You may think water and smoke don’t mix, but when it comes to low and slow barbecue in your own backyard, a water pan may be your best friend.
But why would you use one? And how? And when? So many questions…
I’ve been using a water pan for many years in my Weber kettle when smoking things like brisket, pork shoulder, and ribs.
The logic I used was that water adds moisture — and while that is true, there are many other possible reasons why you might want to use a water pan in your grill.
Contents (Jump to Topic)
- 1 Why Use a Water Pan?
- 2 Where Should You Place the Water Pan?
- 3 When Should You Use a Water Pan?
- 4 When Shouldn’t You Use A Water Pan?
- 5 What Should or Should Not Go Into The Pan?
- 6 Cleaning Up The Pan After Use
- 7 Conclusion
Why Use a Water Pan?
As mentioned in the intro there are numerous reasons to want to use a water pan while cooking barbecue:
As explained by Craig “Meathead” Goldwyn, a New York Times bestselling author, and creator of the website AmazingRibs.com, a water pan will stabilize the temperature inside the grill.
This is because water takes longer to rise or fall in temp than air, so once the water comes up to temp, it will radiate heat upwards into the grill if the grill temp begins to fall, and absorb excess heat if the grill starts to get too hot.
Blocks Direct Heat / Flames
If you use a smoker like a Weber Smokey Mountain (which you can learn more about in our review), your water pan will be directly below the meat, and directly above the charcoal.
This will eliminate direct heat and flames from potentially burning the food, as well as eliminate potential flare-ups caused by dripping fat falling onto your charcoal.
Moist Cooking Environment
In the above video, James Beard Award-winner Aaron Franklin of famed Franklin Barbecue drops an awful lot of BBQ knowledge.
Perhaps most importantly, he explains in a small backyard grill the heat source is very close to the meat and a water pan will assist in keeping the air inside the cooking chamber moist and keep the food from burning or drying out.
Better Smoke Flavor
As a grill heats up, any water from a pan will begin to evaporate and then condense on the colder surface of any meat being cooked, especially if it’s straight from the fridge.
When it condenses, it will mix with the rub on the surface of the meat and make the food “sticky.” This will make it easier for smoke particles — and smoke flavor — to adhere to the meat, and the result will be a better, smokier flavor.
Helps Create a Smoke Ring
If you want to get a good-looking BBQ smoke ring, then moisture in the air as you cook helps with this in a couple of ways.
If the surface of the meat remains moist, the formation of BBQ bark is delayed, allowing more smoke and chemicals to absorb into the meat that helps the smoke ring formation.
Secondly, keeping the meat moist also helps smoke particles to stick more easily onto the surface.
Where Should You Place the Water Pan?
The biggest factor in deciding where to place your water pan will be the type of cooker you have and the amount of room you have to position your pan.
We’ve already pointed out that a water pan helps create radiant, even heat so placing it directly beneath your food and above your charcoal is ideal.
If you have a smaller Weber kettle, or you are running offset smoker, it may be difficult to place directly under the food. In this case, you could place it on your cooking grate, between the food and the heat source.
If you’re cooking with a gas grill, a water pan will be very beneficial to creating a two-zone indirect heating area.
If you have a typical two- or three-burner grill, you can turn one burner on and leave the other(s) off. Place your meat on the “cold” side with a water pan underneath. This way the water in the pan can heat up to create even radiant heat sitting underneath your food.
When Should You Use a Water Pan?
Anytime you are trying to cook at a constant, steady, low temperature for a long period is the ideal time to use a water pan.
It doesn’t matter what type of food you’re cooking, whether it be ribs, pork shoulder, brisket, prime rib, etc. If you’re going to be cooking at a low temp over a long period, you’ll benefit from a water pan.
When Shouldn’t You Use A Water Pan?
A water pan would be of little benefit anytime you’re cooking at a high heat for a short period — i.e. grilling.
