The Hows and Whys of Water Pans

The Grill Beast Team receives questions from our VIPs on a regular basis, and a topic that comes up often is using a water pan.

Posted On:


Why should I use it? How should I use it? What should I put in it? Is if only for smokers? What foods work best? Is a water pan the same thing as a drip pan?

The Hows and Whys of Water Pans

Water pans do wonderful things for smoking meat. They can be used in smokers, charcoal grills, and even gas grills if you’re cooking low and slow.

Why Should I Use a Water Pan?

  1. Water pans can block direct heat, providing a cooking space with indirect heat.
  2. Water pans create a moist environment, so they add moisture to the food.
  3. Moisture ultimately improves flavor. The surface of the food holds smoke better when it’s moist, so your food has more smoke flavor when it’s done.
  4. Moisture on the surface of the food evaporates, and this slows cooking. Trust us, when you’re cooking low and slow, this is a good thing! It gives the fat and the connective tissues more time to dissolve, giving you tender and delicious results.
  5. Water pans help control the temperature and maintain consistent heat between 225℉ and 250℉. The water absorbs heat and the steam stabilizes temperatures.
  6. By placing meats above the water pan, fat falls into the pan, not on the grill surface.

Where Do I Put the Water Pan?

  1. In water smokers, the water pan is built in. It goes right above the coals, thus blocking direct heat. Fill the pan close to the top, but be careful not splash it on the coals. Add wood chunks to the charcoal.
  2. If you’re using a charcoal grill, set up for two zone cooking. Place the charcoal on one side of the grill, and place a disposable aluminum beside the charcoal. Place wood chunks on the coals, and fill the aluminum water pan about halfway. 
  3. Another option for charcoal grills is to place the water pan over the charcoal, depending on the size of your grill. An aluminum pan works great for this setup, too.
  4. If you’re using a gas grill, set up for two zone cooking and put the water pan on the grate over the direct heat. Wood chips can be put in foil with holes poked in the top, or in a chip holder. Some gas grills come water pans attached to the chip holder. If you don’t have that accessory, no worries. Just use an aluminum pan. Depending on the size of your grill, an aluminum loaf pan may be all you need.

Hows and Whys of Water Pans

Hows and Whys of Water Pans

Hows and Whys of Water Pans

What Goes in the Water Pan?
We recommend just using hot water in the pan. Some people like to put wine, beer, herbs, juice, and other flavoring in the water pan, but honestly, it doesn’t improve the flavor of the food. It can smell great, but it’s really a “feel good” thing that does nothing important for the flavor of the food itself.

When you’re filling the water pan, be careful not to splash, and don’t over fill it. Check the water level periodically, and if it’s running low, add more hot water. Don’t use cold… it will lower the grill temperature too much.

Where Do I Place the Food?

  1. In a charcoal grill, place the meat above the water pan. This will allow the meat to cook over indirect heat, and the pan can act as a drip pan as well. If you put the water pan over the charcoals on the grate, place the food on the other side of the grill.
  2. In a water smoker, place the food on the rack(s) that are over the water pan.
  3. In a gas grill, place the food over the cool side of the grill, opposite the water pan.

Cleaning the Water Pan

  1. When you use an aluminum pan, cleanup is easy. Just dump the water and throw away the pan.
  2. When you use a water smoker, it’s important to clean the pan. It can be messy, but it’s important to keep it clean. When the water cools down, the fats should turn solid and float on top of the water. Skim them off and throw them away. Dump the water and wash out the inside of the water pan to remove leftover grease. Sometimes people line the inside of the water pan with foil, but we don’t recommend it. If any water leaks under the foil, it can end up bubbling up and landing on your coals. Not good! We do, however, think it’s fine to line the bottom of the pan with foil. This prevents buildup on the bottom of the pan, and cleanup is not quite as messy.

What Foods Work Best with Water Pans

  1. This method works well with meat and other foods that need to cook low and slow, such as ribs, pork butt, roasts, and thick cuts of meat. 
  2. When cooking poultry with the skin on, using a water pan can make the skin stay rubbery. If you’re using a water smoker to cook chicken, just line the pan, inside and out with aluminum foil, but do not add water to the pan. The dry water pan will act as a heat shield, allowing you to cook over indirect heat without adding any moisture.

Maple Glazed Ham

Hows and Whys of Water Pans

This ham is fantastic on a crisp fall day. The flavors are sweet and smoky, and the ham will be moist and delicious. Leftovers are great lightly fried in butter and served with eggs for breakfast the next day, or slice it for delicious ham sandwiches. We bet you will never want to cook your ham in the oven again!

What You’ll Need
1 8-12 lb. precooked ham - skin removed, fat trimmed to ¼ inch thickness
1 cup rub (recipe follows)
2 cups glaze (recipe follows)
4-5 hickory chunks
Aluminum pan
Aluminum foil -- wide, heavy duty

2 tablespoons Kosher Salt
¼ cup turbinado sugar
⅓ cup Spanish paprika
¼ cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon dried mustard
1 tablespoon black pepper

Mix all ingredients together and store in an airtight container.

Maple Glaze
¾ cup pure maple syrup
¼ cup bourbon
½ teaspoon ginger
⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons Dijon Mustard
1 tablespoon yellow mustard (We know, but it’s ham!)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Mix all ingredients together in a small sauce pan. Stir until well combined, and simmer over medium low for 4-5 minutes, being careful not to scorch the syrup. Cool to room temperature.

The evening before you plan to smoke the ham, cover it liberally with the rub. Wrap it in plastic wrap, and let it refrigerate overnight. Before you start to cook it, let it sit at room temperature for an hour.

Set up your grill for two zone cooking, or set up your water smoker as directed. If using a charcoal grill, place a water pan beside the charcoal. Add 5 or 6 wood chunks to the coals. Preheat to 220℉. Place the ham over indirect heat (over the water pan if using a charcoal grill ) with the flat side down on the grill (the meat side, so it will resemble a teepee.) Let it smoke for about 2 hours (or until it registers 130℉) Check it at 1½ hours to make sure it doesn’t overcook.

Tear off two pieces of extra wide, heavy duty aluminum foil that are 3 feet long. Place one piece of foil on top of the other one to create a double thickness. Take the ham off the smoker/grill and place it in the center of the foil. Pull the foil up around the ham, being careful not to poke any holes in it, and making sure the ham is covered on all sides. Pour ½ the glaze over the ham and wrap the foil up around it, sealing it so no steam can escape when it cooks. Put the ham back on the grill/smoker and let it cook for 30 to 45 minutes longer, until the internal temperature reaches 140℉. Remove the ham from the grill/smoker and unwrap it from the top, being careful not to spill the juices. Put the juices in a small pan and keep the warm on the stove.

Here comes the personal preference part… if you want the outside of the ham to be caramelized, take the time to do this last step. Brush the ham with more glaze, and put it back on the smoker/grill over direct heat. Turn it frequently as it browns, and keep brushing it with more glaze. Don’t let it burn, but do let it reach a beautiful rich brown with a few little dark brown spots. Remove the ham from the grill and let it sit for 20 to 30 minutes before you carve it. Serve with the reserved warmed drippings.

All we can say is, yummmmm!