Water Pan For Smoking Turkey? (Is It Ever Needed?)

Smoking turkey: the perfect mix of the classic smokiness of barbecue and the classic turkey-ness of turkey. 

Though, you tend to smoke turkey differently than you would most other traditional barbecue meats.

In order to make peak smoked turkey you need just the right amount of smoke, heat, and moisture.

But do you REALLY need a water pan?

I’ll save the small talk.

I know why you’re here, and that’s to work out if you’re going to use a water pan or not for smoking your turkey.

To keep things simple, there are really only three reasons you would elect to use a water pan when smoking turkey:

  1. To act as a drip pan to prevent the drippings from causing flare-ups or getting where they’re not meant to!
  2. To increase the humidity in the smoker, keeping things extra moist.
  3. To help anchor the ambient temperature within the smoker, combating temp swings and helping maintain a steady temperature.

So, you’ll only need a water pan when you’re smoking turkey if you’re set-up calls for a drip pan, such as in a charcoal grill or some other smokers.

But, you may also benefit from using a water pan if you’re wanting to maximize the humidity within your smoker or to help maintain steady temperatures.

What Does A Water Pan Do For Turkey?

Alright, so you still can’t decide if using a water pan is worth it when smoking turkey?

Well, truth be told, the benefits that come with using a water pan often have a much more subtle impact on the outcome of the smoked turkey than you might think.

In saying that, they are benefits nonetheless!

Here’s a bit more detail behind the effects a water pan has on turkey during the smoking process.

Helps With Temperature Control

The main benefit that using a water pan will offer you for smoking turkey is its ability to help maintain a constant temp.

There are some traditional barbecue meats that can handle temperature fluctuations, like ribs or pork butt. But, smoking turkey isn’t as forgiving, so there’s more incentive to keep your temperature as consistent as possible (same with using a water pan when smoking brisket).

This is where a water pan can really help. Moving the temperature of water takes much more energy than moving the temperature of the air.

This means, once your smoker has reached your desired temp (275-325°F for smoking turkey), it takes more time or more energy to increase or decrease the ambient temperature.

Thus, using a water pan decreases the peaks and troughs of typical temperature fluctuations, keeping things as consistent as possible.

Adds Extra Moisture

Let’s not get too scientific about the role humidity has on smoking meat.

The short and sweet story is that using a water pan provides additional moisture, or humidity, to the internal environment of the smoker.

Although the water doesn’t quite turn to steam, it does make the hot air and smoke less harsh, as it contains more water vapor. 

In turn, this environment draws less moisture from the turkey, though not by any obvious, drastic amounts.

It’s important to note: a water pan is typically not required in pellet grills, or not required in electric smokers, as the air and smoke produced in these smokers are much less harsh compared to other methods of smoking.

Can Act As A Drip Pan

Of course, this goes without saying. But, if your smoker calls for a drip pan, then you better use on when smoking your turkey.

A drip pan is only needed when the drippings or juices of the meat would otherwise land on coals or flames, which can either cause flare-ups or extinguish the flame altogether.

The other reason you might want to use a drip pan is to stop any juices from dripping into any unwanted area of your smoker. Otherwise, the clean-up is going to be that much harder!

The Downsides Of Water Pans For Turkey

Of course the benefits sound juicy, but unfortunately it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.

Here’s some downsides to consider before you take the plunge into a water pan.

Can Ruin The Crispiness Of The Turkey Skin

Some people love turkey skin, some don’t. I get that.

But, for that those that get the most excited about having some of the amazingly crispy turkey skin, you’re going to want to be a little bit cautious around using a water pan.

This is because too much moisture can actually cause rubbery skin on smoked turkey. 

The additional moisture in the air from the water pan can slow the dehydration process of the turkey skin, which is key to getting crispy skin!

This is also why using a fat-based binder is far superior to other typical binders for smoked turkey, to facilitate crispiness instead of prevent it!

Extra Effort

We would agree that it’s worth going to the extra effort of using a water pan if the benefits made a true, felt impact on the outcome of the smoked turkey.

However, in our experience, using a water pan doesn’t noticeably change the outcome of the turkey at the end of the session.

So really, it could be seen as a waste of effort.

Main Takeaways

So, after all that back and forth, here are the key points to use to decide whether you want to use a water pan or not when smoking your turkey:

  1. Using a water pan is NOT necessary when smoking turkey.
  2. The only time you “need” to use a water pan is when it’s being used as a drip pan.
  3. The main benefit of using a water pan for smoking turkey is to help maintain a constant temperature in your smoker.
  4. The main downside of using a water pan for smoking turkey is that it can negatively impact the crispiness of your turkey skin.

The good thing about barbecue is there is no one right way. 

If you find success smoking turkey with a water pan, then all power to ya. But, otherwise it’s typically not going to make an instrumental difference to the quality of your smoked turkey.

Before you smoke your turkey, we highly recommend you check out why we always finish our smoked turkey in the oven!

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