The Water Pan On A Smoker Plays A Bigger Role Than You Think

It's tempting to bypass a few steps when smoking meats and veggies on your deck, cold drinks at the ready, and hearty aromas blending with the sights and sounds of summer. Some BBQ tricks are indeed optional (and time-consuming), but the water pan in your smoker isn't one of them. It's a crucial yet uncomplicated component of perfectly smoked foods, including briskets, pulled pork, leg of lamb, spare ribs, fish, and delicate edibles such as squash, onions, and spicy peppers.

Some smokers come equipped with a water pan cradled within the base, and it plays a big role in smoky perfection. When heat, fire, and smoke collide, you can imagine the potential impact on exposed meats, especially ones trapped inside a piping-hot barrel or vertical metal tube. There's huge potential for dried-out food that's overcooked, unevenly cooked, or even burned. That's where the water pan saves the day.

Whether the water pan is built-in or created yourself from a basic aluminum pan, it can transform a potential disaster into the moist, juicy deliciousness of your barbecue dreams. There's no technical trick or complicated process — it's simply one of nature's five elements, water, doing its thing. After filling the pan with water and getting the heat in motion, the water eventually evaporates and turns into steam, which permeates the meat, keeps it moist, and locks in those juices that slowly cook inside your soon-to-be dinner. 

A water pan provides moisture for tender, flavorful meat

Juicy smoked meats justify any smoker-centric efforts, especially one as easy as filling a water pan and refilling as needed. But it's not just about the steamy moisture keeping things melt-in-your-mouth tender. The steam from the water pan can actually enhance the flavor of the meat as well. Here's how that works: When you put spices, flavorings, or a BBQ rub on the outside of the ribs, chicken wings, or brisket, the rising steam and moisture can help the seasoning adhere to and permeate the meat, providing a deeper flavor factor intermingled with the smoke.

Finally, there's the temperature of the smoker. Any outdoor chef knows how important it is to regulate heat levels and keep them as even as possible across the grill or smoker. Water from that pan lends a helping hand. The pan typically sits between the coals and the food, allowing the water to create a steady temperature as it comes to a standard, steady boiling point of 212 degrees Fahrenheit — this allows you to cook low and slow for the ultimate smokey flavor and texture.

Though water is the intended liquid for the smoker pan, some chefs advocate adding marinades, beer, wine, or fruit juices. They may not work as efficiently as plain water, but there's potential for unique flavor infusions. Just check occasionally to see if the pan needs refilling, regardless of the liquid type. Consider saving the final accumulated pan drippings to use for gravy or a smoky dipping sauce.