Atomic Dog, while some have figured out how to smoke in their MES without the water pan, you do realize that the MES was designed to work specifically with the water pan. WHY? Because it works, it works if done properly.
First some thoughts on using water pans for smoking meat. If you have access to old episodes of BBQ Pitmasters you will notice that even in wood smokers many on the BBQ circuit have started using water pans. The reason is the water helps keep the smoker filled with slightly moist smoke instead of dry smoke. There is a reason why this is desirable, a little moisture on the meat helps the meat absorb the smoke flavor better, in addition there is less chance of drying out their smoked meat making it a less quality product, and certainly something they wouldn't want to turn in for competition. The smoker that wins the most competitions is the Weber Smoky Mountain, and those guys are all using the water pan.
Using a water pan in the MES provides a number of benefits, above I described one of the main ones, the other is to stabilize temp, providing a more consistent heat verses sharp transitions when the heat element is going on & off. Also due to the moist smoke environment you don't need to spritz your meat, you can simply leave the MES door closed and let it do it's job. Spritzing does very little for flavor, the smoke is the seasoning flavoring the meat and the rub or injections, the only thing spritzing does for MES is extend your cook times because the MES has to recover, thus each time you open the door your adding 15 to 20 minutes to your smoke time. So if you leave out the water & spritz you are just subjecting the meat to longer harsh heat transitions. Can some make this work for them, sure. But it is easier just to properly use the MES.
If you are getting creosote flavor, you are using too many chips. You are most likely doing this because you have a newer MES with the choked wood chip tray, which has the extra piece of metal separating the wood chips from the heat elements. Thus you are NOT getting good wood chip combustion/smoldering. YOU need the retrofit wood chip tray. There a numerous threads on the retro fit tray.
Also here are some proven MES Tips that work, they have been gathered from MES owner posts in this forum for the past 5 years.
You can also DIY cut the extra piece of metal out so that the only thing between the heat element and the wood chips is the bottom of the wood chip tray, I am not recommending the extra holes. The chips will then have adequate heat for proper combustion/smolder, and you will get good smoke. However follow the Tips they tell you how much chips to add to avoid creosote.
BTW, for some smokes at the very end say the last hour I have pulled out the water pan and turn the heat down to 200º, to try and get a drier texture to the meat surface. Mostly though I throw ribs and brisket on the bbq grill to get that char.
Note:, there is NO right way or wrong way about this, there is only good results and bad results. Personally I go for consistency, to produce excellent tasting Q every time, so far for the past 5 years this has worked for me.
Edited by deltadude - 2/13/12 at 3:23pm