If you’ve had experience with a charcoal grill & smoker you’ll know how critical it is to have a water pan underneath your meat. This not only acts as a drip pan to catch the juices, but it also helps maintain a steady temperature and keep the meat moist.
You may have heard some experts recommend the use of a water pan in a pellet smoker/pellet grill, but is it really needed?
Here’s a concise breakdown of everything you need to know.
What Does A Water Pan Do In A Smoker?
Although there are many vast subtle differences a water pan may make in a smoking session, the primary benefit of using a water pan in a traditional smoker is:
- Helps maintain an even temperature. Without getting unnecessarily scientific, water takes more energy and time to adjust its temperature and therefore helps become an anchor to any given temperature. This helps you maintain that sweet spot of 200-225°F.
- It helps eliminate heat spots, as it radiates the heat evenly throughout the grill. This can play a large part in the smoking process particularly when smoking on a gas grill, as they naturally do have hot and cold spots.
- As the water heats up, the vapor circulates and mixes with the smoke which helps the meat stay moist and enhances the smokey flavor as the smokey moisture envelopes the meat.
- In a traditional gas or charcoal smoker, the water will often also act as a drip pan, collecting the meat juices and preventing them from dripping willy-nilly causing flare-ups or dampening the coals.
However, with great moisture comes great responsibility. You have to be aware that keeping the meat moist also naturally cools when it evaporates, much like sweat keeps us cool.
Although you can take advantage of this and keep it low and slow longer, it doesn’t feel as good when it keeps the stall going and going.
Do You Need A Water Pan In A Pellet Smoker?
Although it seems like there are a lot of benefits to using a water pan, a pellet smoker is designed differently, performs differently, and smokes differently than a traditional charcoal or gas unit.
Recalling that the benefits of using a water pan are maintaining temperature, eliminating heat spots, and enhancing smoke flavor, these are all aspects of the smoking process that pellet smokers naturally excel at.
- So long as your pellet smokers got some good insulation and a reliable burner you shouldn’t have any trouble maintaining a constant temperature. Your pellet smoker will automatically feed the wood pellets and adjust the induction fan to maintain your desired temperature.
- Because of how well a good quality pellet smoker can circulate, hold, and radiate its heat there really aren’t any heat spots to worry about.
- Charcoal, wood, and electric smokers all rely on wood chunks or chips to provide their smokey flavor, so naturally, you want to get the most out of them. Pellet smokers fuel is 100% wood pellets. This is flavor town. Pellet smokers have the luxury of providing a strong and consistent smoke throughout the whole session.
We’ve done comparisons of BBQr’s Delight vs. Traeger Pellets, as well as used a handful of others consistently. If you want to get maximum flavor and burn quality check out the full guide to the best wood pellets for smoking.
So, do you need a water pan in a pellet smoker?
Honestly, you don’t. It’s as plain and simple as that. However, the hard truth about barbecue is there is no ONE right way. Many barbecue enthusiasts do use a water pan in their pellet smokers, even when they are using top quality pellet smokers, such as a Traeger Grill, Pit Boss Pellet Grill, or a Masterbuilt smoker.
Using a water pan in a pellet smoker does help keep the meat more moist, but it’s just not necessary. I would recommend trying it once on a long cook and trying it without it once using the same meat & temperature and finding your preference. The same can be said if you’re using a water pan in an electric smoker.
Is A Water Pan Needed In A Traeger?
Traeger’s are pretty much at the pinnacle of pellet grill technology and don’t often face the same challenges that a charcoal or other smoker might.
However, even the best Traeger’s can experience temperature swings.
The only time I’ll add a water pan to my Traeger is when I’m looking to do a specifically LONG cook, like a larger brisket or pork butt.
Even then, it’s not REQUIRED – but it does help keep the temperature as consistent as possible and help keep the meat extra moist (as well as absorb more smoke flavor over the cook!).
When Should You Use A Water Pan?
Typically, If you are going to be using a water pan it will when you’re using a charcoal grill, a gas smoker, or an electric smoker.
However, if you are going for a particularly long smoke, you can make the decision to add a water pan to your pellet grill (like when using a water pan for smoking brisket for example).
Do be aware this will keep the temperature of the meat a little lower due to evaporative cooling, but if you have the patience you will be able to use that extra time to melt the fat and break down all the connective tissue.
Where Should You Place The Water Pan?
In a traditional charcoal grill or smoker, the water pan would sit directly under the meat, thus serving the purpose of a drip tray and water pan, however, this is not the case with pellet smokers.
If you do decide to use a water pan for your long cooks, remember it’s really only there to keep the smoker humid and the meat moist so you can place it anywhere out of the way or off to the side.
What's the Difference Between A Water Pan & A Drip Pan
It’s simple, a water pan is used to keep the smoker humid, making the meat moister throughout the whole session. It also allows more smoke particles to mix with the moisture on the meat and adhere better.
A water pan helps anchor the temperature to your sweet spot, as it takes more energy to raise or lower the temperature of water compared to air.
A drip pan’s primary purpose is to collect the dripping from the meat, either to save and use as a base for sauce or stock or to prevent all the juices from running rampant in your smoker.
If it’s filled partially with water too then it will also act as a water pan too. However, pellet smokers have no need, nor the space to sit a drip tray under the meat.
Just to be clear, adding a water pan in your pellet smoker is completely up to you.
It’s not necessary due to all the amazing qualities of pellet smokers, such as temperature control, insulation, and strong wood flavor.
If you are doing longer sessions with a large brisket or pork shoulder then you may find it helps the meat stay moist, but you may hit the stall for longer.
I would recommend trying it at least once so you know the real difference it makes and you can make that call for all your future barbecue adventures.