There is a heated debate among BBQ cooks about the use and need of a water pan when cooking. I don’t pretend to know the “right” answer, and if there’s one thing I have learned about barbecue it’s that there is no “right” way. Each cook will have his or her own style and figure out exactly what works for them. I prefer to use a water pan for my low ‘n slow cooks, as it reliably results in delicious barbecue. The water pan I use is circular, which is perfect for the BGE as the pan will fit nicely on the circular Plate Setter.
What to Put in a Water Pan
It’s called a water pan for a reason. Put water in it! Lots of people will post recipes that put all sorts of liquids in the water pan in order to infuse flavor to the meat. Save your money because it simply doesn’t work. Don’t waste your beer, wine, apple juice or whatever by putting it in the water pan. You won’t taste it unless you’re drinking it. If you want a specific flavor on your meat, then just put it right on there! Your marinade, rub, and wood smoke are the best ways to influence the flavor profiles of whatever you’re cooking.
When to Use a Water Pan
The most effective times to use water pans are for “low n slow” cooks where you keep the dome temperature around 250 or lower. The humidity provided by the water pan doesn’t have much of an effect at higher temperatures because the moisture on the surface of the meat evaporates so quickly. So if you plan on smoking a brisket, ribs, or pork shoulder you should consider using a water pan.
The Benefits of Using a Water Pan
Putting a large mass of water in your cooker is basically adding a huge heat sink right over your fire. The heat produced by your fire has to not only cook the meat, but it also has to heat the water. Because water won’t get hotter than 212F (the boiling point), any extra energy (heat) put into boiling water serves to turn the water to steam. Okay, enough thermodynamics. All this translates into rock steady temps with virtually no fluctuations. Just make sure there is water in the pan throughout the entire cook.
The whole point of using a water pan is to create a humid cooking environment. But why do we care? A humid cooking environment does two main things. First, it increases the overall cooking time, giving us a bigger window of opportunity to catch the meat at the perfect done-ness. A longer cook time also means more time for fat and collagen to render leading to more succulent results. Secondly, a humid cooking environment increases the surface moisture of the meat, allowing more smoke to be absorbed and giving you that pretty smoke ring.
The Drawbacks of Using a Water Pan
I can see two main drawbacks from using water pans. The first is increased cook times. While this is also listed as a benefit, it really depends on your situation. Are you trying to time a cook for a BBQ competition or just having a backyard get-together? Some people don’t want to wait 15 hours for their pork shoulder to be done. This is one reason people like to foil their meats and power through the stall; it gets done quicker. The other bad thing about water pans is that it’s difficult to get a nice bark on outside due to the humidity. It’s possible to remove the water pan near the end of the cook in order to dry out the surface of the meat and form a nice bark, but that extra work makes it a drawback for me.
Should You Use a Water Pan?
The bottom line about this subject, and basically all of barbecue, is that you should do what works for you. Several championship BBQ teams will swear by the water pan, saying they cannot possibly compete without it. On the other side of the fence, just as many championship winning teams won’t touch a water pan with a 10 foot pole. There is no “right” answer and that’s one reason why barbecue is so fun. So I urge you to experiment with your cooks. If you haven’t ever used a water pan, try it out and let me know how it goes. And if you typically use a water pan, try your next brisket without one and see how it goes.