A Guide to Charcoal Water Smokers

Water smoker

“Stick burners” (offset barrel smokers) may give you the bragging rights, not to mention smoker envy. But if you’re just starting out with smoking, you’d do well to consider a water smoker—sometimes called a bullet smoker. Shaped like an upright bullet (hence the nickname), the water smoker is simple to operate, but serious enough for competition cooks, who often employ these hard-working cookers in multiple units.

The water smoker has a small footprint (about the size of a kettle grill)—an advantage for people with limited deck or patio space. The unique design and thermodynamics almost guarantee a consistent temperature of 225 to 250 degrees. One of the key attributes of this smoker—the water pan—keeps food moist, even after 8 or 10 hours of smoking. And the tri-part construction makes it easy to add charcoal and wood to the fire and access the meat.

The typical water smoker looks like the Star Wars robot R2D2. It has three sections:

• The firebox: a metal bowl on legs with a grate at the bottom to hold the charcoal and a perforated metal collar to corral it.

• The water chamber: a large cylindrical mid-section with an access door in the front for adding charcoal or wood and a deep water bowl positioned between the fire at the bottom and the cook chamber.

• The cook chamber: this starts above the water bowl and extends to the top section, with wire grates to hold the food and a dome-shaped lid to hold in the heat and smoke.

Water smoker

Much of the water smoker’s appeal is ease of use. You light charcoal in a chimney starter and pile the embers in the charcoal ring at the bottom. You place the center section on top, filling the metal bowl with water, beer, cider, or other liquid. The food goes on wire racks over the water bowl (place lean foods, like turkey, on the bottom rack, so richer foods, like shoulders or ribs, can baste them with dripping fat). Add wood chips or chunks to the coals and adjust the vents on the bottom and top (start with the former wide open) to obtain your desired temperature—225 to 250 degrees for traditional barbecue.

Check the temperature every half hour or so. (Hopefully, your water smoker came with a reliable built-in thermometer. If not, insert the probe of an oven thermometer in one of the vent holes.)

If the smoker is running too hot, close the bottom vent(s) and most of the top vent(s). Or add cool water (or even ice cubes) to the water pan. If you still can’t bring the temperature down, remove some of the charcoal with tongs. (Next time, start with less fuel.) If the smoker runs too cool, open the vents wide—more oxygen equals a hotter fire—or add a few additional lumps of charcoal through the access door.

You’ll need to replenish the charcoal and wood chips once an hour, and check to make sure there are at least 2 inches of liquid in the water pan.

Read the manufacturer’s directions on seasoning your smoker before you use it to cook for the first time. With some models, you’ll want to burn off manufacturing grease. In my experience, a new unit runs hotter until it has been broken in because the shiny-bright interior surfaces reflect heat to the core of the smoker. A couple of smoke sessions will coat the inside with a non-reflective patina of soot.

What distinguishes the water smoker from other models is its reliance on moisture. You don’t have to fill the water pan with liquid, but doing so will not only hydrate the smoking environment, but go a long way toward helping you maintain a consistent smoking temperature. The filled water pan provides a barrier between the charcoal fire and the food—a best-case scenario for low and slow cooking. And you can pump up the flavor by augmenting the water with beer, wine, cider, onions, carrots, celery, garlic, and/or herbs.

Moisture is particularly important during long smokes. Justin Fourton, who with his wife Diane owns the wildly popular Pecan Lodge in Dallas, explains how the meats in his pits lose up to 45 percent of their weight during smoking. For a 600-pound load of brisket, that’s more than 200 pounds of water in the pit (the remaining shrinkage comes off as fat).

Note: There are times when you don’t want to add liquid to the water pan—if you want crisp skin on a smoked chicken, for example, or you want to cook meats like pork loin or duck at a higher temperature. Without liquid to tame the heat of the charcoal fire, temperatures in the smoker can reach 300 to 350 degrees or more.

Ribs on smoker

Advantages of the water smoker:

• Water smokers burn charcoal and thus give you the satisfaction of playing with fire.

• Most cost $350 or less. Some models cost less than $100.

• These are simple smokers, with few moving parts or electronics to malfunction. If routinely cleaned and protected from the elements, they’ll last for years.

• Most models weigh less than 50 pounds, making them relatively portable.

• They take up very little space—only the diameter of their grill grates, which range from 14.5 inches to 22.5 inches for most brands.

• The water pan deflects and disperses heat, almost guaranteeing moist barbecued meats, seafood, and poultry.

• Because of their size and design, water smokers tend to be more fuel-efficient than horizontal offset smokers.

