This post contains affiliate links.
Water pans can play a huge role in the taste of your meat, but they are not right for everyone. Some smokers are specifically designed to be used with a smoker while others are not. That’s not to say that you can’t use a water pan in those smokers though. There is plenty of debate around the use of water pans when smoking meat. From my experience and research, this is what I have found.
Pellet smokers are not designed to be used with a water pan and instead use a heat deflector to create an indirect heat source; however, many pellet smoker owners will add a water pan inside the cooking chamber to help with clean up, create a more humid cooking space, get a better smoke ring, and help stabilize temperatures.
Whether or not you decide to use a water pan in your pellet smoker is all personal preference. People are always trying to figure out tips and tricks that can help them create better BBQ. Some pellet smokers claim adding a water pan makes a difference and some say they make no difference. The best thing you can do is test it yourself and come to your own conclusion, but in this article we will take a look at what a water pan does and some instances you might want to consider using a water pan.
3 Key Functions Of A Water Pan
Create Indirect Heat:
A water pan’s most basic function is to create an indirect heat source to cook meat for long hours without burning it. In fact, because the meats we smoke take many hours to render and make them edible, this indirect heat source is the basis of any smoker design. Try cooking a piece of meat over direct heat for 8 plus hours, and besides the fact that you will probably start a fire in your house, you will end up will a darkened, inedible, hockey puck of a meat. Indirect heat is what allows you to cook for so long without burning the meat.
The different styles of smokers all achieve this indirect cooking method in different ways. Offset smokers have a fire box off to the side of the cooking chamber, so your meat and heat source are not in the same chamber. Pellet smokers and Kamado style charcoal smokers place the meat directly over the heat source; therefore, they use heat deflector to shield the meat and create that indirect heat source. Many charcoal smokers, such as the Weber Smokey Mountain, use a water pan to shield their meat creating indirect heat. Water pans are generally found in vertical style charcoal smokers where the fire is at the bottom and our meat is at the top. The water pan sits in the middle and separates the fire from the meat allowing the water to absorb the energy instead of the meat.
Helps Steady Temperatures:
Another key function of a water pan is to help regulate temperature. Bringing you back to your chemistry days, it takes more energy to change the temperature of water 1 degree than it does air 1 degree. Water will absorb more energy and release it slower helping to create a heat sink. You will not see any rapid temperature spikes or dips because of this. This is incredibly helpful for maintaining steady temperatures and one of the reasons why the Weber Smokey Mountain is so good at holding a constant temperature.
Lastly, water pans help to create a more humid environment within the cooking chamber which has multiple benefits. Water boils at 212° Fahrenheit at which point it begins to release water vapor, and because we are almost always smoking above that, we are constantly releasing water vapor into the cooking chamber. This is said to help prevent meat from drying out, help the smoke particles adhere and penetrate the meat better, and promote a more even cook.
So, while pellet smokers weren’t designed to be used with a water pan, knowing these reasons why water pans are used, here are some instances in which you might want to use a water pan in your pellet smoker.
9 Reasons You Should Consider Using A Water Pan In Your Pellet Smoker:
Easy Clean Up
When meat cooks, fats, juices, and grease are all released and fall below. Pellet smokers have grease traps and rails below to capture these drippings and direct them to a catch can for easy clean up. The problem? These grease pans get really hot, and drippings can burn and carbonize on the drip pan making for a big mess. If your pellet smoker has room, placing a water pan underneath the meat to catch the drippings will help to keep your smoker clean. The water pan will not only catch the drippings, but because they are suspended in water, they will not burn. When the smoke is done, simply remove your water pan and your smoker is ready to go for another smoke!
Another common method people use for cleanup is lining your drip pan with tin foil. Any drippings that burn and carbonize on the tin foil are easily removed by replacing the tin foil. This method works just as great for cleanup; however, the tin foil still allows the drippings to catch fire and carbonize which can impart an unpleasant taste into your meat.
If you are looking to make for easy cleanup and are noticing an unpleasant taste in your meat when using tin foil, you might want to consider using a water pan in your pellet smoker. Now, not all pellet smokers will have the room for you to place a water pan underneath your meat. There are still benefits to using a water pan in the cooking chamber, but a water pan will only help with clean up if it is directly below the meat catching the drippings.
