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Using A Water Pan In Weber Smokers: When To Use It, What To Put In It And How To Clean It

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Purpose Of The Water Pan

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The water pan in the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker serves several purposes:

Pan Creates An Indirect Cooking Environment
Many people feel that cooking over indirect heat is essential to making good barbecue. In wood-burning offset smokers, the meat chamber and the fire chamber are side-by-side in separate compartments, thus the cooking process is indirect. In a vertical smoker like the Weber, an indirect cooking environment is achieved by using the water pan as a physical barrier between the heat and the meat. The pan catches the meat drippings that would otherwise hit the coals and flare up, creating a taste which many people associate with grilled meat, not barbecued meat. The pan also minimizes hot spots by radiating heat in a consistent, even manner.

Water Keeps Cooker Temperature "Low & Slow"
Water in the pan makes "low & slow" barbecue temperatures easier to achieve and maintain. It takes a lot of energy to heat water to the boiling point of 212°F at which point it turns into steam. If the cooker starts to run too hot, more water will boil away, consuming extra heat energy and keeping the cooker temperature down. If the cooker starts to run too cool, the thermal water mass will give some heat back to the cooker. Either way, water stabilizes cooker temperatures by smoothing out temperature fluctuations, making temperature control easier.

Water Keeps Meat Moist, Enhances Smoke Flavor and Smoke Ring
As water in the pan boils, water vapor fills the cooking chamber and surrounds the meat. Some of this water vapor condenses on the surface of the meat, helping smoke to stick to the meat. The smoke imparts flavor to the meat, and the sodium nitrite in the smoke plays a critical role in the formation of the pink "smoke ring" that we associate with meat that has been cooked in the presence of smoke.

This same water vapor can help keep meat moist and prevent it from drying out. Some experts go so far as to say that the water vapor "bastes" the meat, cooling it through surface evaporation. This slows the cooking process and promotes the rendering of fat and the conversion of tough connective tissues into gelatin.

Water Pans Come In Four Sizes

Water pan for 14.5 smoker
Photo 2: 14.5" WSM
Water pan for 18.5 smoker
Photo 3: 18.5" WSM
Water pan for 22.5 smoker
Photo 4: 22.5" WSM
Water pan for 18.5 smoker 2008 and earlier
Photo 5: 18.5" WSM (2008 & Earlier)

The shape, size, and capacity of the water pan varies for each Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker model.

Pan Shape Dimensions Capacity
14.5" WSM Wide-rim, flat bottom 11.5" OD x 4.125" 11 cups - 0.6875 gallon
18.5" WSM Narrow-rim, deep round bottom 14.375" OD x 7" 2.5 gallons
22.5" WSM Narrow-rim, shallow round bottom 18.75" OD x 4.25" 3 gallons
18.5" WSM
(2008 & earlier)
Narrow-rim, shallow round bottom 14.75" OD x 3" 1 gallon

Location Of Pan In The Smoker

Water pan in middle cooking section
Photo 1

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.

New WSM Owners Should Always Use Water In The Pan When Cooking at 225-275°F
As a new owner, you've got a lot on your mind—learning about meat, rub, charcoal, and how to operate your new cooker. Think of water as training wheels for your smoker. It's almost impossible to run the Weber Bullet over 275°F as long as the pan is filled with water.

Don't worry about the negative things some people say about using water in your smoker. As a new owner, your most important objective is to get some success under your belt and feel confident in controlling cooker temperature. Water will help you do that in a big way.

Experienced Owners Can Experiment With Waterless Cooking at 225-275°F
It's OK to use water every time you cook with your WSM. If you like the results and you're comfortable with the process, don't feel like you have to change anything. However, once you've mastered water you may want to experiment with waterless cooking. The pros and cons are described later in this article.

An Empty Water Pan Is Required For High Heat Cooking
To achieve cooker temperatures in the 325-375°F range, you must leave the water pan empty. This temp range is often used when barbecuing high-heat versions of chicken, turkey, brisket and pork butt.

Water Is For Pans, Beer Is For Drinking
Don't waste beer, wine, juice, onions, herbs and spices, or other stuff in the water pan. These things may smell good while cooking, but experience shows they impart nothing to the flavor of the meat. The flavor of the meat will be most influenced by the rub, injection and sauce you use. Save your money and just use plain tap water in the pan.

Skip The Clay Saucers, Sand, Lava Rocks, Bricks, Steel Plates And Other Pan Fillings
Creative Weber smoker owners have tried almost everything as an alternative to water in the pan. The goal is usually to create a heat sink that helps moderate cooker temperatures but does not evaporate and cleans up easily after cooking.

If you don't want to use water in the pan, my recommendation is to just wrap it in aluminum foil and leave it empty. I know that some people swear by these alternative fillings, but many competition barbecue teams have proved that you can make championship barbecue in the Weber Bullet with an empty, foil-lined pan. That's good enough for me.

How To Use Water In The Pan

Water in the pan
Photo 2


  • Fool-proof "low & slow" cooking at 225-275°F.
  • Keeps meat moist.
  • Enhances smoke flavor and smoke ring.
  • Slows cooking, promoting fat rendering and conversion of connective tissue to gelatin.


  • Not for high temp cooking at 325-375°F.
  • Water level must be checked and refilled every 4 hours.
  • Poultry skin turns out soft, not crispy.
  • Uses more charcoal.
  • Leftover water/grease must be disposed of after cooking.
  • Injury from hot water and/or steam if pan is not used properly.

