In this topic:
The water pan in the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker serves several purposes:
Water Pans Come In Four Sizes
The shape, size, and capacity of the water pan varies for each Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker model.
The water pan is suspended by the four grill straps at the bottom of the middle cooking section, as shown in Photo 1.
Many years ago, the WSM Owner's Manual suggested that the water pan could be placed directly on top of the charcoal chamber in the charcoal bowl when using the WSM as a steamer. As you might expect, using the Weber smoker as a steamer never caught on.
When Should You Use The Water Pan?
Most barbecuing in the Weber smoker is done with the water pan in place. You should use the water pan whenever you want to cook using the indirect method, regardless of how hot you operate the cooker or what you put or do not put into the water pan. You should not use the water pan when you want to cook using the direct method over hot coals.
I use the water pan for most of my barbecuing, sometimes filled with water, sometimes empty. I remove the water pan when cooking chicken at high temps so that the radiant heat from the coals crisps the chicken skin, as in the Hot & Fast Chicken recipe. I've also barbecued pork butt without the pan, hoping that the grease hitting the hot coals would enhance the flavor of the meat. It sure smelled good while cooking, but I couldn't taste much of a difference and it made a greasy mess in the charcoal bowl. I never did that again.
What Should You Put In the Water Pan—If Anything?
There are as many opinions about this subject as there are WSM owners, and there is no absolute right or wrong answer. There are many ways to make great barbecue with a Weber smoker regardless of what you put or do not put in the water pan. But here's my advice after many years of experience with this cooker.
When To Use Hot Water Vs. Cold Water In The Pan
When lighting the Weber smoker using the Standard Method in which all charcoal is hot and ashed-over before adding meat, use cold water in the water pan. This will help drive the cooker temperature down into the "low & slow" 225-275°F range. When lighting the cooker using the Minion Method in which a small amount of lit charcoal is placed on top of mostly unlit charcoal, use hot water in the water pan. This will help the cooker quickly come up into the "low & slow" 225-275°F range.
During a cooking session, if the cooker is humming along at 225-275°F, add hot water so that the cooker temp does not drop. If the cooker is running a bit too hot, add cold water to help bring the temp down. On cold winter days, you will most certainly want to add hot water to the pan to help keep the cooker up to temp.
How Often To Check And Refill The Water Pan
If you're only cooking for up to 4 hours—chicken or baby back ribs, for example—there's no need to check and refill the pan. Fill it once at the beginning and you're done. For longer cooks, check the pan and replenish the water every 4 hours or so. If you're using the 14.5" WSM with its smaller water pan,check the water level more often.
This video demonstrates the safety tips for using water that are described in this section.
Boiling hot water and/or steam has the potential to cause serious injury if the water pan is filled in an unsafe manner of if the pan falls into the hot coals during use. Here's how to safely use water in the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker.
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:
Disposing Of Water/Grease And Pan Cleanup
he biggest complain people have about using water is having to check and refill it throughout long cooking sessions, and the hassle of disposing of the water/grease mixture and washing the pan.As for water/grease disposal...yes, it does require more effort than an empty foiled pan, but not a lot. See Cleanup, Maintenance & Storage for disposal tips.
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.
To learn about increasing water pan capacity and other modifications related to the water pan, see Water Pan Modifications.
Other experts cook with a dry water pan. By spritzing the meat with water or other liquids during cooking and by foiling the meat part way through the cooking process, usually adding some liquid to the foil package, they produce barbecue that is moist and flavorful without using water in the pan.
Still others believe that it depends on what's being smoked. They feel that meats that tend to dry out, like ribs or brisket, benefit from the moisture, while fattier cuts, like pork butt, do not.
To cook over indirect heat in the Weber smoker, put the water pan inside the cooker, suspended by the four
at the bottom of the middle cooking section.
Water can help you maintain 225-250°F with ease, but it's almost impossible to achieve temperatures like 325-350°F with water in the pan. So, if you want to cook a turkey at 325°F, go with an empty water pan.
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