No Metallic Taste:
Another reason you might want to consider using a water pan in your pellet smoker, is many people claim to get a metallic taste in their meat when using a pellet grill. Going back to the point above, when meat drippings fall to the drip pan, they will burn and carbonize. Covering your drip pan with tin foil will help with clean up but will not prevent the burning of the drippings. The burning and carbonization of these drippings can impart your meat with an unpleasant metallic taste during your smoke. Think of the last time some drippings spilt in your oven and how it smoked up the whole house with a bad smell. The same thing is happening in your pellet smoker. Using a water pan to catch the drippings instead of your drip pan will keep those drippings from burning preventing any unwanted taste.
If you have been using tin foil on your drip pan in your pellet smoker and have noticed an unpleasant or metallic taste, then you might want to consider using a water pan to prevent those meat drippings from burning on the drip pan.
Helps Stabilize Temperatures
One of the key functions of a water pan is temperature stabilization, and while most pellet smokers use a PID controller that automatically adjusts with ambient temperatures to maintain a steady temperature, pellet smokers can still benefit from a water pan. Many of the lower to mid range pellet grills just don’t have the insulation or metal thickness to really hold temperatures steady and while pellet grills will come back to your set temperature, you can still experience large temperature swings. Using a water pan will reduce the intensity of these temperature swings and act as a buffer zone.
If you are concerned about temperature swings in your smoker, then you might want to consider using a water pan in your pellet smoker. This is also helpful when smoking in poor weather conditions as weather plays a huge role in how well your smoker maintains its temperatures.
Provides A More Humid Cooking Space:
As water boils, it turns from a liquid to a gas and releases water vapor. With the smoker lid closed, this water vapor is trapped inside the cooking chamber creating a humid cooking space. Smoking meat in a more humid environment is said to have multiple benefits including:
More Even Cooking: As mentioned above, water holds heat much better than air, and while a water pan is used as a heat sink to prevent spikes or dips in temperatures, these same goes for water vapor in the cooking chamber. Adding humidity to the cooking chamber will allow for better transfer of heat to the meat and help to prevent hot spots thus promoting a more even cook.
Better Smoke Flavor/Ring: Just as water vapor helps transfer heat to the meat, it also helps transfer smoke particles to the meat. Water vapor in the cooking chamber acts as a transportation method allowing more smoke particles to penetrate the meat. This is said to give the meat more flavor and a better smoke ring.
Prevents Meat From Drying Out: While creating more humidity will not add moisture to your meat, it will help to prevent your meat from drying out. Have you ever noticed how dry your skin gets when you go to a place with little to no humidity like my hometown of Las Vegas? This is because places of low humidity suck the moisture out of things. Adding humidity to the cooking chamber will help prevent this effect. In fact, many pitmaster’s will use tin foil to tent their chicken at BBQ competitions. Chicken is a lean piece of meat and is prone to drying out if cooked for too long. When pitmaster’s tent their chicken with tin foil, they are increasing the humidity in that cooking space to help prevent the loss of moisture. This is the same effect that adding a water pan in a pellet grill aims to do.
You Are Using Your Pellet Smoker In High Altitude.
Anytime you are smoking meat at high altitude, around 4,000 feet, chances are you will need a water pan. This is due to the fact that there is low humidity at higher altitudes. From what we learned above, low humidity makes meat more prone to drying out. If you are smoking meat at high altitude, you might want to consider using a water pan in your pellet grill to increase the humidity levels in your cooking chamber.
The Ambient Atmosphere Is Less Than 40% Humidity.
Likewise, piggy backing off the point above, Malcom Reed from How To BBQ Right, suggests using a water pan anytime the ambient humidity is less than 40%. Humidity plays a big role in the quality of your BBQ so in instances where we are not getting enough humidity, we can create our own humidity using a water pan.
Again, there is plenty of debate on whether or not you should use a water pan in your pellet smoker. I have laid out some instances in which you might consider using one, but the best thing you can do is to test it out for yourself to see if it something you want to start doing. That is what cooking is all about! Testing different things to see what YOU like the best.