Amateurs often wonder if they need to use a water pan for brisket or other large cuts of meat. If you’ve never experimented with this technique before—or if you have and want to know if it really makes a difference—we’re here to give you the lowdown.
Water Pan For Brisket
The water pan helps to regulate the smoker temperature so that the brisket doesn’t overcook. The humidity also keeps the meat moist and results in a softer bark. Since this method runs the risk of steaming the meat instead of smoking it, we don’t recommend it unless you have a temperamental smoker.
Should You Use A Water Pan For Brisket?
Water pans are used to keep the smoker temperature running steadily throughout the smoke. Since brisket requires such a long cooking process, temperature fluctuations are a major concern. That’s why some chefs opt to use this technique.
The extra humidity in the cooking chamber will also keep the meat from drying out. This isn’t always a problem with brisket, since the cut is naturally fatty to begin with. However, if you opt to smoke the flat by itself, the leaner meat could benefit from the added moisture.
This is a useful method if you’re using an electric smoker. These tend to create a drier environment than pellet or charcoal smokers, so a water pan can be a welcome addition to the mix.
How It Works
In vertical smokers, the water pan is typically placed directly above the heat source. This being the case, the water won’t heat past 212 degrees Fahrenheit—the boiling point, in other words.
Since the water isn’t heating past the boiling point, the atmosphere within the smoker should maintain a steady temperature in turn. We recommend using a smoker temp of 225 degrees for smoked brisket, but you’ll achieve similar results no matter what temperature you use.
Water Pan Advantages
It takes a long time to smoke a beef brisket, and the overall cooking time can be difficult to predict. It depends on a number of factors—the size of the cut, whether it’s the point or the flat, or whether you opt for a “naked” brisket or the Texas crutch.
A steady smoker temperature can make it easier to predict when the meat will be finished cooking. That’s the best reason to consider this method. It may also keep your brisket bark from becoming too tough.
It’s also an easy step to take, especially if your unit is already equipped with a built-in water pan. It doesn’t take much time or effort to fill a tray with water.
Water Pan Disadvantages
If you already know that your smoker tends to run on the dry side, we would recommend trying the water pan method the next time around. With any luck, this will give the brisket the extra moisture it needs.
In most cases, however, we aren’t big fans of this technique. The steam from the boiling water might create an environment that’s too humid. When that happens, the brisket will have a hard time developing a decent bark.
A similar phenomenon occurs when you wrap the brisket in foil as it cooks. The foil steams the meat inside the package, so the exterior remains moist.
This is usually not a serious problem if the brisket had a chance to develop a crisp bark in the first place, but when you use a water pan the entire time, that’s less likely to be the case.
How To Use A Water Pan For Brisket
The best time to add the water pan is just before you start to smoke the brisket. Once the smoker temperature has reached the optimum temperature, you’re ready to go.
Start with about 1 gallon of water. This should last for the first 2-3 hours of the cooking time, assuming the smoker temperature holds steady throughout.
You can check on the water level after about 1-1/2 hours, but bear in mind that you’ll lose heat and smoke every time you open the lid. We would suggest waiting at least 2 hours before checking the water level, along with the brisket temperature.
Replenish the water as needed, adding about 1 gallon every time. Don’t worry if the water has evaporated completely—that means it’s done its job. It won’t hurt the end result one way or another if you wait a while before adding more water.
Tip: If you decide to wrap the brisket in foil or butcher paper partway through, you can forgo the water pan from this point on. The brisket will remain moist within the wrapper anyway, so there’s no need to take this extra step.
Are The Water Pan and Drip Tray the Same Thing?
Not exactly. Drip trays are positioned beneath the cooking grates so that they can catch the fat and drippings as the food cooks. They’re designed to prevent grill flare-ups, but if the smoker also has a dedicated water pan, they can keep the drippings from contaminating the water as well.
Water pans are typically positioned above the heat source. This might also be true of the drip tray, depending on the layout of the smoker, but the two aren’t necessarily interchangeable.
One major difference is that you can use the drip tray to collect the drippings, then use them to make gravy or pan sauce when the meat is resting. Adding a small amount of water to this tray will help to attract more smoke and keep the drippings from drying out.
If the water pan is located in the right spot and you decide not to fill it with water, you can use it for a similar purpose. However, you’ll need to make sure to wash it thoroughly beforehand.
We should point out that if you have your heart set on making a gravy with the drippings, you might want to consider smoking the brisket in an aluminum pan (see below). This isn’t our usual recommendation, but it’s the best way to salvage those delicious juices.
Smoking Brisket in an Aluminum Pan
To prevent the precious brisket drippings from falling into the fire, try setting the meat in an aluminum pan instead of directly on the rack. This method yields an exceptionally tender brisket.
If you want to impart extra flavor to the pan juices, add a few aromatic vegetables to the pan as well. Onions, carrots, celery, and garlic are all good bets. You don’t even have to peel the vegetables before adding them to the pan, but be sure to wash them.
Add the brisket to the pan with the fat side facing up. Set the smoker to 225 degrees Fahrenheit.
Place the prepared pan on the cooking grate and close the lid. Let the meat cook for about 2 hours, then flip it so that the fat side is facing down. Let it smoke for another 2 hours.
Flip the brisket fat side up again, then cover the pan with foil. Return the pan to the heat and cook until the internal temperature reaches 195-200 degrees Fahrenheit.
Take the pan off the smoker and carefully remove the brisket, setting the meat aside on a clean work surface. If you’d like, you can tent the meat with foil while it rests, but be careful not to wrap the foil too tight.
Strain the pan juices into a grease separator. If you don’t have one, strain the juices into a regular heatproof container and set them in the freezer until they’re chilled through. The fat should rise to the surface, and you can skim it off using a spoon.
Divide the brisket flat from the point and remove any large chunks of fat. Carve the flat against the grain. Since this method yields very tender meat, you may need to cut thicker slices than usual (about 3/4 inch thick) to prevent them from falling apart. Shred the meat from the point.
Use your pan drippings to make gravy according to your chosen recipe. For a simple gravy, melt 1 tablespoon of butter for each cup of liquid, then whisk in an equal amount of butter to form a roux. Whisk in the pan juices and simmer until thickened. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Serve the brisket at once with gravy on the side.
The Bottom Line
Using a water pan for smoked brisket will result in a finished product that’s especially juicy and tender. If your smoker is prone to temperature swings and you don’t mind a softer bark, this method could come in handy.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!
Hi there! I’m Darren Wayland, your BBQHost. My love of great barbecue inspired me to curate this site as a resource for all my like-minded fellow pitmasters out there. When I’m not researching and learning all I can about the latest tips and techniques, you can find me at the grill—that is, if you can spot me at all through the clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. And since you asked, yes, that probably is barbecue sauce on my face. Welcome to the party!