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

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…

A lamb leg spinning over a wtaer pan, being brushed with a herb brush
© Mark Jenner / FoodFireFriends.com

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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Mark Jenner

Hi. I'm Mark Jenner, owner and creator of FoodFireFriends.com. I grill and smoke food outdoors at least three days a week on a wide range of equipment, have done so for years, and love nothing more than cooking good food, over live fire, enjoying it with friends. The aim of this site is to educate and help others to do the same.

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