Do You Need a Water Pan for Your Smoker?
So, you're all set to cook in your Reverse Flow or Offset Smoker, but now you're wondering "Do I need a water pan for my smoker?"
I'll tell you right now, there are a lot of reasons you may want a water pan in your cooker, BUT it's important to know exactly what those reasons are!
You can check out this Video Podcast where we discuss the reasons you might want a water pan:
The Moisture Myth:
Before we get into the reasons you might need a water pan, let's dispel one of the biggest myths out there!
Water in your smoker WILL NOT HELP put moisture into your food. I know it seems like a logical method, but the process of making your meat moist is actually done during the BRINE process, not during your cook.
In all my experience of cooking with smokers, and all the BBQ guys I've discussed Water Pans with, I've never heard them say Water Pans help PUT moisture in food.
So, if doesn't help with your cook, what does a water pan do?
WHY YOU NEED A WATER PAN:
Reason 1: Heat Sync
The first reason you'd want a water pan for your smoker is HEAT SYNC. Usually, in a vertical cooker of some kind, particularly a wood-fired cooker, the fire is directly under the food you're cooking.
Because of the placement of the fire, that hot air can blast the bottom of your food and not spread the heat evenly though out the cook chamber.
The water in your water pan, if place ABOVE your fire, absorbs that direct heat. It then stores it, and helps evenly conduct the heat throughout the cook chamber.
Reason 2: Moisture
As stated before, a water pan in your cooker does nothing to PUT moisture INSIDE your food. It does however help in making a moisture environment.
A good example of where this could helpful is when you cook chicken using the braising method. In that method, you actually put a foil tent over the chicken, and in doing so, the moisture environment will keep the skin from drying out.
So, although the water pan is great for insuring no moisture escapes your food, once again, it does not help get moisture INTO the food.
Reason 3: Clean Up
Another great advantage in having a water pan is it makes clean up EASY! During your cook, when all the fat and the juices render out of our food, it lands on the bottom of the cook chamber (or on your baffle plate if your cooking in a reverse flow).
Of course, when it lands there it just hardens and becomes really tough to clean(you basically have to scrape it off).
When you have a water pan beneath your food, it becomes a catch all for all those pieces that normally crust on the bottom. So, with a water pan all you have to do is hose out the pan. Which makes for an easy clean!
TYPES OF COOKERS THAT USE WATER PANS:
Now that we've discussed the advantages of a Water Pan, let's talk about the types of Smokers that you would use a water pan in:
1. Vertical Reversal Flow
The first type of smoker is a vertical reverse flow.
With a reverse flow, you have a baffle plate which helps with your heat radiating in the smoker, but because of it's vertical design, a water pan can assist in spreading that heat evenly throughout.
As we've discussed before, a heat sync insures that the fire doesn't simply blaze the bottom of your food, but is evenly conducted throughout the cooker.
A VERTICAL reverse flow is called such, because it's cook chamber is taller than it is wide, giving the heat from the fire more area to travel. So, naturally a water pan, which helps distribute heat more evenly, would help with that.
2. Vertical Wood Fired
Another type of Smoker that you would use a water pan in, is a Vertical Wood Fired Smoker.
Similar to a Vertical Reverse Flow, the cook chamber is taller than it is wide.
However, unlike the Vertical Reverse Flow, the Vertical Wood Fired Smoker does not have a baffle plate, and therefore the heat comes from the raw strength of a wood fire. This creates a big air mass that moves openly in the cook chamber, which can also blast your food.
Because of that, a Water Pan in a cooker like this could help absorb that heat, and evenly distribute.
So, the heat sync saves the day again!
3. Hog Cookers
A third type of Smoker you might need a water pan for is a Hog Cooker.
And for a hog cooker, a water pan can help insure your SAFETY!
I know for a fact, that you can have one heck of grease fire when cooking a hog. If you're not careful when cooking a hog, the fat and grease that renders as you cook can seep down onto the wood or charcoal below (especially if your hog is injected with injection). If too much of that grease and fat gets on your wood it can cause a flash fire.
So, a water pan acts, once again, as a catch all. It can capture all that grease, fat and injection, insuring it does not come in contact with your fire.
TIPS ON USING A WATER PAN:
Now that you have a good idea of what a water pan can do, and what type of smoker you can use it in, let's talk about some tips in using a water pan.
1. Water Temp
As with all smokers, the thing you always want to avoid is temperature swings.
Because you want a dead even cook chamber temp, you'll want to make sure the water you pour into your pan is already hot (close to boiling/212 degrees Fahrenheit).
Do this step BEFORE you start your cooker (build you fire). This mean less time that the water needs to reach optimal temperature.
If you put 60 degree water in your pan, it's gonna take longer for it to warm up.
2. Temp Consistency
Now you have to KEEP the water pan at a consistent temperature.
Because water in a hot environment evaporates, you'll need to continually add hot water to your pan. The best way to do this is just add it at the same temp as your initial fill.
You don't want your pan to run out of water.
If you do, you'll see radical temperature spikes that will compromise your cook. And maybe even burn your food.
(I've experienced a temperature jump from 250 to 400 degrees in a matter of seconds. All because I forgot to add the water).
3. Clean Up
The final tip for using a water pan in your smoker: CLEAN UP.
This is honestly one of the drawbacks for having a water pan. It can get gross. BUT it only gets gross if you don't promptly and properly clean it after a cook.
After you're done with your cook, DO NOT LEAVE YOUR WATER PAN in the cooker.
If you do, you'll get mold in your cooker. Not over time. Over night.
As soon as you're done cooking, drain it, clean it out, wash it up.
Also, you have to make sure and keep your cooker clean.
It may be gross having all that grease, fat, food particles sitting in that water, but, trust me, clean it right away.
Water Pans do not help PUT moisture into your food. It only helps create a moisture environment, which helps KEEP moisture in some cooks. Water Pans helps evenly distribute heat in a cooker, by absorbing and radiating the incoming heat mass. Water Pans can also make clean up incredibly easy after a cook. By acting as a catch all, water pans prevent food, grease and other objects from crusting on the bottom of your cooker.
There are THREE main types of cookers that you'd want to use a water pan in. A Vertical Reverse Flow, which, when aided by a water pan, can more evenly distribute heat. A Vertical Wood Fired Smoker, which, when aided by a water pan, can prevent the hot air mass from burning your food. And a Hog Cooker, which, when aided by a water pan, can prevent flash fires.
Some tips for using a water pan: Add HOT water into the pan BEFORE you start your smoker. Keep adding hot water as you continue with your cook to avoid radical temperature spikes. And ALWAYS remove your water pan after your cook, and clean both the pan and your cooker.
Hope you guys found this helpful!
As always, we wish you luck on your Smoker Journey!
If you have an idea for a Custom Built Smoker, we'd love to hear from you! Just give us a call at 573-612-1315!