Fact #1 – not all smokers are equal. What works – in fact, what is a stone cold necessity in one kind of smoker might be redundant, or even counter-productive, in another.
If you’re an experienced charcoal smoker, you’ll know there’s never an argument about including a water pan. You just do it.
You do it because:
1. It forms a useful pan to catch drippings of meat juice and fat from the smoking meat
2. It helps regulate the temperature, which is always key and often difficult in a charcoal smoker
3. It adds an extra method for pushing flavor into the fibers of your meat
4. And an extra pan of water helps to keep the meat moist and succulent during a process otherwise almost guaranteed to dry it out
Believe us when we say, if you’re a charcoal smoker, no-one is coming to take away your water pan. Your right to keep and bear water trays is probably in the Constitution somewhere.
The Pellet Smoking Difference
But what about pellet smokers?
As much as they’ve been quickly and widely taken up by the barbecue-hounds of America, they’re still a relative newcomer on the scene when it comes to smoking meat.
That’s as much a factor of how tricky it can be to manufacture good high-grade, consistent-burn pellets as it is a factor of how convoluted and relatively high-tech pellet smokers themselves often are.
Nobody, but nobody back in Colonial times was using pellet smokers to make the jerky for their journey across the nation.
Pellet smokers are newfangled devices, and the advantages they bring to the dedicated meat-smoker are all in the precision you can get in terms of heat, time, degree of smoke, and hassle-free smoking without constantly checking the machine.
But that raises the question of water pans. If the pellet smoker is already so much more efficient, scientific, and hassle-free in terms of maintaining the temperature in the smoker and delivering relatively succulent results in a hands-off style… do you need a water pan at all?
The debate is made particularly contentious by those who maintain that yes, even in a pellet smoker, the water pan helps as an additional moist-maker.
Let’s take a look at the facts.
Pellet Smokers – The Low-Down
As we’ve said, in a traditional charcoal smoker, water pans do four main jobs.
- They help keep your temperature in the sweet spot
- They help you avoid heat spots, that can result in toughened meats – this works on a gas grill as much as on a charcoal one, as the heat is rarely even when smoking with gas
- They act as a moist-maker, picking up the flavor of the smoke and penetrating the fibers of the meat, giving it extra juicy, smoky notes, and
- They act as a drip tray, helping to avoid grease flare-ups, and making clean-up at least a little easier
Here’s the thing, though.
All those benefits are in areas where pellet smokers already deliver exceptional results.
If you have a pellet smoker with some good insulation and a thermal cover, they’re enormously good at delivering steady, constant temperature. Hot spots, cold spots, not so much a feature of pellet smoking.
With auto-adjusting pellet feeders and induction fans, they’re much more fix-and-forget smokers than traditional gas or charcoal options.
The nature of wood pellets is that they’re the equivalent of charcoal, if charcoal was living its best life.
Both in terms of maximum thermal output, controlled burns and smoke temperatures, and delivering succulent smoky flavor, wood pellets have their game on.
So, all this being the case… what do you need a water pan for?
Honestly, if you have a good modern pellet smoker, you don’t.
No, really, you don’t.
No Water Required
If you have an older pellet smoker, feel free to keep adding your water pan – it will still do the thing where it picks up smoky flavors and pushes them into the meat, along with additional moisture for a more succulent mouthfeel.
But if your pellet smoker is relatively modern, there’s no real reason why you should need an additional water pan to get the best results out of it.
Believe us – if you needed it, manufacturers of pellet smokers would supply you with a branded water pan, call it a moisture enhancement system and add a hundred bucks to the sales price.
If you don’t get a water pan as part of the set-up when it comes to a modern, high-tech pellet smoker, there are lines to read between, and the message is you don’t really need a water pan to get the best results.
Now, there’s an addendum to that, and it’s an important one. Barbecue has always been a mystic art.
Whether charcoal or gas, it’s always been much more of an art than it has a science. Getting the perfect smoke rings, the perfect combination of flavored smoke and perfect low-and-slow smoking to make succulent barbecue.
That being the case, there’s absolutely nothing that should stop you adding a water pan to your pellet smoker, if you convince yourself that it’s an important part of the way you personally get the best barbecue you’ve ever tasted. Go entirely smoky, meaty, juicy nuts.
Smoke With Caution
But if you’re going to do that, take a word of caution with you.
Modern pellet smokers have actually redressed the balance quite a lot. They’re engineered pretty much within an inch of their lives.
They’re temperature controlled, timer led, pre-programmable machines that are so confidently designed to give you excellent, repeatable results time after time that in plenty of cases, you can set them up and walk away.
You can get updates on the temperature and smoke penetration inside the machine sent by wifi to your smartphone, and you can adjust the settings on some newer models by your phone, or even by voice command through Alexa.
All of that technology works on the principle of there being no water pan involved. It’s all designed to give you spectacularly smoked meat exactly as you want it without you going to the trouble of adding a water pan.
So while in traditional gas and charcoal smokers, the addition of a water pan could be factored into the fuzzy math and significant magic of turning meat from raw to beautifully smoked, modern pellet smokers are pretty much built to fine-tune that element out of the equation.
In a sense, it’s like running a precision engineered BMW on 80 percent ethanol. It might get you somewhere close to where you’re trying to go, but it won’t necessarily be right, the way you expect it and want it to be.
In fact, by adding a water pan to some of the more modern pellet smokers, you might even find that what you’re doing is throwing all the calculations for at least a little bit of a loop.
Again, it’s like having a recipe that works perfectly with the ingredients as stated.
If you add another ingredient to the recipe, which the recipe didn’t call for, you might well still get a good result at the end, but it won’t necessarily be quite as perfect as the result you were aiming at – and the result for which you had a tried and tested recipe!
So… you should just throw out your water pan?
That depends. Are you throwing out your gas or charcoal smoker?
We wouldn’t necessarily advocate you doing that, because charcoal smoking still has a traditional taste – and uses traditional skills – that give you an experience like nothing else on earth, and there’s absolutely an argument to be made that it’s “better” than pellet smoking.
We wouldn’t go that far, either. We’d say there are times when you want the fix-and-forget precision of modern scientific pellet smoking – and when those times arrive, leave the water pan in the kitchen.
But there are also times when you want to resort to the long, slow, mystic business of charcoal smoking – and if and when the charcoal smoker calls to your blood and your taste buds, that old water pan is going to be a useful tool again.
Bottom line, then: do you need a water pan in a modern pellet smoker? No. No, you don’t.
But keep it around anyway, because sometimes – some long, slow, weekend times = only charcoal will do, and then the water pan is your smoke-pushing friend.