These days hybrid grilling and indirect cooking are taking the grilling world by storm. This is a process where you have the fire in one location and the meat you’re grilling off the direct flame. It’s a great way to cook bone-in pieces of meat, where you need the meat to cook all the way through to a safe temperature before you move it directly over the open flame to sear off the skin.
You can usually pull off this kind of indirect heating by building a pile of coals on one side of your charcoal grill, and then putting the meat as far away from the flames as possible. Though this is clumsy, and the heating is inconsistent. So, you usually end up having to move the meat around a lot. Opening the lid changes the temperature dynamics and you inevitably burn a knuckle at some point.
A Vortex is an interesting low-tech, and affordable way to take hybrid grilling to the next level. It’s little more than a metal cone with the tip cut off, which lets you create a heat shield protecting cuts of meat from direct access to the flame, while also concentrating the heat.
How to Use a Vortex on a Charcoal Grill
A Vortex can be used in a few different ways on a charcoal grill. The best way to set it up depends on the type of meat you’re cooking, the size of the grill, and just how much indirect or direct heat you need to work with.
Hybrid or Indirect Grilling
This is the most common way to use a Vortex. Usually, you set it up with the wide end down and the charcoal inside the cone. You then array the meat on the grill grates just an inch or two outside the diameter of the cone.
The heat and smoke roil up and refract off the lid to cook the meat evenly. At most you might need to rotate the meat halfway through the indirect portion of the cooking time. Piece of meat with a lot of skin might also need a single flip to mark both sides. Otherwise, there’s minimal manipulation of what you’re grilling.
Best cuts of meat for indirect grilling on a Vortex include:
- Chicken wings
- Bone-in chicken thighs
- Leg of lamb
- Stuffed pork chops
- Reverse seared steaks
Slow & Low Smoking
Let’s say you want to slow cook a slightly larger piece of meat like a small Boston Butt pork shoulder, a prime rib roast, or a crown rack of lamb, but all you have is a kettle or barrel/drum grill. Setting the heat on one side of the firebox and the meat on the other is going to leave you with one side of the meat singed and black before the whole thing cooks through.
With a Vortex in your grilling arsenal, you can turn it over with the large side facing up. Then build your coal bed outside the cone. Install the grates and put the meat to be smoked slow and low over the middle of the empty Vortex.
In this configuration, the flames never kiss the meat itself, and the Vortex protects it from burning. It’s also evenly surrounded by heat, which prevents one side of the meat from overcooking before the other side of the meat is done. The heat and smoke from the coals roil up and refract off the lid to replicate classic barbecue on a traditional charcoal grill.
Best cuts of meat for smoking on a Vortex include:
- Small Boston Butt pork shoulders
- Brisket tips
- Spatchcocked chickens
- Beer can chicken
- Bone-in leg of lamb
- Roast petite
- Eye of round roast (Pit Beef)
- Prime rib roast
High Heat Searing
The Vortex can also be used to concentrate heat and flames for high heat searing. Here again, you set it up with the narrow end pointed up, but insert a few small spacers made from something like one-inch diameter balls of heavy-duty aluminum foil at the bottom. This will allow extra air to circulate through the coal bed.
Then you load the interior with premium charcoal briquettes of jumbo lump charcoal. This will give you a concentrated flame that is 15 to 25% higher than what you would get if you just built the same size coal bed without the vortex.
When the coals are ripping hot you can lay the meat directly over the flames. The searing time will be 30 to 45 seconds less than you normally would do per side. If you need to sear off multiple pieces of meat, the heat emanating from the vortex lets you use the outer diameter as a warming zone. All without risk of overcooking the meat on direct flame.
Best cuts of meat for high heat searing on a Vortex include:
- New York strip steak
- Ribeye steak
- Natural casing hot dogs
- Pork chops
Best Grills for Using a Vortex
Kettle grills like the Weber Original Kettle and the Napoleon NK22CK-L-1 are the most obvious choice for using a Vortex. The round shape of the grill grates and the Vortex cone complement each other. The domed shape of the lid also helps refract and recirculate the hot smoke around the food.
Though you could certainly make a case for larger barrel/drum grills like the Char-Griller E2123 Wrangler and the Oklahoma Joe’s Longhorn. If you need to cook for a lot of people at once, you could even insert two small Vortex cones on each side of the long firebox. This will let you grill with two to possibly even four temperature zones on one charcoal grill.
Vortex cones and Kamado grills like the Louisiana Grills 61240 and the Char-Griller 6520 Akorn can also be a great pairing. Just like kettle grills, you get the compatible round shape and domed lid. The added bonus here is that the ceramic walls and dome of the kamado grill also add conduction heating to the grilling equation.
What Size Vortex Should I Get?
The Vortex is available in three sizes, small, medium, and large. The temptation here is to go big, but really the small vortex is the most versatile and will fit nicely in most charcoal grills. Whereas the large Vortex is almost too big for anything but a monster Kamado grill or an oversized kettle grill like the Weber 60020 The Ranch.