Chefs and Pit-masters use drip pans and water pans for a number of reasons.
First, placing meat over a drip pan helps prevent flare-up and scorching caused by juices dripping down onto the coals as the meat cooks.
While that action adds flavor, it can be hard to control over the long haul (and get get plenty of it, when you searing the exterior of the meat in advance of the low and slow cook time.
While many outdoor cooks will place the water pan on one side of the coal grate, with the coals on the other side (meat over the pan), I’ve found that I get much more even cooking and browning, by placing the pan in the center, and the coals all the way around it (see: Kettle Grilling: #1 ~ Advanced Charcoal Techniques)
I also recommend just using hot water in the pan (always start with hot water, or you’ll drop you temps too much, while it heats. Some folks will add wine, beer, herbs, fruit juices, and other flavoring in the water pan, but I haven’ found that this has much effect on the flavor of the food.
It can smell great, but it’s really just water vapor escaping while everything else reduces in the pan.
If I’m cooking something that I know is going to produce a LOT of drippings, I’ll add a small amount of complimenting stock (beef, chicken, or pork) in the pan, to keep the juices from burning off, so I save the flavorful dripping for stocks, sauces, or gravies.
More reasons to use drip/water pans:
- Water pans create a space for indirect cooking, and will protect meat from excess heat.
- Water pans create a moisture, which helps cooking food retain IT’S moisture.
- This moisture traps smoke particles from the air and holds them to the surface of the food, inscreasing its “smokiness.”
- Water pans help control the temperature and maintain consistent heat between 225F and 250F (ideal for BBQ). The water absorbs heat and the steam stabilizes temperatures.
When using a water pan, be careful not to over fill it, and remember to check the liquid levels often, adding more (hot) water as needed.
Water pans work best for low and slow BBQ, so use it with meats such as pork shoulders, ribs, roasts, and briskets.
For poultry, I don’t typically add water to the pan, and only a little stock, as excess steam will keep skin from getting crispy, leaving the best part of the bird flaccid and rubbery.
(And when is “flaccid” EVER a good thing?) 😉
In our next lesson, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of an advanced technique known as “reverse grilling.”
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See you then…