Iva Carter
Published by Iva Carter
Last Updated On: April 15, 2022

As a long-time adherent of the carnivore lifestyle, I have smoked more meat than almost anyone other than a professional pitmaster. As such, I am well-positioned to talk about the pros and cons of adding a water pan to your smoker. Read on for more information.

Summary of the Key Findings

  • Placing a water pan in your smoker can keep your meat moist by increasing humidity and regulating the temperature.
  • You can put water pans under the meat or over the hottest part of the fire.
  • Adding juice, cider, beer, or wine to the water pan does not add much additional flavor to your smoked meats.

6 Reasons You Should Use a Water Pan:

empty pan tray

After much experimentation, I have determined that there are several great benefits to using a water pan in your smoker.

1. It helps to regulate the temperature of the smoker

Everyone knows that the secret to great smoking is to cook slowly over low heat, and my favorite temperature to smoke at is 225-250°F [1]. But we are dealing with fire here, and it is not always easy to keep the heat source as low as it needs to be.

This is where a water pan comes in. The water in that pan boils at 212°F, meaning the water in the pan is never more than that boiling point. And when the water evaporates away, it actually provides some cooling to the smoker - just like sweating helps cool a person.

"Grilling is when people say, 'We're going to turn up the heat, make it really hot and sear a steak, sear a burger, cook a chicken.' Barbecue is going low and slow." - Guy Fieri, restauranteur.

Water conducts heat slowly and carries heat better than air. This means it acts like a heat sink, soaking up heat that would otherwise make the smoker too hot. It also means there is less cooling if you open the smoker because it will radiate heat upwards if the temperature falls.

2. It keeps the meat moist

Cooked meat

The water pan creates a moist cooking environment, which helps to keep the meat tender and juicy.

When water from the water pan gets to the boiling point, it is released as steam into the smoker.

This water vapor creates humidity within the smoker and helps keep the meat moist.

Additionally, some of that water vapor falls onto the meat where it provides evaporative cooling the meat and allowing more time for it to render - giving connective tissues and fats a chance to melt.

The falling water vapor also provides an additional source of moisture to the chamber and carries smoke particles and gasses onto the meat.

3. It helps to create a more even smoke ring

A water pan can also help to create a more even ring on your meat. This is because the water pan will help regulate the smoker's humidity and keep it moister. This will help produce a more consistent smoke ring by delaying the creation of the BBQ bark.

Further, the water vapor condenses on the meat which allows more smoke and sodium nitrite to absorb into the meat and build up the ring from the inside out.

4. It makes cleaning up easier

Another great reason to use water pans is that they help to make cleanup easier. Although it is not primarily designed as a drip pan, it doubles in that role.

If you position it correctly, the grease drippings from your meat can collect in the water pan instead of coating your smoker. This means less scrubbing for you when it comes time to clean up.

5. It helps to cook the meat more evenly

cooked meat with herbs

You can place a water pan underneath the meat rack to help evenly distribute heat.

The water in the pan will absorb and radiate heat more evenly throughout the cooking chamber, resulting in a more consistent cooking process.

This is especially helpful if you are cooking multiple racks of meat or if your smoker has hot spots from an uneven heat source.

The pan can provide indirect heat by blocking the flame so that you do not get flare-ups, and it prevents hot and cold spots from developing on the meat.

This results in more evenly cooked meat, which is especially important when smoking larger cuts of meat like brisket or pork shoulder.

6. It adds flavor to the meat

The water pan also acts as a flavor booster, adding an extra dimension of taste to your smoked meats. This is because the water vapor and steam released into the smoker carry smoke flavor molecules from the pan.

These molecules then attach themselves to the meat and impart an extra level of flavor. The result is a smokier, more complex flavor that you cannot get from just smoking the meat alone.

Water Pan or Drip Pan?

thinking chef

A drip pan is a pan that is placed underneath the meat to catch drippings.

It does not provide all the benefits of a water pan and is generally used for three purposes.

The first is to keep meat juices from dripping onto the flame and causing flare-ups that result in unevenly cooked meat. In this way, it acts to create a radiant heat source for the food.

Next drip pans can make your cleanup easier.

And finally, they can collect drippings to be used as stock.

Using a water pan has some of the same advantages as drip pans, but it is not primarily designed for that purpose. If you decide to use it as a drip pan, make sure to position it properly so that the grease does not fall on flame or coat your smoker.

Also, if you are trying to collect drippings for stock, you want to make sure you continue to add water to the pan. Otherwise, the juices are at risk of charring or caramelization.

Where to Put the Water Pan?

There is some debate about the best location to place a water pan in a smoker.

One commonly recommended method is to place it over the hottest part of the smoker - usually near the flame. This will help to create more steam and generate more heat. However, if you place the pan in this location, you have to watch it to ensure it stays filled yet does not boil over.

Another option is to place it in the middle of the smoker below the meat in the cooking chamber. This will help to create more radiant heat, keep the temperature more consistent, and prevent the meat from cooking too quickly on the bottom.

