One of you guys and gals sent us an email the other day asking, “Why do people put water pans in the smoker? And do you think I should be doing the same?”
A very good question, thank you for taking the time out of your day to ask it. Moreover, it’s one of those questions where the answer ain’t what most people think, so it deserves a whole article on it.
To make a long story short, you can smoke meat with or without water; you don’t have to put a water pan in the cooking chamber of your smoker unless you really want to. And there are a number of reasons why you want to.
Where to Put Water in the Smoker
Before we get to the meat of it and talk about why put a pan of water in your smoker, let’s first take a minute or two to understand exactly how this is done.
The placement of the water pan in the cooking chamber depends on the type of smoker you have. As a general rule of thumb, the water pan should be placed right between the heat source and the meat being cooked.
Below are our illustrations on how the placement of the water pan differs between barrel, bullet, and cabinet smokers, as well as when smoking meat on a charcoal grill.
In a barrel smoker, the water pan usually goes between the meat and the opening of the firebox:
In a bullet smoker, the water pan sits above the coals and below the meat being smoked:
The same setup applies to a cabinet smoker:
In a charcoal kettle, the water pan sits on the grill grate, between the wood chips and the cut of meat:
Why Put a Water Pan in the Smoker
Now that you know where the water pan belongs in your smoker, the next logical question is, why do you need it at all?
A lot of people think that adding water to the smoker helps keep the meat moist, and that’s partly true. But that’s not the main reason you should arm yourself with this cooking technique.
The purpose of the water pan is to stabilize the temperature in your smoker. Since water boils at 212°F (100°C) and it doesn’t exceed its boiling point, the pan acts as a buffer between the meat and the coals, smoothing out temperature fluctuations in the embers.
This is why it’s always a good idea to put water in the smoker.
This is also why bullet smokers and cabinet smokers can hold such low and constant heat compared to their horizontal counterparts, barrel smokers and charcoal kettles. The pan is placed vertically between the embers and the meat, and the water gives off a constant heat of 212°F (100°C).
As an added benefit, the water improves the flavor of the meat.
Much of the water in the pan turns to steam during cooking, and some of this steam lands on the surface of the meat. That steam cools down and turns to moisture, which makes the rub sticky and helps it adhere to the meat.
Can You Put Liquids Other Than Water?
Yes, you can add liquids other than water to your smoker’s water tray. However, the question is whether it’s worth doing in the first place.
Some swear by their beer-can chicken recipes. They say the beer infuses the chicken with an aroma and flavor like no other, and that regular water simply doesn’t do the trick. Others say that swapping out another drink, no matter if alcoholic or not, for water doesn’t do much other than wasting the drink in question.
So who’s right and who’s wrong?
To be frank with you all, the only way to find out is to try this cooking technique both ways and see for yourself. Grilling and smoking meat is one of those hobbies where there are many opinions and few facts.
If you go the traditional beer can chicken route, and you stick the bird on top of the opened can, you may not get much effect because the chicken keeps the beer can cool, so the beer doesn’t really boil and evaporate.
But pour the beer—or other liquid—into the water pan and it will get up to a boil, which means that the aromatics and flavors will get to the meat.
Adding water to the smoker helps keep your smoked meat juicy and flavorful. But the biggest advantage of this technique is that it regulates the temperature in the cooking chamber, resulting in more even cooking.