Why put water in a BBQ smoker? Benefits + when NOT to

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  February 28, 2021
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So, you’ve got a new smoker, and you’ve heard a lot of conflicting information about water pans, right?

Should you put water in your smoker? Is it necessary?

Well, I am going to discuss when to put water into your smoker and why you should!

Why does you use a water pan when bbq smoking

I know that smoke and water seem like an unlikely combination, but if you love to smoke flavorful cuts of meat, the low and slow method is best, and water is a must.

Imagine the taste of prime rib, brisket, or ribs slow-cooked for hours until they’re juicy and smoky…

So, why add water to your smoker or cooker?

Adding water to the smoker’s water pan creates the ideal cooking conditions for low and slow BBQ. Water increases the humidity level in your smoker, and the resulting condensation helps meat cook at a low temperature and helps smoke adhere to the meat, which makes it smokier and more flavorful.

Here’s what happens when you put water in the smoker:

Much of the water vapor condenses and sticks to the meat. This process “cools” the meat as it cooks and lets you cook low & slow.

Since you’re cooking the meat for a longer time, the connective tissue and fats break down, and the result is a moist, tender, and juicy BBQ with all the tasty benefits of wood smoke.

Do you need to put water in a smoker?

No, you can cook without water in the smoker.

You add water when you want to achieve a particular cooking style in which the meat is more moist and tender. This is especially handy for large cuts of beef or pork, which can be somewhat chewy.

But, did you know that you can add other liquids to the water pan?

That’s right, and you can add other liquids besides the water, such as beer, wine, or apple juice. But, in reality, these aren’t really going to add a noticeable flavor to the meat.

The role of the liquid is to make your food moist, not to add flavor. You might not notice any difference in flavor, and it’s a shame to waste beer.

As opposed to when you make Pellet Smoker Beer Can Chicken! Here’s a Mouthwatering Recipe + How-To

If you are smoking, you’ll want to add water to your smoker’s water pan.

Add about 2 or 3 liters, and you’ll achieve that nice smoke ring. If you’re cooking on a gas or charcoal grill, about 1 liter is probably enough, but you can always refill the water pan while the foods are cooking.

You can also add a drip pan on the bottom of the cooking grate and put in a small amount of water to collect the fat drippings.

What happens when you put water in your smoker?

The water helps you create an indirect cooking surface

For low and slow BBQ, an indirect cooking surface is ideal. Most offset smokers have their heat source located to the side and away from the cooking chamber.

So, if you own an offset smoker like the Char-Broil, you already have a great setup for indirect cooking.

But, if you have a bullet smoker like a Weber Smokey Mountain, then your heat source is right at the bottom under the food.

Read all about BBQ Smoker Horizontal vs. Vertical vs. Offset | an in-depth Guide

In order to cook at low temperatures slowly, you need to deflect the heat, and that’s where the water pan comes in handy. Let me tell you why below.

Water helps you control the cooking temperature

Water helps you lower the temperature in the smoker or cooker. It also allows you to somewhat control the temperature, which is useful when you want to cook low and slow.

As the water heats up and reaches its boiling point, it evaporates and releases steam into the air. This process is called evaporative cooling.

This evaporative cooling process helps to maintain a lower cooking temperature in the chamber. This is a great heat deflection method unlike any other because water doesn’t evaporate before it reaches 100 degrees C (212 F).

Why use a water pan in your bbq smoker infographic

Water helps you contain hot spots and flames

Did you know that the water in the smoker water pan is the same temperature across the entire pan? This means it’s not hotter on one side than the other.

This makes water a great heat sink, and it helps to even out the temperature in your cooking chamber. Therefore, you don’t have to deal with overcooked or undercooked food.

All of your meats are going to cook evenly. The water evens out any hot spots and prevents flame flareups.

Since water takes a long time to rise or fall in temperature, the temperatures in your smoker are less likely to fluctuate, and it’s easier to maintain an even temperature.

Good heat distribution is very important, especially if you want to cook low and slow in an offset smoker or kettle grill.

Water increases the humidity in your smoker

Humidity is just another term for water vapor, and it’s beneficial for your meat.

As water condenses in the cooking chamber, it “sticks” to the meat and helps to cool it down.

This lengthens the cooking time, and therefore more fat and connective tissue breaks down, so your meat is more tender and juicy.

The water also helps the smoke adhere to the meat and gives it that classic smokey flavor we all want. As a result of humidity, the meat forms a “bark” that many smokers are after.

Water vapors and moisture dissolve some of the ingredients in the meat rub. So, while it cooks, the meat keeps drying and then re-moisturizing again, and this process creates that thick and tasty bark.

Where do you put the water pan?

The determining factor is the type of smoker/cooker you have.

The ideal spot to place it in is directly underneath your food and above the charcoal because it helps create even heat in your cooker.

If you have a two or three-burner grill, it’s best to turn only one burner on and leave the others off.

Make one side “cold,” add meat, and add the water pan underneath. When you do this, the water creates even and radiant heat.

If you’re using an offset smoker or a small kettle grill, you will have to place the pan on your cooking grate between the meat and your heat source.

When should you not add water, and what are the cons?

There are some pros and cons to using water when smoking.

One obvious instance of when NOT to use water is when you are grilling. When you grill, you cook the meat at high heat for a short period.

In that case, there’s no reason to add water to the pan. Let’s say you’re searing a steak; since you’re cooking at a very high temperature, the water will boil and evaporate quickly.

Another con of adding water to the smoker is that it prevents poultry from developing a crispy crust.

When you cook or smoke poultry meats like chicken, cornish hens, or turkey, a crispy skin makes the BBQ taste better. If you add water, it creates a moist cooking environment that prevents the skin from getting crispy.

So, if you’re a fan of that delicious crispy skin, like me, avoid cooking with water.

Some people also avoid using a water pan because they think clean up is tricky. Since the water combines with fat, it’s hard to dispose of.

First, you need to remove the fat and throw it in the garbage before you can throw away the water or risk clogging up the pipes.

But, you can easily remove the chunks of fat that float in the water with a spoon and then throw the water somewhere in the yard or down the drain.

Bottom line

Fans of low and slow BBQ know that the secret to juicy and tender meat cuts is a water pan in your smoker.

It’s quite easy to set up, clean up, and there’s no doubt that your BBQ is going to be better.

The water helps the rub and smoke flavors come together to give delicious meat your whole family will surely love!

Also read: Complete guide on BBQ smoker baffle plates | Help & reviews