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When it comes to smoking BBQ, there is no shortage of tips, tricks, and techniques to help take your end results to legendary status.
One such technique is to place a water pan inside of your smoker while your meat cooks low and slow – it’s a pretty common practice, and there are good reasons to do it (but more on that in a moment).
So it begs the question – do you need to use a water pan in a pellet smoker? In this resource, we’ll give you the answer to that question along with a deep dive into the reasons why.
Do You Need a Water Pan In a Pellet Smoker? The Short Answer
The short answer is no, you don’t need a water pan in a pellet smoker. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t use one. Whether it’s a good idea or not largely depends on the situation.
Water Pans – Why Are They Used In Smokers?
Generally speaking, water pans are used as a means to increase cooking performance in smokers. And water pans affect performance in a few different ways:
Water pans function as a temperature stabilizer in a smoker – which is especially important if you’re working with a smoker that struggles to distribute even heat around the cooking chamber. Some smoker types and builds inherently struggle with this, and it’s not necessarily because the smoker isn’t made properly.
Charcoal smokers, for example, will naturally have heat coming from the area of the smoker where the charcoal flame is lit – so a water pan is a borderline necessity to even out the temperature of the smoker while you BBQ.
On a similar note, some smokers grates (or at least part of the grate) sit directly above a heat source. While this is ok for grilling, when we smoke low and slow we do not want to cook our meat over a direct heat source because it will lead to uneven cooking, and potentially over cooking one side of your meat.
A water pan typically is placed over a heat source to block any direct heat – creating an ideal indirect cooking set up for your BBQ.
Moisture and general humidity are added to the cooking environment when you add a water pan. The water and steam that comes out of the pan will aid in keeping your smoked meat moist while you cook it, which typically leads to a more tender finished product. The moisture from a water pan can especially make a difference if you opt to not wrap a large cut of meat while you smoke it (like brisket on your pellet smoker, pork butt, etc.).
When steam rises off of the water pan, much of it will eventually make contact with the surface of your meat, where the molecules will stick to the outside of your BBQ. This moisture is an additional surface that smoke can stick to and eventually seep into your food, which leads to richer smoke flavor on your food.
Why Water Pans Aren’t Necessary (But Can Be Useful) In Pellet Smokers
To understand why exactly water pans aren’t vital for pellet smoker cooking, we first need to go over how pellet smokers are made and how they function.
Unlike some of the other smoker types we’ve mentioned (charcoal, propane, offset), pellet smokers utilize electronic systems to self regulate the cooking process. You set your temperature, and the grill feeds the perfect amount of pellets down the auger and into the firepot to heat your food at your exact desired temperature. The smoker automatically detects if there are any temperature deviations and self regulates back to the temperature you set.
It’s the same story with smoke. Most pellet smokers have a smoke setting, and your firepot burns the optimal quantity of pellets to produce the amount of smoke you want.
Further, in just about every single pellet grill there’s a diffusor plate that sits over the firepot – which blocks direct heat from hitting your grill grates. Pellet smokers inherently function as an indirect heat cooker – air flows around the unit like a convection oven, ensuring an extremely uniform heat environment inside of the cooking chamber.
We said before that water pans serve to aid in temperature control, create indirect heat in a smoker, add moisture, and add flavor to your smoker. Pellet smokers naturally take care of temperature control, indirect heat, and flavor.
That leaves us with moisture – water pans can still be quite helpful to add moisture to your pellet smoker. Maybe you’re smoking a huge brisket and don’t want to wrap it, or maybe you live in an area where the climate is extremely dry – in both cases a water pan can enhance your pellet smoker BBQ.
Where Does The Water Pan Go In a Pellet Smoker?
Typically, a water pan would be placed on the side of the smoker where the heat source is coming from. Since most pellet smokers fire pot is under the middle of the grate and blocked by a diffusor plate, there isn’t necessarily a side of the smoker where the most heat is coming from.
With that in mind, it’s really up to you where you choose to place a water pan in a pellet smoker! Just for the sake of being efficient with your space, it’s probably best to place it on a lower rack while your meat smokes on an upper rack. Or if you only have one rack, place the water pan as far as you can to the left or right side of the cooking surface area.
Other Ways To Make Sure Your Smoked Meat Remains Moist
Since moisture is the main reason to put a water pan in a pellet smoker, we’ve come up with a few suggestions for creating moisture in your cooker so that you don’t have to go through the trouble of a water pan if you don’t want to.
First, use a drip pan, which is an aluminum foil pan that you set underneath your food as it smokes. The idea is that drippings will drop down into the foil pan as your meat cooks. The drippings then collect and vaporize back up into your food as steam, increasing your flavor and maintaining some moisture along the way. You can also use a water pan as a drip pan if you’d like for maximum moisture levels.
Second, you can use a spray bottle to spritz your meat every hour or so while it cooks. You can spritz with water for pure moisture, or to add a little flavor you can use apple juice, apple cider vinegar, beef broth, chicken broth – depending on which meat you’re smoking.
Finally, you can wrap your BBQ while it cooks. The two most common wrapping materials are pink butcher paper and aluminum foil. Pink butcher paper will let a little bit of moisture escape your meat, but it’s porous enough to allow smoke flavor to get in and flavor your meat. Aluminum foil on the other hand locks all of the moisture in, creating a steamer-like effect while you cook. The downside of foil is that it’s extremely hard for smoke flavor to make its way to your meat while it cooks.
If you came in wondering “do you need a water pan in a pellet smoker?”, I hope the answer is clear now! You certainly don’t need a water pan in a pellet smoker. However, it might be a good idea to do so if you’re worried about your meat drying out – for whatever reason that might be.