Ever wonder how people get that perfect cook, that tender, juicy taste, especially when using a smoker? Apart from having a smoker and knowing how to use it, the answer boils down to one essential tool: the water pan. So what is a water pan and why should you use it?
Water pans keep grill and smoker temperatures from rising too high or plummeting too low, and it means there’s a consistent level of moisture inside the smoker. Adding a water pan will help create more tender, juicy meat that will not dry out under high cooking temperatures.
Water pans are an incredible asset to have if you own a smoker, and many people agree that they’re an essential part of both the final flavor of your food and the overall smoking experience. If you’re still not sold, this article contains information about the water pan’s pros and cons, the water ratios for different foods in the smoker, as well as details about how to clean and use the water pan safely.
What is a Water Pan?
The definition of a water pan is basically a metal bowl or pan that contains water that is used inside a smoker or grill. A lot of people get them confused with drip pans, which are another common part of smokers, but they are not the same thing. A drip pan will go right underneath the food in your smoker in order to catch any fat or grease that falls off. If these things were to hit your water pan, it would coat it with oil and make the evaporation process a lot harder (not to mention it would be that much more of a pain to clean).
These pans are often used in indirect smoking, and the standard pans come in four different sizes (14.5″, 18.5″, 22.5″, 18.5″ 2008 edition) and act as a buffer between the meat and the heat source (charcoal usually).
Depending on the food you’re cooking and the way you want to cook it, most people swear by water pans because they add moisture and help to preserve the meat’s flavor.
How it Works
Here’s the gist of what to do when using your water pan:
Step 1: Fill the pan with hot water if you can (cold water will just cool down the smoker a lot, so you should only plan on using it if you are running the smoker a little hot and intentionally need to cool it down, or if you are cold smoking your food). Fill it up just below the lip so you don’t have to keep opening the door of your smoker to refill it.
Step 2: Place the water pan below the meat, preferably over the hottest place in your smoker so that more of the water will be able to evaporate. After this, the rest of the steps are things the water will do on its own!
Step 3: The water gets hot from the heat source, which makes that moisture turn to steam. The evaporation of the water will continue as long as there is some in the pan.
Step 4: Steam turns into smoke. This smoke then circulates throughout the smoker.
Step 5: The smoke then penetrates and surrounds the meat, adding flavor and moisture to the food.
Consensus: Because water pans provide so much moisture, that moisture needs room to run and so turns into vapor and steam in order to escape. The more steam there is in a smoker the more smoke there’s going to be. The more smoke there is the more flavor.
Just Add Water?
Speaking of flavor, water hasn’t always been the only moisture to sit in water pans. Many have tried to pizzazz their cooking by substituting water in their pans for stronger liquids.
Here are some of the most popular stand-ins:
- Apple Juice
- Water-soaked wood chips
- Herbs and spices
- Some people even put things like sand, dirt, or gravel in their water pans
Some smokers love to try anything new to branch out from the norm. All over the internet, one can find various recipes suggesting more exotic ingredients, but most people just use water and agree it’s the best overall liquid for the job. Keep in mind that using any of these other options means the liquid won’t evaporate as well, if at all, and will have different impacts on the flavor.
A lot of people online also say that they just left their water pans empty, and liked it better that way. Feel free to try any add-ins you want and see what you like to use best.
Though using cold water won’t be a total disaster, the best results come from adding warm/hot water from the get-go. This will ensure that the charcoal doesn’t have to work too hard on warming up the water, and so less time will be needed for the water to start evaporating and both water and charcoal can put all their efforts into perfectly cooking the meat.
The obvious benefit to using a water pan is its ability to bring that surplus of steam into the smoker, but there are a few other plus-sides to it too:
- Stabilizes temperatures within the smoker and minimizes its fluctuations (the temperature can’t rise above the boiling point of 212° F, and it helps keep the air temperature down at 225° F)
- The more moisture, the more humidity; and the more humidity, the more smoke
- Can block the flame to allow you to cook with more indirect heat
- Evens out hot spots
- Helps prevent flare-ups by offering further protection if any grease or fat escapes the drip pan
- No dry meat EVER and it improves the overall flavor of the food
- Water pan can act as a drip pan
People love water pans mostly because they never have to worry about drying out their dinners. Because the water only burns off steam when it’s hot enough, there’s little risk of the meat getting overcooked. And while it is still possible to overcook your food, having a water pan makes this less likely.
