To get right to the point, no, in most cases you do not need to use a water pan on a pellet smoker. Though you may still want to use one (more on that below). However, in some cases with certain pellet smokers, I would actually recommend the use of a water pan, and with one particular pellet smoker, I believe its essential. I’ve previously touched on this topic in my article do pellet smokers dry out meat? However, I thought I still needed to go into the topic of water pans and pellet smokers in a bit more detail. Right, let’s get into this!
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What’s The Purpose Of A Water Pan?
Before we get into which pellet grills/smokers do and don’t need a water pan let’s discuss the actual purpose of a water pan. There are three benefits to using a water pan.
The key purpose is to stop the meat from drying out during a long ‘low & slow’ smoking session. The secondary purpose is to add additional flavour to the meat when water is replaced with another liquid.
However, the third purpose is to catch/collect surplus grease/fat running off the meat during the cook which on some pellet grills/smokers its a wise choice to make just for that purpose alone.
Avoiding Dry Meat
The main reason to use a water pan on a smoker when cooking brisket for example is to stop the meat from being dried out by the time the cook is finished many hours later.
Therefore, surely all smokers need a water pan then yes? Well, not necessarily, you see some smokers actually produce moisture from their heat source.
Electric smokers produce very dry heat, hence in pretty much all cases with an electric smoker, you would want to use a water pan. At the other end of the spectrum you have gas/propane smokers where a by-product of burning gas is moisture, therefore a water pan is not always needed.
So what about a pellet smoker? Well, pellets actually do still contain a little bit of moisture, between 0 to 10% in general. Therefore as a pellet smoker does produce some moisture during the cook, additional water vapour from a water pan may not be essential.
The caveat I will add though is if charcoal pellets are being used, as these contain less moisture than standard hardwood pellets. Hence, with charcoal pellets its probably best to use a water pan.
Adding Additional Flavour
Even if drying out the meat is not a concern some choose to use a water pan to add flavour. Hence, they don’t use water they use another liquid. Some opt for Coke and other flavoured soft drinks, but then some go for something a little stronger.
As shown by ASMOKE in their promotional video for their AS350 with a built-in liquid tray, wine, spirits or even thinned down sauces can be used to add additional flavour. Hence, don’t always just think of using a water pan to stop your meat from drying out.
Catching Excess Grease and Fat
Long ‘low & slow’ smoking sessions are most appropriate for large fatty cuts of meat, the typical example being brisket. The fat within the meat over the cook breaks down and renders, helping to keep the meat moist and also creating an amazing taste.
Well, some of that rendered fat is going to run through the meat and drip down through the grates. It’s for this reason that there is an additional benefit to using a water pan, to catch that additional grease/fat.
Now, many pellet grills have a full-length grease tray under the grates that catch that grease and direct it to a collection tray or bucket. In those cases, while a water pan may make clean up easier, its not essential for that purpose.
However, you then have an example of the Weber SmokeFire, an excellent pellet grill, but a less than ideal pellet smoker. There is no solid grease tray on a Weber SmokeFire and without a water pan or ‘Wet Smoke Kit’ as Weber brands it, then grease could build up in the base of the unit.
As I discuss in my article on pellet grill/smoker safety a grease fire in a pellet grill is more serious than that of a gas grill as it will take longer for the fire to extinguish on a pellet grill. Hence, you want to avoid the possibility of a grease fire in the first place.
Therefore, on any pellet grill with direct-flame access, I think its at least worth considering using a water pan to collect grease/fat during the cook. So this advice applies to more units than just the Weber SmokeFire.
My Final Thoughts On Water Pans & Pellet Smokers…
With regards to drying out the meat and the need for a water pan, there is less risk of that with a pellet smoker as opposed to an electric smoker. However, if you choose to use charcoal pellets as they contain less moisture, there is a higher risk of the meat drying out.
Though also consider the benefits of using a water pan and other liquids besides water to add additional flavour to your food. There are lots of different flavour combinations you can play with.
However, you may also want to consider using a water pan under a fatty cut of meat to make clean up easier and to reduce the chance of a future grease fire.
While there is a very minimal risk of a grease fire on a dedicated vertical pellet smoker, on some horizontal pellet grill/smokers grease fires are possible, and its definitely something you want to try and avoid where possible.
That’s it! I hope the above has given you a clearer idea of when and why you might want to consider using a water pan on a pellet smoker. If you would like to learn more please check out my Wood Pellet Grill/Smoker Guide. 🙂
Back in 2007 when I first become aware of pellet grills and smokers the only brand I was really aware of was Traeger. Traeger is really where this whole concept of cooking with pellets started in the 1980s. It was a ‘slow burner’ (pardon the pun) but since the 2010s is really when pellet grills and smokers started to get mainstream awareness, discussed alongside gas and charcoal grills. There are now over 30 pellet grill/smoker brands that I’m aware of, and the link above goes to my A to Z list of brands article.
Now, you may already be aware of a few of the other brands such as Pit Boss, Camp Chef, Z Grills and I’m sure you are aware of Weber, though you may not have known they have entered the pellet grill game. However, they are now many, many more brands to look into. Some may be what are commonly referred to as ‘Traeger clones’, but many others are offering their own unique designs and features.
A pellet grill/smoker is only as good as the BBQ pellets you put into it. The type/quality of the BBQ wood pellets you use will impact temperature performance and smoke flavour. There are many pellet flavours including Apple, Hickory, Mapel, Oak and Walnut to name but a few. However, some brands are hardwood blended pellets whereas others are 100% single wood species.
In this article, I provide details on over 20 brands of BBQ wood pellets, their range of flavours, whether they are 100% single wood species or hardwood blended pellets, their typical price and where they are available. I also provide tips on how to get the best deal when buying BBQ wood pellets and how to test pellet quality. Finally, I discuss the new kid on the block, charcoal pellets and their special attributes compared to all other hardwood BBQ pellets.