If you’re going to be searing a steak at a high temperature the water in the water pan will boil rapidly and eventually evaporate altogether.
Also, if you’re cooking chicken, turkey, or any other poultry with the skin on, a moist cooking environment can keep the skin from ever getting crispy. And I don’t know about you, but I love a bit of crispy skin on my poultry!
What Should or Should Not Go Into The Pan?
Water is all that I believe should be used in a water pan. However, I do recommend using hot water due to the amount of time and energy that would be used heating up the cold water in your grill or smoker.
In other words, it would take a long time for your grill or smoker to come up to temp if the water was cold because first you would be heating the water, then heating the air inside your grill.
A lot of people like to use beer, apple juice, and other aromatic or tasty liquids in their water pans.
I mean, sure, it’ll smell good on your back patio, but this isn’t necessary. Since the point of the water pan is not to flavor the meat, but rather create a moist cooking environment with an even cooking temperature, the liquid will not have much impact on flavor.
I contend that if you want to use beer or apple juice to flavor your meat, you should place it in a spray bottle and spritz your food with it every couple of hours. This way you’re able to make the meat “sticky” still to help smoke adhere, as well as add another layer of flavor to your food.
Cleaning Up The Pan After Use
If you use a water pan in your grill, you’re going to have to clean it up and do something with the water once you’re done cooking. Especially if you had it placed under your food and fat has been dripping into it while you were cooking.
You only have a few options here:
- Pour the water into your garden.
- Pour it down the closest sink
- Flush it down your loo
- Put into a watertight rubbish bag and throw it away.
If my water is relatively clear, i.e., it barely contains any fats from food, then I simply throw it on my garden. Not on the lawn, but in the hedge.
If it contains a small amount of fat, I like to carry it to a sink or my toilet for flushing. I let it cool first so the fats congeal on the surface and are easily skimmed off to place in the garbage. Don’t throw it straight down your sink, because fats can cause blockages over time.
Since I tend to cook a lot with charcoal, I always have a small garbage bucket with a bag in it on my back patio for charcoal ash.
So sometimes I’ve found that the easiest and tidiest way to clean up after using a water pan is just to dump the contents into the garbage bag. Bonus if I use a disposable aluminum water pan, because I just throw the pan out too.
How about you? Do you use a water pan when you barbecue low and slow? Do you just use a drip pan with no water? Do you just use water, or do you use another liquid in the water pan?
Leave a comment below telling us when and if you use a water pan, and how you use it.
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I have a ProQ smoker, similar to the Weber Smokey Mountain. I’ve always struggled to get the temp high enough when I’ve put boiling water in the pan from the start. I’ve started adding only a small amount of water at the beginning, which soon evaporates, then topping it up every couple of hours once its evaporated and the temp starts to raise too high. I usually have a flavored spray bottle at hand too.
Best bit of kit I’ve ever bought, once you’ve got the knack and worked out the best way that suits your particular smoker you’ll never look back.
Happy smoking folks 👌🏽🥩🍗🍖🍻
Love the ProQs, good bits of kit!
I’m still relatively new to smoking, so this may be a silly question. Do I still need to use a drip/water pan after I’ve wrapped my pork shoulder in heavy-duty aluminum foil for the stall and placed the meat back in the smoker? It seems counterintuitive to continue to use one since the meat is sealed in aluminum foil and moisture from the pan can no longer provide humidity for the meat. Thanks!
You’re right in your thinking, it really won’t make a difference at all as long as the temperature is stable.
The exception to this is electric smokers. I have a small “Apartment sized” 30″ Masterbuilt cabinet smoker. I start with the pan full of boiling water ( about 2 quarts ) since these smokers only have about a 1000 watt element, It really does help stabilize the tempter swings and get the temp back to normal after opening the door and I can see a much smaller variance between the top shelf and the bottom self of 4 through out the cook ( without water 15 to 18 deg F is normal between the lowest and highest self. Its about 4 or 5 degrees if I keep the water in the pan and add 180-210 deg water when its half gone) I have done as much as 4 12 lb Briskets in it but have found I have to rotate the racks every hour for the first 8 or so hours and every 2 or 3 hours after that hours to make them all cook. (rotate top rack to bottom slot then moving each of the other 3 racks up 1 slot) to do 4 x 12 lb briskets is about 26 hours for me.