The biggest con about water pans would be the cleanup. Every person and every website that talks about smokers and water pans has something to say about that one thing.
Here are some other complaints:
- Not good for chicken/ meat with skin (the extra moisture isn’t able to provide it with any crispiness)
- Uses more charcoal (to heat the water as well as the meat)
- Water pans are no good when it comes to smoking something high-heat, short time
Some argue that sand is better than water because it keeps a more consistent temperature in the cooking chamber than water, but most people follow suit and choose to keep their water pans filled with water.
Cooking Times + Water Ratios
Because the water tends to evaporate from the pans, one may need to consider refilling at some point during the smoking process.
Depending on cook times and meat types, there is a general rule that water pans don’t need that much upkeep.
A good amount of water typically lasts through the whole process and won’t need any maintenance. But in the case of a long and slow cooking course, like a Chuck Roast, varying rules may apply.
|Meat Type||Temperature Gauge||Cook Time||Water Pan Refill|
|Chuck Roast||225-250*||12-20 hrs||4-6|
|Tri Tip||225-250*||2-3 hrs||1|
|Rack of Lamb||200-225*||1-2 hrs||1|
If you have something cooking for about 4 hours or more, chances are you will need to refill your water pan.
Maybe it’s a no-brainer, but the best place to put a water pan is directly below the cooking meat and directly above the heat source. This way, the water will heat up quickly, sending vapor and smoke straight to the meat. When this happens, the meat is sure to get the flavor that using a water pan promises. However, your method for using your water pan might need to change depending on the kind of smoker you have. Here are some ways water pans should be placed on different types of smokers:
For most smokers such as electric ones, simply place them directly above your coals and directly below your cooking food.
For a reverse flow or offset smoker, it gets a lot trickier. You won’t be able to do the previous method because the heat source isn’t even in the same chamber as your food. In the case of these smokers, it would be best to place your water pan on the cooking grates in-between your meat and firebox so that the heated air will have to go through it to reach your food.
For gas grills, set it up to 2-zone cooking (which is indirect cooking) and place your water pan right over the burners that you’re using for your heat. Your food will then go over the inactive burners.
For charcoal grills, you have two options when it comes to your water pan. After you’ve set it up for 2-zone cooking, the first option is to put your charcoal on one side of the grill and then put your water pan on the other side. Place some disposable aluminum between the charcoal and water pan, then put some wood chunks on the coal (this will help with the smoky flavor) and fill the pan with water about halfway.
The other option for charcoal grills is to just put the water pan over the charcoal, if possible. If you choose this option, an aluminum pan should still work just fine.
*Something to note: water pans are used for indirect smoking methods, not direct. If you are cooking with the direct method, you should not use a water pan.
Ah yes, the dreaded cleanup.
Because the water pans are right underneath the meat, they do have the possibility of ending up doubling as a drip pan, which can get gross. All the fat from the cooking protein usually rests right on top of the water, resulting in a mixture of not-so-yummy-looking juices. Aside from being unappetizing, the actual disposal and cleaning process really isn’t too bad.
A few experienced smokers suggest lining the exterior of the water pan with foil. This might help with preventing burn marks or having to clean off too much soot.
When you’re not using the water pan as a water pan but strictly as a drip pan, why not line the entire thing with foil? It will make cleaning up even easier because all you have to do is just take out the foil in the end and ta-da! You have a pan that’s practically already clean!
Now, where to dump the water once you’re done with it?
Easiest + safest bets:
- Backyard bushes (sorry bushes)
- Down the sink
- Down the toilet
- Into a watertight bag to throw away
If you are using charcoal and have leftovers in the smoker or maybe in your water pan, do not pour them out into your grass or garden. This will just attract bugs and critters of all sorts.
*Warning: Do not pour fat down the sink or any plumbing systems. After waiting for the pan to cool and the fat to congeal, dump the fat in the trash, then proceed to pour the remaining liquids into a sealable container that can be thrown away. (Tip: if the fat is not solidifying well, throw in some ice cubes. This should make it much easier to peel the fat off of the pan.)
If the water pan is empty, line the entire thing with foil. If it is being used with something in it, consider at least lining it with foil. Make sure your charcoal is in first and then the water pan. Pour water in immediately before the coals have a chance to get hot.
Keep your face away from the heat as much as possible and wear barbeque gloves when handling your smoker and water pan. Do your best not to splash water or overfill the pan. And beware of grease fires because fat sits on the water and could be the first thing to spill into the flames.