Water Pan For Brisket (When It’s Needed & When It’s Not)

We know, at it’s very core, barbecue is all about wood and smoke. 

But, over the ages there have been some significant improvements to the process, either making things easier, more convenient, safer, or overall just better.

Enter a common debate when smoking brisket: the water pan. 

Of course, it seems like it’s required when you’re smoking over charcoal, doubling as a drip pan, but what about in any other type of smoker?

Here’s exactly what using a water pan does to a brisket, when you SHOULD be using a water pan for smoking brisket and when it’s not required.

To keep things simple, placing a big pan of water in your smoker is really only good for two things:

  1. Acting as a drip pan, collecting all the dripping juices of your brisket.
  2. As a water pan, to increase the humidity within the smoker, which as a variety of impacts on the smoking process.

So, you’ll really only NEED to use a water pan when you’re smoking brisket over charcoal in order to collect all the dripping juices, preventing them from getting gooey in your smoker. 

Still, it’s your choice whether you fill it with water first to act as a water pan, or leave it empty.

If you’re smoking brisket in an electric smoker, pellet grill, or offset smoker, they normally comes with their own means to collect the drippings. It’s in these situations where you can choose to use a water pan if you think the added humidity will be of benefit.

A Further Explanation of Water Pans

Casting aside the benefits of acting as a drip pan, water pans do play a pretty large impact on the overall smoking process.

It’s clear there are some benefits, but there are some drawbacks too – which is why there’s such a debate to begin with.

Adding Humidity

Setting the water pan in the smoker does wonders for adding humidity. This increase in humidity is due to the evaporation of the water from the pan into the air.

The added moisture content in the air, in turn helps keep the meat moist as it lessens the dehydration effects of the smoke and higher temperatures. In saying that, it also extends the cook time too.

Normally when you burn charcoal or wood, it naturally dry’s out the environment in the smoker, so adding humidity through the use of a water pan can be a real benefit.

However, it’s not as beneficial in pellet grills or electric smokers as the air is generally not as dry.

Regulating Temperature

The secondary effect that water pans have is anchoring the temperature in the smoker (somewhat).

Simply put, the amount of energy it takes to move the ambient temperature of the smoker is much greater, due to the presence of the water.

This means you’re less impacted by temperature swings, and the smoker will be able to hold and maintain a more consistent temperature.

This is crucial when smoking less forgiving meats, like turkey.

The Effect Of Using A Water Pan When Smoking Brisket

So, recalling that water pans increase the humidity and help regulate the temperature of the smoker, we’re now ready to explore the effect it has on the smoking process of the brisket.

Although there might be several nuances depending on the size and placement of your water pan, the main impacts a water pan has on brisket are:

  1. Bark Formation
  2. Smoke Ring Formation
  3. Cooking Time

Bark Formation

I’m sure that if you’re smoking a brisket you’ll already know how glorious the bark is.

But, in order for a proper bark to set in, the salt and sugar in the rub has to meld together with the proteins in the meat with the help of the hot air: aka the Mallard reaction.

Generally you want a bit of moisture on the surface of the brisket, which is why it’s common practice to spritz your brisket every few hours. But, too much moisture on it’s surface will actually prevent the bark from properly forming and setting.

Although using a water pan on it’s own won’t prevent a delicious bark from forming, it may delay it – especially if you are also spritzing regularly.

Smoke Ring Formation

The smoke ring is really just a test of how much smoke was absorbed into the meat.

It’s created through a chemical reaction between meat and nitric oxide gas, which is produced when burning charcoal or wood. 

The more moisture in the air and on the surface of the brisket (either through its own juices, spritzing, or added humidity from a water pan) the greater the reaction.

Generally if you’re lacking a good smoke ring on your brisket, increasing the moisture content via a water pan or spritizing will help.

Cooking Time

As brisket cooks, it’s juices on the surface of the meat evaporate, which in turn cools down the brisket. This is the science behind the classic “stall” that a brisket hits around 155°F-165°F – as the evaporative cooling of the brisket prevents it’s temperature from continuing to rise.

Normally brisket takes 60 minutes per pound to smoke at 250°F. But, the more moisture on the surface of the brisket, the more evaporative cooling takes place, which in turn makes the brisket take longer to cook.

The Verdict: When You Should Use A Water Pan With Brisket

At the end of the day, the use of a water pan isn’t going to make or break your glorious brisket.

But, it’s still important to know where it fits into the world of barbecue.

Really the only time you NEED to use a water pan is when it’s doubling as a drip pan in a charcoal smoker. In all other situations it’s entirely optional.

In saying that, if you’re looking for added moisture, stronger smoke absorption, and a more anchored ambient temperature in your smoker, then using a water pan for smoking your brisket can be a good tool in your arsenal.

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