Smoking meat low and slow will deliver some great tasting food. But, to ensure that you end up with a good result, it is important to do what you can to keep the meat moist and tender and prevent it from drying out during a long cooking session. This is where a water pan comes in.
Using a water pan in your smoker is an extremely beneficial method, no matter if you are using a stainless steel one from the grill manufacturer or a disposable aluminum pan. But, the benefits go much farther than just helping to impart more moisture to the meat. In this article, we’ve broken down five reasons you should be using a water pan in your smoker, plus how to use a smoker water pan properly.
A properly positioned water pan provides some great benefits to your smoking session, all of which will help ensure that you end up with a delicious final result. These benefits include:
Water takes longer than air does to rise or fall in temperature. So, a water pan is extremely effective at helping to stabilize the internal temperature of the smoker/grill.
Once the water inside the water heats up, it will then radiate heat upwards into the grill if the grill temperature begins to fall. The water can also absorb excess heat if the grill begins to get too hot.
As we mentioned above, using a water pan in your smoker is also an easy way to help keep the meat moist. This is because the water in the pan will start to slowly evaporate once it heats up, creating steam. This keeps the air inside the cooking chamber humid and helps prevent the meat from drying out or beginning to burn.
This moisture in the air will also slightly cool the meat, helping it cook slower. This means the fat and connective tissues in the meat have more time to render and melt, helping to keep the meat moist and tender.
Depending on the type of smoker you are using, your water pan may be directly above the charcoal or wood and just below the meat. In this scenario, the pan serves as a buffer between the meat and the direct heat and flames. Thus, helping to eliminate the potential of the meat to burn.
This setup also eliminates the opportunity for dripping fat to hit the heat source and potentially cause a flare-up.
As the smoker heats up and the water pan starts to create steam, that steam will condense on the colder surface of the meat. This condensation naturally becomes somewhat of a magnet for the smoke particles—and smoke flavor. The result is an even more delicious, smokier flavor.
One of the common goals when smoking meat, especially things like brisket and pork shoulder, is a beautiful pink smoke ring. Moisture in the air inside your smoker and on the meat will help you achieve this.
When the surface of the meat remains moist, the formation of crispy exterior bark is delayed. This allows more smoke and more time for the chemical reaction between the meat’s pigment and the gasses produced from the burning wood or charcoal to form the smoke ring.
Keep in mind that a smoke ring doesn’t enhance the flavor of the meat but it sure looks good.
The ideal time to use a water pan in your smoker is anytime you are going to be cooking at a constant, lower temperature for a long period. It doesn’t matter what type of meat you plan on cooking, whether it is brisket, pork shoulder, ribs, prime rib, etc. If you’re going to be smoking meat for several hours, you’ll benefit from using a water pan.
So, when it comes to how to use a smoker water pan properly, the main concern is about where exactly to place it in your smoker. This will largely depend on the type of smoker you have. Different smokers have different orientations (horizontal vs round vs vertical), different grate sizes, and different airflow.
Some smokers come with the water pan already in place for you and you just add the water. If yours didn’t come with one, here is a breakdown of where it should be placed based on the type of smoker:
Because water pans help generate radiant heat, placing them directly above the heat source and beneath the meat is ideal. But, depending on the type of smoker, it may need to go in a different place. Here is a breakdown of exactly where to plan a water pan in different smokers:
If you are using an offset smoker, you won’t be able to put the water pan directly over the heat source because it isn’t in the same chamber as your food. In this instance, put the pan on the cooking grate between the fire box and the meat. Then it will intercept the air flow from the heat to your meat.
If you’re using a charcoal smoker, set it up for two-zone cooking (indirect cooking). Arrange all of the charcoal (and wood chunks) on one side of the grill and then put your water pan on the other side.
Another placement option for a charcoal cooker, especially if the smoker is not very big, is to place the water pan on the grill grate directly over the charcoal.
If you’re using a horizontally-oriented gas or electric smoker, set up the grill for two-zone cooking with half of the burners lit and put the water pan directly over the burners that you will be using for heat. Then place the meat on the grates above the inactive burners.
In a vertical smoker, the heat source is going to be at the very bottom and several grates/racks will be above that. So, your water pan should go on the bottom rack, just above the direct heat and your meat will go on the racks above that.
There are a couple of other tips to keep in mind that will help you get the most benefit from using a water pan in your smoker:
A water pan is effective when you are smoking low and slow. So, it will not be of much benefit if you’re grilling at a high heat for a short period. If you are searing steak, for example, the water in a water pan will rapidly start to boil and evaporate all together. Thus, providing very little, if any, benefit to your meat.
Also, when smoking skin-on chicken, turkey, or other poultry, a humid cooking environment from a water pan can prevent the skin from ever getting crispy. And the last thing you want on a bird is soggy skin.
This is a common question when it comes to how to use a smoker water pan. Your best bet is to just use hot water in the pan. You may hear of some people adding juice, beer, wine, herbs, and other flavoring to the water pan. Doing that will definitely make it smell great while you’re cooking, but it actually does very little to add to the flavor of the meat.
As you can see, there are a variety of reasons that using a water pan in your smoker can help you get great results during low and slow smoking sessions. It is very easy to use one, no matter what type of smoker you have. Just make sure to follow the tips that we covered above and you’ll be well on your way to cooking some moist, tender, and delicious meat!
How about you? Do you use a water pan in your smoker? Have some other tips to add? Leave a comment below. We want to hear all about it!
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**Feature image courtesy of Weber Grills