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The Great Debate: Wet vs. Dry Smoking

There is a huge debate among BBQ enthusiasts out there about which type of smoker is better… a Wet “water pan” Smoker or a Dry Heat smoker.

I own both wet and dry cookers and use them for competition BBQ and catering. And after years of using both, the honest – and unbiased – truth is that they both have their own advantages and disadvantages.

So let’s just jump right in the middle of this great debate and talk a little about both…

Water Pan Smoker - "The Professional" Backwoods Smoker

Water Pan Smoker - "The Professional" Backwoods Smoker

Wet smokers all have “water pans” that create a type of barrier between the fire box and the smoker’s racks. And since water pan smokers provide so much moisture within the internal cooking environment…. it’s really hard to dry out a piece of meat on one of these smokers.  As the liquid in the pan steams, it actually combines with the smoke and just surrounds the meat – and I have to tell you… this produces an environment that is idea for adding flavor.  Some people will use fruit juices or other liquids such as beer to their water pans to add even more flavor to their BBQ.

Water Pan smokers are also excellent heat regulators. The liquid acts shields the direct heat from the meat, and as the liquid is heated, it helps keep your smoker’s temperature steady.  You won’t have sharp climbs or falls in cooking temperature because of the hot liquid in your water pan.

But there is always a downside… and the worst thing you can do on a wet smoker is let the water pan run dry.  Since the liquid in the pan is constantly steaming, it will eventually cook out.  Not paying attention to the water level can get you in big trouble, and believe me, I speak from personal experience on this.  I’ve forgot and let a water pan run dry and when I went to check my temp, it had

Water Pan Smoker - Custom-Built Hog Cooker

Water Pan Smoker - Custom-Built Hog Cooker

spiked to over 500 degrees! The pork butts I had on the smoker that day were basically on fire.  And this all happened in a matter of one hour (not something I would wish on anyone, especially on the day of a contest).

Another downfall of the water smoker is that the final product will have a soft bark. The moist environment is great for producing a wonderful, smokey flavor but the outside isn’t going to ever get that “dry” crunchy bark that some people desire.  If bark is important to your product, you may want to cook with a dry heat smoker.

My last issue with a water pan smoker is the clean-up! Disposal of the liquid after finishing a cook is a nasty, messy job. It’s brown, it’s greasy and you can’t just pour it down a drain or into the sewers.  You have to properly dispose of it – and this means sometimes transporting it if the event you’re cooking doesn’t offer grease disposal.  And do not…I repeat….do not just let the water sit in the smoker for a couple of days.  The fat will congeal  and begin to mold and the entire smoker will have to be deeply, deeply  cleaned.  A little more experience here too… it is NO FUN cleaning a nasty, moldy smoker.

Now, let’s talk about Dry Heat Smokers…

Dry Smoker - Ole Hickory Pits CTO

Dry Smoker - Ole Hickory Pits CTO

Dry Heat Smokers are perfect for producing the best bark. I personally prefer my bark to be firm – not mushy – and you just can’t get that with a water smoker.  Dry Heat Smokers also are easy to get up to cooking temperatures because it only takes a few minutes for the coals and wood to heat up the cooking chamber.  There isn’t any water that has to be heated, so it’s possible to start cooking faster.

Also, higher cooking temperatures are easily achieved which can speed up cooking times in a pinch.  This method of cooking “High Heat Smoking” has become very popular on the BBQ circuits.  Clean up is easier because there is no greasy water to deal with. You simply clean out the coals, brush down the racks… and you’re ready to move on to the next event.

But there is a downside to Dry Heat Smoking because you have to overcome the big obstacle of adding moisture to your meat as it cooks. Taking the time to inject and baste helps keep the meat moist –  but if you don’t take these steps, you risk having a final product that is D-R-Y.

And you can’t overlook the fact that there is a danger of grease fires with some dry heat smokers.  When a dry cooker is loaded down with meat there is going to be a considerable amount of fat being rendered, and forgetting to drain or position the smoker in the proper way can result in a nasty little fire. I witnessed this just last month at Memphis in May. The team next to me had a full load of their competition shoulders on a smoker… and half way through the cooking process the grease caught on fire. Nobody got hurt, but it’s safe to say those shoulders didn’t win first place. If the smoker had been drained during the cooking process this would not have happened.

Now, if you start asking experienced pit masters what method of cooking they prefer – either dry or wet – you are going to find that everyone has a different opinion.

I personally like them both! And I pick and choose which type of smoker I am going to use based on the cut of meat I am cooking… where I am cooking it… and what I’m cooking it for. I have even used both the wet and the dry smoker for the same cut of meat – just switched in the middle of the cooking process.

But if you asked me to choose my favorite… I’m not sure I would.

They are my BBQ smokers! Asking me to choose between my smokers would be like asking me to choose which kid I like best… I just couldn’t do it.

By: Malcom Reed
HowtoBBQright.com – Malcom’s personal Competition BBQ Secrets website
Killer Hogs BBQ Team – Malcom’s competition BBQ team website
Email Malcom: malcom@killerhogs.com

  • Jursydevl

    I am just looking for something for my backyard and this helped a lot, Thank you. Good explanation with pros and cons of both.

  • Dereklhines

    Excellent review…I am in the middle of a 12 hour brisket cook (using a smoker for the first time) and 3 hours into it, I realized I forgot to add water to the water pan. No wonder it was so hard to keep the temp at 200! Ok, great….from what I’m reading, I didn’t ruin it…just misted the meat with a touch of water and put water in the pan. Everything should be ok. Again, excellent review, and by the looks of your smokers…I’m gonna need an upgrade once I get the hang of it!

  • RPSS Dan

    Thanks!  I’m a backyard guy with a little smoker.  I have had reservations about “No Bark” on the finished product.  I was looking for permission to eliminate the water.

    What meats do you like to do with water and without?

  • Cocodriloverde

    Very good report, but its all depend on what are you looking for. Water smoker are excellent in what dry smoker struggle to achieve and viseversa. There is no winers or losers on cooking methods.

  • Josh

    I just started using a smoker. Is it a good idea to start with water and then let it run dry to crisp the outside if I am able to regulate the temp?