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Using A Water Pan In The WSM

Originally posted: 05/01/2005
Last updated: 02/21/2014

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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.


Purpose Of The Water Pan

The water pan used inside the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker serves the following purposes:

  • Allows For Indirect Cooking
    Many people feel that cooking over indirect heat is essential when making barbecue. The water pan acts as a physical barrier between the meat and the direct heat of the hot coals. It also catches the meat drippings that would otherwise hit the coals and flare up, a taste which many people associate with grilled, not smoked, foods.
     
    To cook over indirect heat in the Weber Bullet, 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.
     
  • Helps Control Cooker Temperature
    Water in the pan makes temperature control easier. If the cooker starts to run too hot, more water will evaporate, consuming extra heat energy and bringing the cooker temperature down. If the cooker starts to run too cool, the thermal water mass can give a little bit of heat back to the cooker. Either way, water moderates cooker temperature and makes vent settings, and thus temperature control, easier.
     
    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.
     
  • Provides A Moist Cooking Environment
    As water in the pan evaporates, water vapor fills the cooking chamber and surrounds the meat before exhausting through the top vent or condensing on the interior walls of the cooker.

     
    There is some debate among barbecuers as to the value of this moisture. Some people believe that it keeps meat moist during cooking, even going so far as to say that it "bastes" the meat. They also point out that water vapor is more efficient at bringing heat to meat than is dry air.
     
    Others say that they cook with a dry water pan and produce barbecue that is very moist, thank you very much.
     
    Still others believe that it depends on what's being smoked. Meats that tend to dry out, like ribs or brisket, benefit from the moisture, while fattier cuts, like pork butt, do not.

Location In The Cooker

Water pan in middle cooking section
Photo 1
       

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.

Using Water In The Pan

Water in the pan
Photo 2
       

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.

  • Make Sure The Pan Is Seated Correctly
    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, wrapping the outside with foil can help, especially if some extra foil is bunched up just below the rim where the pan meets the grill straps. More information on foiling the pan can be found later in this article.
     
  • Add Water Immediately To A Cool Pan
    With the pan secured, place 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

    If using water, add it 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, and consider wearing a long barbecue glove to protect your arm.
     

  • Avoid Splashing Or Overfilling
    When initially filling or refilling the pan, 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

Using An Empty 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.

Back to Operating Tips & Modifications

 

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