Makes sense. I was a bit rash to say ‘makes no difference at all’, since a water pan stabilizes the temperature inside a smoker. I should have said makes no difference to moistness of the food once wrapped, but can still help with stable temps.
What about in a Kamado? I’ve read that these already do a great job of keeping meat moist. When I use a pan my skin/crust/bark never gets crisp.
It’s universally agreed by all that you do not need a water pan in Kamado. I own and use all 3 sizes of Kamado Joes and I never use one.
I understand that thin blue smoke does not add flavor to the meat. Still, it’s just an indication that your fire is burning at the right temperature, so the gas inside your cooking chamber can mix and mingle. Due to convection, when this warm air passes over the cold meat you’re trying to smoke, it becomes heavy, and the smoke settles on the meat.
I have been running offset smokers for the last 30 years and have had no trouble getting good smoked barbecue that is flavorful, tender, and smoky. Still, I have changed over to a pellet grill. By accident, I found some pellets that actually did create blue smoke. It was a shock to me because I had never seen blue smoke come out of my pellet grill in the 7 months I have owned it, but anyway, there’s this blue smoke. Hence, I whip up some ribs, throw them on a smoker, and smoke them for 5 hours, low and slow, at 130°.
Then I wrap them in foil and put them on the smoker for an hour and a half for 2 hours, and then I open them up and put a little barbecue sauce on them, and put them back on the grill without being wrapped to develop the color and set the bark and it was a picture-perfect creation that my smoker had made, but sadly there was no Smokey flavor.
No, you don’t want to put too much seasoning on your meat because it acts like a blanket and insulates the smoke from the meat…
I used the Spritz bottle just enough to keep the surface of the meat from drying out too soon.
It seems to me that if a wood can create enough blue smoke, wouldn’t one think there would be enough flavor in the wood to go around and flavor your barbecue?
I even heard that Less blue smoke is even better, so I made the fire a little bit hotter by bumping it up to 175 and tried smoking with less blue smoke and still no flavor from the wood.
My pellets have been stored in Tupperware with those snap-top lids to keep moisture out, but after I found out they were creating blue smoke, I took my hygrometer and put it in the Tupperware with the pellets and left it for a couple of days and came back and moisture content was 41%. Is that why I had no smoky flavor on my meat?
I’m throwing all these variables into the mix, and maybe someone will come up with something that I have presented to tell the doctors of smoke out there all these symptoms, and maybe y’all could put your heads together and keep me from banging my head on the wall.
Thanks for this article allowing people to learn how to squeeze flavor out of a pellet smoker.
I’ve talked to people standing right beside me at the smoker and they’re telling me i don’t have enough smoke coming out of the smokestack.. They’re wanting to see white smoke big billowing clouds of smoke..
I have pellets that I can put in the smoker that will create lots of white smoke.
I use a smoke tube in my pellet grill. Cost me $5 at Home Depot to make one. Will smoke for about 3 hours. Provides enough smoking time to get a good smoke flavor. I fill the tube full of pellets and use a propane torch to light it with. This is good for adding in different pellets for the smoke flavor you want, not having to commit to emptying your pellet box every time.
Bruce, Ive found that 200-225 is the sweet spot for my pellet smoker. Anything less doesn’t seem to create enough smoke to penetrate the meat properly. I’ve also changed over to the tan butcher paper instead of foil, as it is more permeable to both smoke and moisture, so more smoke gets in during long cooks, and (for those using water pans or a spritz) you can really make the most of your moisture source. Hope that helps, I’m still learning a lot too!
