Smoker Water Pans (How to Use Them & Why They Work)

smoker water pans

Adding water to your smoker might seem counter intuitive, but using a water pan is one of the best ways to help control your smoker’s temperature while also helping to prevent your food from drying out.

Find out why you should use a smoker water pan, how to use it, and when to use it.

Here’s everything you need to know about smoker water pans.

water pan in charcoal grill

Water pan vs drip pan: What’s the difference?

A lot of people confuse water pans and drip pans, but this confusion can be easily cleared up.

Drip pans are usually placed directly underneath your food to catch any run-off. Usually this acts by catching fat that has rendered in your food and is dripping off, or any grease that has formed. They’re useful because they can prevent grease or fat hitting your coals or flames, reducing the risk of flare-ups.

They also help prevent grease hitting your water pan and coating it in oil, which would in turn prevent evaporation.

Water pans tend to sit on top of your heat source, and have the primary function of generating moisture and steam to help stop your meat from drying out.

It’s water pans that we’re interested in today. Let’s get into it!

water pan in offset smoker smoking cheese

Why use a smoker water pan?

Using a water pan in your smoker is a proven way to help improve your home barbecue smoking. Here are the most important ways how:

Temperature control

Water pans help to stabilize your smoker’s cooking temperatures. This is because water can’t go above its boiling temperature of 212°F, or 100°C, regardless of how hot you try to make your smoker.

Target smoking temperatures are usually around 225°F. The water cools as it evaporates, which can help reduce the heat levels in a smoker as it evaporates.

Likewise, because water takes longer than air to cool, if your smoker’s temperature starts to drop the hot steam can help your air stay at target temperature.

Can help you use indirect heat

A water pan can be placed above your coals, which can help protect your food from being cooked directly. This will help it rise to target temperature more slowly and evenly.

water pan underneath grates catching drippings

Protects flames and coals

Flare-ups are the bane of any pitmaster or grill fan’s life, and can easily ruin any cut of meat that you’ve blood, sweat and tears into preparing as perfectly as possible.

In charcoal grills or smokers flare-ups are often caused by fat or grease running off food, and hitting the coals and flames. While drip pans’ primary function is for this, water pans help add further protection should any grease come its way.

Generate moisture

The moisture generated by the water pans can help create a humid cooking environment. This moisture can in turn cool the meat and help it cook slower. In turn this will give the connective tissues and fat in the meat more time to render and melt, keeping it moist.

Improves flavor

When water vapor condenses on the surface of your meat, it creates a surface that smoke can stick to. Allowing more smoke to adhere to the surface of your meat will enhance the flavor of your meat, and even help to create the ideal ‘smoke ring’ (source).

Can help improve electric smoker performance

Because air flow is much more limited in electric smokers, meat is more prone to drying out. Water pans can help reduce this by adding more humidity to the smoker environment. 

pouring water into grill water pan

Where do I put a water pan in my smoker?

Water pan placement will largely be determined by the type of smoker you have.

Different smokers have different grate sizes, and also different builds will impact heavily on airflow.

Because water pans can help to generate radiant heat, placing them directly above your coals is ideal and beneath your meat is ideal.

If you are using a reverse flow or offset smoker this won’t be possible because your heat source isn’t in the same chamber as your food. In this instance, try to place it between your meat and fire box on the cooking grates so that it intercepts the air flow from heat to food.

If you’re using a gas grill, place it directly over the burners that you’re using for heat and set up the grill for 2-zone cooking (indirect grilling). Place your food above the inactive burners.

Some gas grills come water pans attached to the chip holder. If you don’t have that accessory, no worries. Just use an aluminum pan. Depending on the size of your grill, an aluminum loaf pan may be all you need.

If you’re using a charcoal grill, set up for two zone cooking. Place the charcoal on one side of the grill, and place a disposable aluminum beside the charcoal. Place wood chunks on the coals, and fill the water pan about halfway.

Another option for charcoal grills is to place the water pan over the charcoal, depending on the size of your grill. An aluminum pan works great for this setup, too.

Can you flavor water in a water pan?

I recommend just using hot water in the pan. Some people like to put wine, beer, herbs, juice, and other flavoring in the water pan, but honestly, it doesn’t improve the flavor of the food. It can smell great, but it’s really a “feel good” thing that does nothing important for the flavor of the food itself.

When you’re filling the water pan, be careful not to splash, and don’t over fill it. Check the water level periodically, and if it’s running low, add more hot water. Don’t use cold… it will lower the grill temperature too much.

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