Cookware for Dining Al Fresco

These kitchen-tested gadgets will make summer’s best outdoor gatherings even better.

Summer is well underway and I’m determined to eat as many meals as possible al fresco. Iced coffee on our back deck. Picnics in the park. And—my favorite—burgers outside with friends and family. I’m preparing for all of those delicious outdoor meals with my favorite gadgets to cook and transport food. Whether you’re at the beach or on your back deck, you want cold drinks. Our winning large cooler keeps drinks cold for five days and our top-rated wine tumbler keeps drinks chilled and spill-free. Want to take your picnic spread to the next level? We have you covered with our review of picnic baskets and backpacks.

—Carolyn Grillo, Senior Editor, ATK Reviews

Thanks to its wide and comfortable straps, this backpack is much more comfortable to carry than traditional picnic baskets. A wide strip of fabric at the top of the backpack unzips, providing very easy access to food. The stainless-steel silverware was comfortable to use; the glasses were a touch heavier than other plastic models and had a very attractive shape, giving this backpack a slight edge over others in our lineup. The fleece blanket, which measured roughly 4¼ by 5 feet, had a water-resistant backing that gave it some structure. The wine pouch and corkscrew were useful additions, but we wish the pretty 6 by 6-inch bamboo cutting board was a bit larger.

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This insulated canvas basket is ideal for people short on storage space at home: It collapses to a compact 7-inch-tall oval with all its picnic gear still inside it. We also liked that we could hook its long handles over our forearms, giving our hands a break or freeing them up to carry other things. It comes with complete place settings for four people but no extra gear. Although the basket isn’t especially elegant, it’s a very practical spin on traditional wicker models.

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This charming wicker basket contains stainless-steel silverware and attractive wineglasses made from real glass, which elevates a picnic to a fancy affair even though the plates are plastic. The trade-off is that the basket is big and heavy—it weighs more than 8 pounds before you add food and drinks. Its dual doors fold out and stay open for easy access to the basket’s contents. It’s not insulated, but it comes with an insulated storage container that’s about the size of a small lunchbox.

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The heavy, corrugated stainless-steel grate of this solidly designed, compact grill spread heat evenly. (It's like a Ruffles potato chip, with tiny holes along the base of the V’s to drain fat.) Straightforward to use, with excellent heat control, it produced juicy, evenly cooked burgers and steak with crisp grill marks; grill-roasted pork loin to perfection; and fit a 4-pound chicken under its lid with room to spare. While it had just one burner, we were able to preheat the grill and then turn down the flame to slowly roast the pork without overcooking it, since its low, narrow vent and thick cast-aluminum construction efficiently trapped heat inside. At 20 pounds, with big side handles, it is easy to lift and transport; plus, its simple, accessible parts made cleanup easy, so we didn’t mind storing it indoors. An adapter for full-size propane tanks is available separately.

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This cleverly designed, supercompact, and extra-lightweight grill is easily the most portable of the grills we tested. With a rectangular steel body and a handle on top, it feels just like a tackle box. Curved steel legs swing up to latch the lid. Narrow vents slow the escape of heat and smoke and help the cook box stay hot, as does the griddle-like grate that resembles an enameled broiler pan. It doesn’t create impressive grill marks, but it gets the job done, and it’s extremely simple to clean.

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This smaller version of our favorite Weber Original Kettle Premium Charcoal Grill shares many of its attributes. The ample cooking surface fit six to eight burgers at a time or a 1½-pound flank steak. The domed cover allowed us to grill-roast a butterflied chicken perfectly. Adjustable vents on the cover and on opposite sides of the grill’s body gave us plenty of control over the fire.

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This ultradurable cooler outpaced every other model in cooling and durability, but it’s a bit heavy for the average person. Ice lasted a whole week, and when we placed sodas and ice packs inside, the cooler kept our beverages below 50 degrees for more than five days. We also loved its rubber latches, which were easy to close, and its durable rope handles. The cooler’s weight did make it fairly difficult for one person to carry when full, and it didn’t fit all our groceries or soda cans (it could fit only 24 cans, along with ice packs). However, if you’re looking for a smaller cooler that holds all the essentials, this is an excellent option.