If all the water evaporates should more hot water be added during the smoking process?
If you want the benefits it brings for the duration of the cook, then yes you would have to refill it if it boiled dry.
Thank you for your article I am new to smoking and need all the help I can get . 🍺
Will adding a moisture pan impact the creation of good bark in a smoke?
The increased moisture will help smoke to adhere to the surface of the meat during smoking, which helps with the bark and flavor. It also helps in water-soluble components of any rub you use dissolve (sugars and such) which can help with the bark. So yes, it can help. And the water in a pan (or more to the point, steam / humidity created) will not cause so much moisture that a bark doesn’t form. I have never had that happen.
Generally speaking I use a water pan most of the time in my WSM, or in a kettle grill when smoke roasting. I don’t bother in my kamados as they are so tightly sealed, the cooking chamber is moist enough due to the evaporation from the meat cooking.
I am a first time griller and still in a learning curve. If you would like to offer advice it would be much appreciated 😁
That’s exactly what this site is for and covers! Browse around and have a read, and if you have any questions after reading an article, fire away 🙂
I hear there is a pellet grill manufacturer coming out with a variable fan speed on it to control the airflow going through the smoker.
Could that possibly be the problem with the air entering your cooking chamber not having enough time to cool down before it decides to settle on your meat to add the flavor?
I had a guru on YouTube tell me the pellet grills put out less flavor because you’re using less wood. But there is certainly enough wood to create enough blue smoke for four pellet grills.
I have always thought about all that turbulence going through a pellet smoker.
You can smoke with an offset smoker with no wind feeding your draft. That gives the warm moist air a chance to cool down as it glides over your cold meat just from the natural convection of the fire in your smoker on an offset smoker.
If you preheat the wood you’re using for a smoker, it will catch fire sooner, bypassing the cooler temperatures of your growing fire bed that create white smoke. 650 up to 750°is the temperature when your fire starts to create blue smoke.
I still don’t think smoke in a pellet grill has enough time to linger in the cooking chamber to cool down enough to settle on the meat. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
I’m new to BBQ in open flame. I was going to cook pork shoulder. Should I put the meat in the water pan, or above the water pan? My grill grate goes up to 32-36” high.
Above the water pan, Mike. If you put it in, it would be (partially) braising.
How far should I put the water pan from the coals? How far from the water pan to the pork shoulder?
Depends on what kind of smoker you have, but mostly it doesn’t matter. The water is there to help regulate temperature, and create a moist environment in the cooking chamber. No matter where it is in the cooking chamber it will achieve these goals. The water will evaporate and create a humid, moist environment, as well as prevent the smoker climbing much beyond the boiling point of water (in combinations with fire control aiming for low n slow, where you will only be cooking at 225 to 250F, so not many coals will be lit.)
But the general idea is to have your meat cooking indirectly, not above the heat source, or if it is then to have a water pan and even a deflector plate between the food and the heat source. In a WSM, upright smoker, or kamado style grill, the water pan will be under the meat, and they have set places to place the pan. In an offset it will be between the food and the firebox on the same grate. In a kettle grill it will be on the cooking grate over the coals, and the food NOT over the coals.
The water pan is an absolute must for big slabs of meat. I can put a liter and a half in mine. Not worried too much about water temp, so close to the heat, the temp comes right back up. The moisture keeps the meat moist, and you get that jiggly reaction when it is done cooking.
I find it definitely improves the end result when used in my WSM, so I always use water pan there. But I don’t bother with my Kamados as it’s so airtight it tends to have a moist enough cooking chamber simply from what evaporates off the meat while cooking.
I have an Oklahoma Joe combo grill with smoker where would I place a water pan and if I use a spray bottle to keep the food moist would that work just as well
Hi Richard. Typically, you put the water pan between the firebox and the meat, unless it’s a reverse flow then the opposite to that. And yes, spritzing does have much the same effect for the moisture, but you lose the effects of a water pan acting as a temperature regulator (not an issue at all if you already have temp control mastered though.)
