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The great water debate

Discussion in 'WSM Owners (Weber Smokey Mountain)' started by bama bbq, Nov 2, 2013.

  1. It seems since the WSM was introduced in the 80's there's been a water vs sand vs pebbles vs bricks vs terra cotta clay flower pot saucer in the water pan debate ongoing here and other web sites. Who's "right"?  I've used water with success.  I've used nothing with success.  I've used a terra cotta clay flower pot saucer with success.  What's "right"?  My take on the subject: different smokes for different folks.  Whatever works for you.  Your mileage may vary.

    The mythbuster of the BBQ world adds to the debate with a pretty good read on the subject.  In part the Meathead (from Amazing Ribs) article says:

    Water pans. Water pans are not for making gravy. In my articles on the best setups for different grills and smokers, I advocate using a water pan under the meat or over the fire. Here's why:

    1) Water in the pan absorbs heat and never rises above 212°F. This helps you keep the temp down to 225°F, a temp I recommend you learn to hit with regularity (read my article on calibration).

    2) Water helps stabilize the temp in the cooker and minimize fluctuations because water temp takes longer to rise and fall than air.

    3) A water pan can block direct flame when you need to cook with indirect heat.

    4) Water vapor mixes with combustion gasses to improve the flavor.

    5) Water vapor condenses on the meat and makes it "sticky" allowing more smoke to adhere. This smoke enhances flavor and sodium nitrite in the smoke creates the smoke ring.

    6) The pan can add humidity to the atmosphere in the cooker to help keep the oven from drying out your food. This can vary significantly depending on the design of the cooker. If you place a water pan a few inches below the meat in a pellet cooker, the water does not get very hot, and it will have little effect. In an offset or bullet smoker, with the water pan directly above the coals, it can make a significant difference in how much water evaporates from within the meat and how moist the meat will be.

    7) The humidity keeps the meat moister and that slows cooking as the moist surface evaporates and cools the meat. This allows more time for connective tissues and fats to melt. Humidity can also help with the development of the smoke ring.

    Try to use hot water. Cold water will cool your oven down a lot and should only be used if you are running hot and need to cool it down. And fill the pan to just below the lid so you don't have to keep opening the lid to refill. Put it above the hottest place in your cooker so more water will evaporate.

    What goes in the water pan?

    Pitmasters argue over what should go in the water pan. Not surprising since we argue about everything, even the meaning of the word barbecue. Some say beer, wine, apple juice, onions, spices, and herbs. Some folks like to put sand, dirt, gravel, or terra cotta in the water pan. What works best? There's a reason it is called a water pan.

    No sand, gravel, etc.

    Many weekend warriors like to put sand or gravel in their water pans. Solids do nothing for the humidity, or for the flavor. They may help stabilize temperature fluctuations, but they will not keep the temp down like water. Water will not go over 212°F. Sand and other solids will heat up to whatever the oven temp is. So if you have a charcoal bullet smoker or a gas smoker that tends to run hot, say 250°F, but you want to be at 225°F, then water will help you keep it down. Eventually the sand will warm to 250°F.

    Drink the beer

    Drink the beer. Drink the wine. Drink the juice. Put the spices on the meat. Just use hot water. Don't waste your money. Many of the compounds in these other liquids will not evaporate and even if they do, they just make no impact on flavor. You may be able to smell them, but the number of flavor molecules in beer, wine, or juice are so few that even if they were deposited on the surface, they would be spread out so thin you would never notice them. The flavors of the spice rub you put on the surface of the meat, the smoke, and the sauce you chose, are much much stronger and will mask any molecules of apple juice or whatever else is in the pan that might alight on the meat.

    Enhancing humidity

    The AmazingRibs.com science advisor Dr. Greg Blonder says "If you want to increase humidity, and you do, fill the pan with those red lava rocks sold at garden stores, and then add the water, but don't cover the rocks. They are very porous so they act like sponges, and the large surface area pumps more moisture into the air. And don't let fat drip into the pan because it will quickly coat the surface and prevent evaporation."
    Last edited: Nov 2, 2013
    csparker likes this.
  2. bgray

    bgray Fire Starter

    Great, thanks for sharing this.

    For me personally, it's a lot easier to deal with temps being too high and then adding water than it is to deal with low temps and have to get rid of water.

    I remember once I filled the water pan completely, and it was sucking up all my heat.  I couldn't get up to 225.  I had to get rid of the water, but I really couldn't.  It was way too hot to safely get it out. 
  3. I hear ya. I haven't used water in so long I can't remember.
  4. Where do you think the mythbuster and doctor are wrong? Or, is it just not that big an advantage in using water to overcome the hastle of it? I'm a newbie and am trying to decide if the humidity and moisture in the smoker atmosphere makes a significant difference in the actual finished product- good que.
  5. bgray

    bgray Fire Starter

    I don't think that they are wrong.   Most of  my smokes involve water, but not a lot of water.  Certainly not a full pan.

    As I said above, it's much easier to add water to lower temp than it is to remove water to raise temp.

    So I start with no water at all.  Then if I start to creep up to 250 or higher, I add about a quart of water, not much at all.

    As a beginner, I personally recommend that you follow these guidelines, and err on the side of less water.  Then you can find out what works best for you with less frustration.

    If you fill the pan and this turns out too be much water, then it's downright dangerous to get it out, since it will be near 212 degrees.  You'll have to wait until it evaporates, and just deal with low cooking temps until it does.

    I'm in the middle of a Pork Butt right now.  I started at 8:00 PM last night, and I'm 12 hours in.  So far, I've only used 2 quarts of water.
    bama bbq likes this.
  6. +1   I think that's great advice!  Handling boiling water around fire is probably not in the best interest of human beings.
  7. Thanks bgray. I think what you have suggested is best. I appreciate the advice.
  8. bgray

    bgray Fire Starter

    No problem!  Good luck!
  9. magslam

    magslam Smoke Blower

    In my first attemp, I used so much water that when it reached the 212 and boiled, ran out the water pan falling on top of the red hot coals. Smoking food can be a lot of fun!!!
  10. I use 3 gallons in my 22 1/2 and never had a problem reaching 225, using only one vent.  Even with it being 40 degrees outside this weekend overnight. I can get well over 300 if I choose to.