Using a water pan in the smoker mainly serves to ensure your meat remains moist. A water pan largely increases the moisture content within the cooking chamber, keeping it from drying out.
Like many barbecue warriors before me, I first disregarded the water pan in smoker idea but I quickly came around to appreciating the value of the moisture it brings to long barbecues.
This article will outline all the reasons why you should use a water pan, how to use it, and when to use it.
Here are 6 reasons to consider using a water pan in your smoker:
The main reason to use a water pan is to create a moist cooking environment. This is the optimum condition for tender and juicy barbecues.
As the water in the pan gets to the boiling point, it starts to evaporate, releasing steam into the cooking chamber. This keeps the air inside the chamber humid and keeps the meat from drying out during the cooking process.
Without the water pan, there will be insufficient moisture to work with. If you're cooking a big cut of meat low and slow, the meat will dry out and start overcooking before the core of the meat gets to the target temperature.
A great smoke ring is a point of pride for a barbecue warrior. That deep, red, rustic layer of meat is made possible by a chemical reaction between the sodium nitrite in the meat and smoke from your flavored wood.
You must start with extremely low temperatures and maintain a slow, steady rise. This way, the meat gets to absorb a sufficient amount of smoke before the bark starts to form at 145ºF. At this point, the chemical reaction that facilitates smoke formation ends.
The smoke ring starts forming from the outside of the meat and only penetrates a few millimeters into the smoking meat.
By this logic, to make it larger, you need to have enough moisture content to hold the cooking temperature below 145º for a sufficient amount of time.
The difference between a good barbecue and a great one is temperature control.
Most beef and pork barbecues demand that you maintain a temperature of between 225ºF-250ºF throughout the cooking process.
This is only possible with a sufficient amount of moisture. Air and water react differently to temperature changes.
Air is more susceptible to temperature changes while water will take longer to adjust to a rise or a fall in temperature.
With only dry air circulating in the grill, it is harder to control the internal temperature of both the chamber and the meat.
Water acts as a heat sink, absorbing extra heat energy and keeping the internal temperature of the cooking chamber from fluctuating, maintaining an even cooking temperature.
Using water pans makes the inescapable clean-up job easier too.
When positioned in a certain way, the water pan can double as a drip pan by collecting the drippings from the smoking meat.
Additionally, water vapor condenses on the roof of your smoker's lid. This prevents any soot from the wood or coal from sticking to your grill, making it easier to clean off.
Moisture facilitates evaporative cooling which is important in slow cooks. Evaporative cooling is a time-consuming process but it gives big cuts of meat enough time to break down strong connective tissue and making it fork tender. This is a star feature in dishes like pulled pork and corned beef.
It also gives fatty cuts of meat time to render and marry the meat for tasty, scrumptious results.
Also, water vapor mixes with the smoke particles in the cooking compartment and imparts more smoke flavor to the meat.
Smoker water pans act as a buffer between your barbeque and the heat source. This serves two purposes.
For starters, it keeps the meat from being overcooked because the water will absorb excess heat. It also ensures that dripping grease does not get onto ignited coal or flames and cause flare-ups.
Now that you know the purpose of water pans, let's differentiate them from drip pans:
Drip pans are primarily intended to collect drippings coming from the meat and to avoid having to give your grill a thorough scrubbing after every grilling session. Water pans, on the other hand, are tasked with introducing moisture within the grill to enhance an indirect cooking environment.
You should place your drip pan right beneath your meat. If you want to use the drippings to enrich other recipes, be sure to line your pan with heavy-duty aluminum foil and keep adding a little water to the drip pan.
Without the water, the drippings might end up caramelized or charred by the heat.
The water pan is positioned above the heat source so that it gets to boiling point as soon as possible.
If you prefer to use a water pan as a drip pan, be sure to position it correctly below the meat.
To get your water pan spic and span:
The purpose of the water pan is to radiate heat upwards, so you should place it close to the heat source. This will rest entirely on the smoking gear you have. Which one is yours?
If you're working with gas grills or electric smokers, your cooking grates will be horizontal. Set it up for indirect heat cooking by lighting only half of the burners and letting the other half get warm.
Your water pan should go directly beneath the lit burners and the meat should be placed above the unlit burners.
For a three-burner gas grill or electric smoker, light one burner and place the water pan above it. The meat still stays on the cooler side.
Using a water pan in an offset smoker is straightforward because the water pan is housed on the same cooking grate as the meat. Place the water pan between the meat and the firebox. This should keep the water steaming consistently.
The drip pan at the bottom of my Kamado Joe grill doubles up as a water pan for me whenever I smoke meat but you can also place it above heat deflectors.
A charcoal grill presents two great options for water pan placement. The first one places the water pan on the grill grate right above your heat source. This works exceptionally well if your charcoal grill is small.
The other option is to place the water pan, coal, and flavored wood chunks on one side and use the radiant heat to cook your meat.
With a vertical smoker, the water pan goes at the very bottom of the chamber while the meat occupies several racks above it.
I recommend only using water in water pans because the liquid you use only serves to generate radiant heat in the cooking chamber and keep the meat moist. It is not meant to add flavor to the meat.
Others use beer, wine, herbs, and even apple juice. This is a great way of imparting a strong aroma to the meat but it cannot add flavor.
If you aim to add more flavor to the meat using moisture, try basting or using a mopping sauce.
Using hot water in the pan is better than cold water simply because it takes smokers more time and fuel to bring the water to a boil.
For shorter sessions that take around 3-4 hours, you won't need to add more water. Fill the water pan up to halfway with hot water. That should produce enough water vapor for smaller smoked meats like baby back ribs, turkey legs, and chicken.
For longer periods common with large cuts like pork butt, pork shoulder, chuck, and beef brisket, you should check and refill the water pan every 4 hours.
The ultimate goal of a barbecue is to make a juicy, delicious, and succulent hunk of meat. For this to happen, moisture is key, and without it, your meat could dry out and become chewy.
This is why you should definitely consider adding a water pan to your smoker the next time you have a barbecue. Trust me, you will taste the difference.
Get grilling and bon appetit!