Article makes sense to me. Just one thing I’m confused about. Does using a water pan replace spritzing or vice versa? Can both be done or is that overkill? I have a Camp Chef vertical XXL smoker.
Hello, I’ve smoked for a long time and always used water pan. I’ve always had the understanding the water pan keeps the meats moist. Now considering getting an Asmoke portable smoker for camping. Will I be disappointed in the final cook without water pan? Thanks, Wayne
I honestly don’t think so, but there’s only one way to find out, which is to try it and see. I’m sure it will be fine though.
During a long cook on my Webber Smokey Mountain I usually need to add more boiling water. Is there a funnel that is food safe that will let me add it through the side door, so I don’t have to take the meat out allowing things to cool down? I’ve been popping the door out and then angling it into the water pan and pouring down the door. It seems to splash less water onto the coals than pouring it through the top. But it’s kind of awkward. What do you or others do?
Personally, I just take it apart to gain access to the water bowl, fill it and then put it back together.
Many people don’t even bother to use water in their WSMs, opting instead to fill the bowl with sand, or lava rocks, to increase the mass inside the smoker and help to regulate heat. They then wrap it in foil for easy cleaning.
Should you remove the water pan after you wrap your brisket
Up to you. It will have no further bearing on the meat itself, but will still act as a temperature regulator. So if you can keep your temps stable, you can and might as well remove it. But you could also keep it in to help stabilize temps.
I use a water pan under my roast low and slow.
With a bay leaf.
Then make gravy out of the pan afterwards.
I have an OKJ Bronco Pro. Have not tried using a water pan. Do you think it would help?
Hi James. I wouldn’t bother with a water pan in a drum smoker, they are well sealed and do a great job of maintaining a moist cooking environment and producing moist food without one, simply from moisture that initially evaporates from the meat.
I have the pit barrel cooker, and a friend has a drum smoker they built themselves. They hold a steady temp so well, and both of them have such a moist environment during a cook anyway that a water pan really isn’t necessary and won’t add much.
As with most things, I would recommend doing the same cook twice, once with and once without a water pan, to see if you think it’s worth it. Experimenting is fun!
What about reverse flow? Complementary flow?
Hi Jonathan. Can you elaborate?
Very informative thank you.
My question is, does smoke make its own moisture when using a smoker ?
To me, adding water in the water pan is unnecessary.
Water evaporates from the meat that is cooking, so if you have a highly sealed smoker (such as in a kamado, for example), the cooking environment remains relatively moist. But as discussed, the water pan also acts as a heat regulator.
I have a 4 in 1 pit boss smoker grill. The electric smoker has a built in water pan that sits between the heating element and food. I love it.
Hello Mark. I smoked my best brisket ever about 3 weeks ago. I used a water pan for the 1st time on my Big Green Egg along with the deflector. Not saying that the water pan was the “difference maker”, but the meat was moist! Today (4/3/22) I’m trying the water pan technique on a pork butt roast. I’ll let you know how it turns out.
I’ve never felt the need to use water pans with my Kamados, as the cooking chamber in a kamado is so airtight it stays a very moist environment anyway. It’s a matter of personal preference though. Let me know ho you get on?
I’ve never smoked my own pork belly to make bacon and I am still learning all this smoking techniques. I have a Masterbuilt electric smoker, when smoking bacon should I put water in the pan?
I wouldn’t use a water pan when smoking bacon, because you actually want it to dry out a little.
For the Masterbuilt box smokers there is an addon kit for “Cold smoking” under 100 deg that is amazing even for the low and slow cooks as well. I smoke a lot of sausages cheese fish and pack them in the freezer to cook later especially in the winter time when it stays sub 40 deg F in the smoker with the side attachment providing smoke: Masterbuilt Cold Smoke Box.