It also gives you the cleanup benefits of a drip pan while still allowing the hot water vapor to rise and mingle with the smoke before it hits the meat.

What to Put In the Pan?

apple juice

Although it is named a water pan, you can put pretty much anything you want in it - as long as it does not create a hazard. Do not put anything in the pan that will catch fire or produce dangerous fumes.

Some people like to put apple juice, cider, or other fruit juices in the pan to give their meat a little extra flavor.

You could also use beer, wine, or even broth. Some people also like to add herbs or spices to the water for more flavor.

There is no doubt that the addition of these ingredients will smell great as you smoke your meat. However, there are a few reasons they may not effectively transfer flavor.

  1. Many of the great-smelling chemicals in these liquids will not vaporize at the low temperature of a smoker. This means they will not be carried up into the smoker chamber and will not have an opportunity to attach themselves to the meat.
  2. Even if these chemicals do vaporize, they are more likely to condense on the cold surfaces of the smoker chamber before they have a chance to reach the meat. This means that, once again, they will not be able to impart their flavor.
  3. The water-soluble compounds that do evaporate and make it to your meat will land on a greasy surface. Oil and water do not mix, so the water-based flavors will not penetrate the fatty meat surface.

Because of these reasons, my recommendation is only to put water in the water pan.

If you want to add extra flavor to your smoked meats, it is best to do so through a rub, sauce, or injection rather than adding apple juice or flavorings to the water pan. These methods will ensure that the flavors have a chance to penetrate the meat and not fall off the outside.

Cleaning the Water Pan

After you finish smoking, cleaning the water pan should be simple. This is particularly true if you have lined the pan with aluminum foil before use.

Once the pan has been given a chance to cool down, you should find the fats and drippings in the pan will have solidified. If not, adding a couple of ice cubes or cold water to the pan should accelerate the process.

You can then discard the solid fat in the trash. The remaining liquids can be put into old milk bottles and thrown away or spread across some shrubs in your garden. Some people will put the water in the toilet or sink, but any remaining fat could cause a clog.

Finally, if you used foil to line the pan, simply ball it up and toss it in the trash as well. All that is left is a quick scrub of the pan with soapy, hot water to complete your cleanup.

Reasons Not to Use a Water Pan

chef saying stop

Despite all the great reasons to use a water pan in your smoker, there are a few reasons you may not want to.

  • Because the water will evaporate as you cook, you will have to refill the pan continually. This can be a bit of a hassle, particularly if you smoke at a low temperature for an extended period.
  • If you are looking for a thick bark on your brisket or crispy skin when cooking chicken, the high humidity levels in the smoker may prevent this from happening. This is because the water vapor mixes with the surface of the meat and prevents it from drying out.
  • If your cooking plan includes using high heat for a short period of time, a water pan will not help you. Grilling items like steaks or burgers? You don't need a water pan.
  • Smoking with a water pan may require more charcoal than smoking without one. This is because the water will absorb some of the heat that would otherwise be going to your meat.

FAQs

Should I Use a Water Pan When Smoking Brisket?

Few types of meat benefit more from using a water pan than brisket. Brisket demands slow cooking over low heat, and the water helps keep the meat juicy and prevents it from drying out.

Can I Put Ice in the Water Pan When Smoking?

Adding ice or cold water to the water pan can help to cool down the smoker if it gets too hot. However, that does pull extra heat energy from the smoker and should be done with caution.

Can You Use a Stainless Steel Bowl in a Smoker?

You can use a stainless steel bowl in a smoker. At the low temperatures used for smoking, the bowl will not be harmed by the heat. That said, stainless steel is not recommended for grilling as the grill temp on the cooking grate can get over the 600°F - where the metal starts to warp and get damaged [2]. This is true for gas grills or charcoal.

Because of this, many people choose to use a disposable heavy-duty aluminum foil pan as the water pan in their smoker because they can throw it away instead of cleaning it and does not require any special care.

Do You Need a Water Pan in Pellet or Electric Smokers?

You can use a water pan in a pellet or electric smokers to keep the meat tender and the temperature well-regulated. They are ideal in this indirect cooking environment However, it is not a requirement - the smoker will function without one.

Do I Need to Soak Wood Chips in Water Before Smoking?

Typically, no. Soaking wood chips before smoking will not make them burn any hotter or produce more smoke. In fact, soaking wood chips can actually make them burn cooler because it takes longer for the water to evaporate.

Get the Most Out of Your Smoker Water Pan

In my view, a water pan is a must-have for any serious smoking effort. You create a temperature-controlled and moist environment that keeps the meat from drying out by adding water to the smoker.

For more information about getting the best BBQ smoker for your needs, check out our article here.


References:

  1. https://www.kingsford.com/grill-guide/how-to-smoke-foods-on-a-charcoal-grill/
  2. https://www.thekitchn.com/stainless-steel-pans-tips-things-to-avoid-22997775

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