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.

Safety Tips For Using Water

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.

Make Sure The Pan Is Seated Securely Inside The Cooker
With the middle cooking section off the fire, put the water pan in place, making sure it is seated securely on the four grill straps. If the pan seems unsteady, do not use the pan or add water to it until the problem has been resolved. The grill straps can be modified to help the pan fit more securely; see Parts Troubleshooting for details.

Add Water To A Cool Pan
With the pan securely in place, put the bottom cooking grate into the middle cooking section, if using it, then put the cooking section over the hot coals in the charcoal bowl.

Initially filling water pan from above, through bottom cooking grate
Photo 3

Pour water into the pan immediately before the pan gets hot. Pour into the center of the pan, through the bottom cooking grate, from above the middle cooking section (Photo 3). Do not put your face directly over the pan. Stand back from the cooker and wear long barbecue gloves to protect your arms.

Avoid Splashing And Overfilling
Don't splashing water out of the pan into the fire, and take care to not overfill the pan. The stock WSM water pan holds 1 gallon of water.
It can be difficult to tell how much water is in the pan when refilling in the dark, so turn on a patio light or use a flashlight to make sure the pan is not overfilled.
Also, remember that during a cooking session, a layer of liquid fat will float on top of the water. This fat will be the first thing to overflow into the hot coals if the pan is overfilled, potentially causing a grease fire...another reason to take care when refilling the pan.


  • Do Not Disturb The Pan During Cooking
    Moving the cooker or lifting off the middle cooking section during use can cause the water pan to fall into the hot coals. You do these at your own risk!

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.

Using Juice, Beer, Wine, Or Other Liquids

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.

Adding Water During A Cooking Session

Adding water to pan through access door
Photo 4

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!

Containers For Refilling The Pan

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:

  • 1-gallon plastic milk jug
  • 2-liter soda bottle
  • 64-ounce ketchup bottle (shown in the photo)
  • Wine bottle
  • Garden watering can with long spout

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.

How To Use An Empty Water Pan

Water pan
Photo 5

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.
Be aware that an empty pan will immediately radiate a lot of heat toward meat on the bottom cooking grate, so monitor those items carefully. You may wish to rotate items between the top and bottom grates to prevent overcooking.

How To Foil The Water Pan

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.

Foiled water pan - outside only
Photo 6
Foiled water pan - both inside and outside
Photo 7
Close-up of foiled pan
Photo 8
Results of foiled water pan dripping
Photo 9

Here are my recommendations for foiling the pan, based on my personal experience and that of other WSM owners:

  • Every Time I Use The Pan, I wrap the bottom side with wide, heavy-duty aluminum foil, as shown in Photo 6. This eliminates the need to scrub off the smoke build-up that occurs on the bottom of the pan.
  • When Using An Empty Pan, I also wrap the inside of the pan with foil, as shown in Photo 7.
  • When Using Water In The Pan, I don't foil the inside at all. As shown in Photo 8, I foil just the bottom of the pan, bring the foil over the top edge of the pan to secure it, then remove any excess material so that the foil does not touch the water. When filling the pan, I make sure to keep the water level below the foil.
    Why? When you foil the inside of the pan, water can get under the foil through small tears or pinholes. When heated, the water is forced up and over the edge of the pan and into the fire, making a mess in the charcoal bowl and sometimes causing a funky smell. If these drips find their way out through one of the bottom vents or one of the leg screw holes, you end up with the mess shown in Photo 9.
    If you foil only the outside of the pan but extend the foil below the water line, you end up with the same problem—water finding its way between the foil and the outside surface of the pan, where it can leak through the foil and into the fire.
    So, my recommendation is to never foil the inside of the water pan when using water. As long as you don't boil the water pan completely empty, it will clean up without too much effort using hot, soapy water and a scrubber pad. A non-abrasive cleanser like Soft Scrub will help with any stubborn spots.
    If you insist on wrapping the inside of the pan with foil, use a single sheet of wide, heavy-duty aluminum foil and inspect carefully for small holes or tears. Don't even bother trying to seam together two narrow sheets of foil...water can get inside the seam and travel up and over the edge of the pan into the fire.

Collecting Pan Drippings For Turkey Gravy

Drippings in foil-lined water pan
Photo 10
Drippings from a 12-14 pound self-basting turkey
Photo 11

There are three common ways to collect pan drippings when smoking a turkey:

  • Cook the turkey in a shallow, disposable foil pan.

  • Cook the turkey on the top cooking grate. Place an empty foil pan on the bottom grate to catch the drippings.

  • Cook the turkey on the top cooking grate. Line the water pan with wide, heavy duty aluminum foil, but suspend the foil 1-1/2" above the bottom of the pan so it does not touch (Photo 10). This prevents the drippings from burning.

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.

Using Sand In The Pan

Sand in water pan
Photo 12
Sand covered with foil
Photo 13

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.

Which Is Better—Water Or Sand?

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.

Is Using Water Or Sand A Waste Of Fuel?

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.

Other Pan Fillings

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.

extra stuff

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 grill straps at the bottom of the middle cooking section.
To cook over direct heat, leave the water pan out the cooker. Some would say this is not "real" barbecue, but I believe it is—as long you're cooking "low and slow" in the 225-275°F range. Above these temps, you're getting into roasting and grilling.

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.

Updated: 05/05/2015

Back to Operating Tips & Modifications

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