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This budget-friendly model did a decent job of cooling, keeping ice for six days—longer than any other product priced under $100.00. Its wheels made it more portable, and its roomy interior easily held a weekend's worth of groceries. We liked that the side handles were molded into the body, which prevented them from breaking when dropped. The telescoping handle you use to roll the cooler (like a luggage handle) wasn't so durable, though; one of the poles dented after we dropped the cooler, which prevented us from pushing the handle down and obstructed the lid from opening fully.

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The newer version of our former winner works just as well as the original. In a 90-degree room, this tote kept orange juice safely below 40 degrees for 2 hours. This was no surprise, given its moderate size, thick layer of insulating foam, and additional gauze-like filler designed to maintain the bag’s interior temperature. Its square, flat design and wide woven shoulder strap made it comfortable for short and tall testers alike. Though a faint yellow mustard stain remained, it showed no other signs of wear and tear.

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A smaller version of our favorite cake carrier, this collapsible plastic tote expanded to accommodate even our tallest Mile-High Lemon Meringue Pie. Its large, nonskid base held 8-, 9-, and 10-inch pies perfectly in place, even on bumpy car rides. A bonus: It comes with two molded inserts for deviled eggs, one of which can be flipped upside down and used as a second tier for transporting two shorter pies at once. Its one slight fault: The latches took a little finessing to secure properly.

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This set of utensils has it all: a fork with effective, pointy tines; a sharp knife with many small serrations; and a perfectly shaped spoon. The fork cleanly punctured even the most delicate pieces of lettuce as well as the slippery pasta. Plus, this set is both sturdy and comfortable to hold and eat from. These utensils are made from a compostable and renewable resource, but keep in mind that they need to be commercially composted.

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These disposable bowls were durable and easy to use, but their rims were small, so they were tougher to grab and lift than our winner. Outside of that, we found these bowls to be easy to hold and eat from, thanks to their wide bases and short walls. They were also durable and weren’t damaged by disposable utensils or hot or cold foods because of their waterproof coating. The size of these smaller bowls makes them excellent for side dishes or desserts.

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Our favorite set of plastic cups has everything we were looking for, including thin rims that make the cups very pleasant to drink from. The textured exterior allowed us to grip the cups securely. After these cups were used, washed repeatedly, and deliberately dropped onto concrete, they retained only minor nicks and dents. A bonus: This is the least expensive set (per cup) in our lineup.

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This insulated stainless-steel tumbler stood out with its slim shape and smooth but grippy surface. But its appeal didn’t stop there. The tumbler’s airtight lid was so solid that even when knocked over and thrown in a backpack, nary a drop of liquid escaped—an impressive feat. The only downside to the lid was that the vacuum seal made it somewhat difficult to remove, but it was a small price to pay for keeping every precious sip of wine in the tumbler. Testers also liked the lid slider that covers the sipping port; it opened smoothly and evenly. When tasked with keeping wine chilled, the tumbler succeeded for an impressive 4 hours and 30 minutes.

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Compact and reliable, this gas-fired oven is our recommendation for most home cooks who want to cook excellent pizzas outdoors quickly and easily. A gas flame located at the rear of the oven heated up the baking stone relatively evenly while also heating the inside of the oven. An angled heat deflector on the roof of the oven helped direct heat to the tops of the pizzas as they baked. It was easy to ignite the flame and adjust the heat using a dial located at the rear of the oven.

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This fairly compact oven fits 12-inch pizzas and is a good choice for people who like cooking with wood, charcoal, or gas and want to move their pizza oven with relative ease. We loved that the tall chimney—which is essential for wood and charcoal cooking—can be removed and replaced with a small cap while using propane and when transporting or storing the oven. The gas flame, which is located at the rear of the oven and arcs over the stone, is powerful and easy to ignite. Pizzas had nicely melted and bubbly cheese on top while the sides and bottom of the crusts had good char and spotting. Wood must be cut down to size, and maintaining the heat with both wood and charcoal is messy and requires some vigilance. But if you enjoy both the challenges and potential rewards of using those fuels, including the ability to slow-roast foods, this model is fun and easier to use than others we’ve tested.

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