• Clean-up is easy, and in most cases, can be accomplished with a grill brush, degreaser, and a garden hose.

Drawbacks of the water smoker:

• The cooking area is somewhat limited when compared to other types of smokers (although some models double the cooking space with upper and lower grates).

• To access food on the lower grill grate (if your smoker has one), you have to remove the top one, which can be awkward.

• If your unit lacks a front access door, refueling during a cook can be difficult.

• Temperature control can be difficult on some brands, particularly when the fire box has no vents (sometimes a problem with the lower-end smokers).

• Thin-gauge steel construction makes it difficult to maintain cooking temperature in cold, wet, or windy weather.

• These cookers are designed to burn charcoal, with wood chips, chunks, or smoking pellets added to generate smoke. If you’re a purist who insists on smoking solely with wood, you’d be better off with an offset barrel smoker.

• If the exterior of the smoker is porcelain-coated enamel (most are), you must take care not to chip it or it will rust. The lid is especially prone to dings.

• Not all vertical charcoal smokers are airtight. Ill-fitting parts can allow smoke to escape during barbecue sessions.

• If stored outdoors, water can infiltrate the smoker and collect in the bottom. Keep it covered when not in use.

What to consider when buying a water smoker:

• Size. If you routinely barbecue for several people, buy the largest vertical charcoal smoker you can find (Weber makes a 22.5-inch model), or one that has at least two grates in the cook chamber.

• Make sure the firebox (the charcoal pan) has one or more vents; they are key for temperature control and some of the cheaper models don’t have them.

• Can you access the water and charcoal pans without removing the grates and cooking chamber?

• Look for a well-fitting door in front. This is an important feature.

• Does the construction seem solid and do the parts fit together tightly?

• Handles on either side of the cooking chamber are a plus.

• Does the smoker include a built-in thermometer?

• What are the warranty conditions? Is the company likely to be in business in 5 years?

Below are some widely available brands:

Weber (the Weber Smokey Mountain, one of our favorites, is pictured below)

Water smoker

Smoke master’s secrets—tips, tweaks, and work-arounds—for water smokers:

• Use natural lump charcoal, not briquettes. That way, you can add fresh coals without pre-lighting them. Leave the access door open for 5 minutes to let the air ignite the coals. If you use briquettes, pre-light them in a chimney starter to burn off the chemical aroma.

• Line the water pan with heavy-duty foil to facilitate clean up.

• Most water smokers come with thermometers built into the top of the lid. Remember, the heat will be higher here than at the level of the cooking grates.

• Shield your water smoker from wind, especially on cold or stormy days. Some people use hinged three-panel windscreens; others find a location in the lee (downwind) side of their house or garage. On a related note, if high wind is a factor, close any vents that face it and use the vent(s) on the opposite side to control your fire.

• Replace evaporated liquid in the water pan as needed through the access door or from a pitcher. Don’t let the water bowl run dry or the temperature will spike. Add cool water when preheating the smoker (sometimes, the smoker runs hotter when it is first fired up, and the cool water tames the flame), or hot water when the cook is underway to avoid temperature drops.

• Use tongs to add charcoal and/or wood chunks or smoking chips to the fire via the access door. Lay them on the coals; don’t drop or toss them or you’ll stir up ash, which will land on the food.

• Soak the wood chips or chunks in water to cover for 30 minutes, so they smolder and smoke, not ignite. Do not soak wood pellets or they will disintegrate.

• No built-in thermometer in your water smoker? Monitor temperatures in the dome by inserting the probe of a good-quality oven thermometer through one of the top vents.

• A small hole drilled in the bottom of the unit will drain dark, ugly residue from smoke and grease. Dab or spray with fireproof paint. Put a drip pan under the hole (weight the pan with water so it doesn’t blow away) to keep your deck, driveway, or patio clean.

• Though counterintuitive (because it’s closer to the fire), the temperature on the lower grate in the cooking chamber will be 10 to 20 degrees lower than the temperature on the upper grate. Remember, heat rises.

• Install a long-armed bracket at a convenient height near your grilling area so you have a ready place to hang the lid when checking the food. Otherwise, you’ll constantly be bending down to put the lid on the ground. The bracket helps prevent chipping the enamel, too.

• When cooking two different proteins on stacking grill grates at once, think about what will be dripping on what. For example, don’t put salmon on the top grate when you are grilling chicken or pork on the lower grate. On the other hand, chicken fat dripping on potatoes—or salmon for that matter—rocks!

Offset barrel smokers
Kamado cookers (Big Green Egg)

Weber Smokey Mountain
Napoleon Apollo