honeymoon suite. It must have been nice to get out of the house and have some privacy. People would also sleep out there on summer nights as it was cooler. Farmhands would sometimes be given the summer kitchen as living space during harvest.
A summer kitchen is factored into our plans for our future homestead. We’re going with a prefab-home-building company that Hubby has had personal experience with. It will be our responsibility to excavate the basement and build foundation walls. Included in the design we’ve chosen is a screened back porch. This we plan to have on the north side of the house, away from the worst of the sun’s heat. We have the option of extending this porch along the length of the back wall. We intend to leave the original open area, then close in the rest to make a walk-in pantry and storage areas, and include a stairway down to a root cellar. When we dig the foundation, we will extend part of it beneath this storage area to include the root cellar and possibly a chilled meat locker.
The reason for this design goes beyond keeping heat, steam, and stinkiness out of the house, but to create a safe-and-separate, critter-proof area for storage. The full screens of the original design will be replaced by a half wall lined with screened windows. These windows will either be shuttered or have pull-down windows to keep anything out that might like to sample what smells so darn good inside. Even if they make it inside, the pantry door will be closed and latched. If there are raccoons in the area, we’ll make it lockable. We’ve had experience with raccoons before, and give the little beggars plenty of respect for their ingenuity at opening latches.
The house will be clad in concrete siding which will help protect the porch area from any potential fire risk from a cookstove.
The pantry will hold dry goods and canned and preserved food. Currently, we buy dry ingredients like beans, flour, and baking soda (which we use for cleaning) in bulk. Our tiny kitchen is bulging at the seams. Since these items do better in cooler, dry conditions, storage in a summer kitchen pantry would be ideal. Since the pantry doesn’t need to be fully heated in the winter, many other items can be stored there like butter, cheese, and cider. The storage area beyond will hold canning supplies and items that aren’t frequently used like roasting pans, oversized pots, baking pans, mandolin, tureens, and extra dishes.
We don’t plan to have a refrigerator or dishwasher in our summer kitchen. Since it will be just a step into our regular kitchen there’s no need for them, and we save on electricity. We will have a stove and double sink, though. Placement of plumbing will need to be considered carefully so pipes don’t freeze in winter. We need this extra kitchen to be fully functional and I’d like it to be somewhat roomy. The screened in porch in our prefab is a fair size, about 15’x15′. That’s the same size as the kitchen we now have! With no refrigerator, this room will seem even bigger. I can hardly wait.
Nowadays, outdoor cooking is mostly seen as having a patio area set aside in the backyard for grilling. This idea is recently expanding however, and many builders now offer large outdoor cooking areas that are often attached to the house. Pizza and bread ovens, large grills with spits, and storage are some of the offerings factored into these designs. Some outdoor kitchens are rustic, others are gloriously modern and look like they might double the energy output of the whole house.
Above all else we want functionality, and that includes a low energy output. I have yet to master the art of wood-fired bread baking so the stove in our kitchen will likely be electrical, and—we hope—powered by the wind-turbine we plan to put up. Winter heat will be minimal and used only to keep pipes from bursting or when the room is in use in the coldest months. We will put a separate thermostat in the kitchen. There will be plugs for small appliances, but we don’t use those much now anyway.
Not quite like the charming summer kitchen in the Doctor’s house, but we intend to use ours at least as much as those Victorians used theirs. If you haven’t considered building one why not give it some thought? It will save you money, create extra food processing and storage space, and keep your house cooler in the summer. Check out summer kitchens online—forgo the Ponderosa-style, Italian-tiled uber-kitchens and look at some of the small add-ons people have put together. Charm meets delight meets functionality. You just can’t go wrong there.