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Smoker Water Pans – Why, When and How to Use One

What benefits to a smoking session does a water pan bring? Some smokers are specifically designed to use them, so they must add something good…right? Yes and no. They have their time and place. Learn below why we use them, and when you should and shouldn’t.

Last Updated: April 22, 2021

A lamb leg spinning over a wtaer pan, being brushed with a herb brush

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.

Why Use a Water Pan?

As mentioned in the intro there are numerous reasons to want to use a water pan while cooking barbecue:

Stabilize Temp

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.

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 an off-set 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.

Conclusion

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'm a self-proclaimed BBQ nut, and the founder and chief editor here at Food Fire Friends.

I love cooking outdoors over live fire and smoke whatever the weather, using various grills, smokers, and wood-fired ovens to produce epic food. My goal with this site is to help as many people as possible enjoy and be good at doing the same.

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28 Comments

  1. I have a proQ smoker, similar to the webber smokey mountain. I’ve always struggled getting 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 flavoured 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 👌🏽🥩🍗🍖🍻

    1. Mark Jenner says:

      Love the Pro Qs, really good bits of kit!

  2. 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 counter intuitive 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!

    1. Mark Jenner says:

      You’re right in your thinking, it really won’t make a difference at all as long as the temperature is stable.

  3. 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.

    1. Mark Jenner says:

      Hi Drew,

      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.

  4. If all the water evaporates should more hot water be added during the smoking process?

    1. Mark Jenner says:

      Hi Kathy,

      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.

  5. Thank you for your article I am new to smoking and need all the help I can get . 🍺

  6. Will adding a moisture pan impact the creation of good bark in a smoke?

    1. Mark Jenner says:

      Hi Russ,

      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.

  7. Mary Parker says:

    I am a first time griller and still in a learning curve. If you would like to offer advice it would be much appreciated 😁

    1. Mark Jenner says:

      Hi Mary,

      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 🙂

  8. Mike Decraene says:

    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.

    1. Mark Jenner says:

      Above the water pan, Mike. If you put it in, it would be (partially) braising.

      1. Mike Decraene says:

        How far should I put the water pan from the coals? How far from the water pan to the pork shoulder?

        1. Mark Jenner says:

          Depends 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.

  9. Jeffrey Trigger says:

    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.

    1. Mark Jenner says:

      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.

  10. Richard Frino says:

    i have a oklohoma 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

    1. Mark Jenner says:

      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.)

  11. Wayne White says:

    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 a Asmoke smoker portable for camping. Will I be disappointed in the final cook without water pan? Thanks wayne

    1. Mark Jenner says:

      Hi Wayne,

      I honestly don’t think so, but there’s only way to find out, which is to try it and see. I’m sure it will be fine though.

  12. 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?

    1. Mark Jenner says:

      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 of the smoker and help to regulate heat. They then wrap it in foil for easy cleaning.

  13. Kevin K Crawford says:

    Should you remove the water pan after you wrap your brisket

    1. Mark Jenner says:

      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.

  14. I use a water pan under my roast low and slow.
    With a bay leaf.
    Then make gravy out of the pan afterwards.