In this topic:
There's a lot more to the lowly WSM water pan than meets the eye, and this article explains it all in detail.
To learn about increasing water pan capacity and other modifications related to the water pan, see Water Pan Modifications.
As always...click on any of the pictures to view a larger image.
The water pan used inside the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker serves the following purposes:
When barbecuing or roasting meat in the WSM over indirect heat, the water pan is suspended by the four grill straps at the bottom of the middle cooking section, as shown in Photo 1.
According to the WSM Owner's Manual, the water pan can be placed on top of the charcoal chamber in the charcoal bowl when using the WSM as a steamer, but this is not a common use.
I use water in the pan for most cooking sessions when I am trying to maintain a cooker temperature of 225-250°F. I use water mainly for temperature control, not for the moisture it adds to the cooking environment.
Meats typically barbecued at this temperature include brisket, pork butt, pork loin back ribs, pork spareribs, and salmon. Poultry cooked at this temperature will turn out moist, but may have rubbery skin.
Depending on the method used to fire-up the Weber Bullet, the pan is filled with either cool or hot tap water at the beginning of a cooking session, and may be replenished one or more times during very long cooks, usually through the access door.Safe Usage Tips
This video demonstrates the water pan safety material that is described below.
The water pan has the potential to cause injury if it falls into the hot coals during use, or if it is filled with water in an unsafe manner.
Some people like to use the larger Brinkman charcoal pan, not only for its larger water capacity, but because it sits more securely on the four grill straps. See Water Pan Modifications for details.
Most people report that using apple juice, beer, wine, herb/vegetable broth, or other flavorful liquids in the water pan does not result in any discernable flavor being added to the meat. Any subtle flavor is drowned out by the rub and smoke applied to the meat.
Better to drink the beer and baste the meat directly with a flavorful liquid than to waste it in the water pan.
To add water to the pan during a cooking session, simply remove the access door and pour water through the bottom cooking grate into the pan, as shown in Photo 4.
Replace the access door and make sure the door knob is fastened properly. There's nothing worse than having the cooker temperature soar to 350°F because the access door fell off!
You've probably got a container somewhere around the house that can be used to refill the water pan during a cooking session. Try one of these:
I use an empty water pan when I am trying to maintain a cooker temperature of 325-350°F.
Meats typically cooked at
this temperature include chicken, turkey, and sometimes beef rib roasts
and tri-tip roasts.
This video demonstrates the processes of foiling a water pan that are described below.
Wrapping the water pan with wide, heavy-duty aluminum foil makes cleanup fast and easy. Some folks scoff at the notion of doing anything beyond just rinsing out the pan after each use, but I like to run a "clean machine" and keeping the pan clean is important to me.
Here are my recommendations for foiling the pan, based on my personal experience and that of other WSM owners:
There are three common ways to collect pan drippings when smoking a turkey:
Assuming you don't over smoke the turkey, the drippings will be perfect for making gravy—in fact, they're already seasoned by any rub applied to the turkey.
As you remove the turkey from the cooker, pour any accumulated juices inside the body cavity into the pan. You can also use the juices left in the bottom of a rimmed baking pan after letting the turkey rest before carving.
It's not uncommon to end up with about 1-1/2 cups of drippings (Photo 11).
If you don't have any drippings, make the delicious turkey giblet gravy described on The Virtual Weber Bulletin Board using the giblets, aromatic vegetables, chicken stock, white wine, and seasonings.
Fans of sand say it offers some of the temperature control benefits of water, while eliminating the need to refill the pan or deal with messy cleanup afterward.
Line the pan with a layer of wide, heavy-duty aluminum foil, then fill 3/4 full with clean, dry playground sand (Photo 12). Smooth the sand, then cover with two layers of wide, heavy-duty aluminum foil (Photo 13).
Discard and replace the top layer of foil after each cook. The sand can be used again and again, as long as the drippings do not penetrate the second layer of foil.
Why line the pan with foil before adding the sand? Because the sand turns as hard as concrete after several uses and is almost impossible to remove without that layer of foil.
Be aware that sand has the same issue of radiated heat as mentioned above for an empty pan. However, it takes a few hours for the radiation effect to build-up as the sand heats.
There's no right or wrong answer to this question. Both water and sand have their supporters, and you can make fine barbecue either way.
Most new WSM owners start out using water. Some of them experiment with sand and never go back to water, while others try sand but find they like water better. A few people get so good at fuel and vent control that they shun both water and sand, running their cookers at 225-250°F with ease using an empty pan.
I personally prefer to use water. I like to think of it as my fail-safe temperature controller. No matter how much fuel I put into the cooker, as long as I keep water in that pan, the cooker will not rise beyond typical barbecuing temperatures, because the water will consume the excess energy.
Of course, sand eliminates the need to add water to the pan during a long cooking session, and sand offers easier cleanup afterward, but I just feel more in control of cooker temperature when using water, and I'm willing to tend the water pan and clean it afterwards as a result.
Why is water a better temperature controller than sand? Because the specific heat of water is five times that of sand. (Specific heat is defined as the heat, in calories, required to raise the temperature of one gram of a substance 1° Celsius.)
For example, in my 1997 18-1/2" WSM, it takes one gallon of water, weighing about 8 pounds, to fill the water pan, and about 8 pounds of clean, dry playground sand to fill the pan 3/4 full. The difference between the specific heat of water and sand means that it takes five times the energy to raise the temperature of the water in the pan by 1° Celsius than to do the same for the sand. The water consumes more energy.
Also, since water evaporates and must be replenished during the cooking session, but sand does not, using water consumes a lot more energy overall than using sand.
Another advantage of water is that it keeps the temperature on the lower grate cooler than sand does. Water boils at 212°F, but I've measured sand in the pan at 275-285°F when maintaining 225-250°F measured at the lid. When using sand, you need to pay more attention to the meat on the bottom grate to make sure it doesn't overcook, especially on longer cooks.
There's no doubt that using water or sand consumes energy and requires the use of more fuel. If you can learn to operate the WSM confidently at 225-250°F without using water or sand, taking into account all the variables—like the amount of meat being cooked, weather conditions, the amount of fuel added to the cooker, careful vent control, rotating meat between top and bottom grates—and you don't value a moist cooking environment, then you can use less fuel during each cooking session.
As I said above, I like having water working for me inside the cooker as an active temperature controller. Does that feeling of security cost me a lot of money? No. As of this writing, Kingsford charcoal briquettes cost about 21¢ per pound when purchased in bulk. Even if 2-3 pounds of fuel is burned to heat water, it only costs a few cents. I'm willing to spend that for peace of mind when it comes to temperature control.Temperature Tests Using Water Pan Variations
In 2003, I conducted three temperature "experiments" to test water pan variations in the WSM: An empty pan, a water-filled pan, and a sand-filled pan.
My subjective impression was that none of these methods was difficult from a temperature control standpoint, but that using water was a little bit easier than either sand or an empty pan, both of which seemed about the same in terms of temperature control.
For the detailed results, including temperature graphs, see WSM Temperature Tests.
I've heard people talk about filling the water pan with all sorts of things, including rocks, dirt, and even cement! I'm not sure why anyone would want to do this. Water, sand, and an empty pan are three food-safe options that should satisfy the needs of all WSM owners.Water Disposal & Pan Cleanup
You'll find tips for disposing of the contents of the water pan and cleaning the pan on the Cleanup, Maintenance & Storage page.