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Turkey's Time in BBQ Spotlight

Posted By: Stover E. Harger III NBBQA eNewsletter ,

Thanksgiving is a time for turkey, but turkey is having its own time in the BBQ spotlight.

At the 2018 American Royal World Series of BBQ, turkey made its second appearance as a competition category. Last year, when the Turkey Smoke debuted, it was the first time a new meat category was added to the Royal. This time around, interest has only grown. The second-annual Turkey Smoke, sponsored by the National Turkey Federation, drew out 182 teams to battle for victory.

No one has received a perfect score yet, so that honor is still up for the taking for the next Turkey Smoke.

“We’re happy turkey could get that honor,” said Beth Breeding, vice president of communications and marketing for the National Turkey Federation, about pairing up with the Royal for the Turkey Smoke. “We’ve only seen interest in the competition go up in our two years.”

At the American Royal Turkey Smoke Open Contest, contestants were provided with two boneless turkey breast lobes to transform into whatever they desired. More than 2000 pounds of turkey was handed out at the Turkey Smoke.

“Where there’s smoke, there’s turkey, as we like to say,” Beth said.

The Washington, DC-based National Turkey Federation advocates for turkey farmers and processers and serves as their voice in Congress and to federal agencies. Its members include not only growers but breeders, distributors and other service providers related to turkey.

“We know that turkey has been a mainstay for a lot of folks in the BBQ community for several years, especially in Texas, (where) it’s always been a popular thing,” Beth said. “We’re trying to introduce the rest of the BBQ community, whether it’s professional pitmasters or home BBQ enthusiasts, to turkey and all the great things it can do on the grill or the smoker.”

As National Turkey Federation representatives walked from cooking station to cooking station at the American Royal in September, Beth said they were impressed with the creativity on display.

Too often, people dismiss turkey for being dry or not quite flavorful, but it all comes down to how well you cook it, Beth said. The competition cooks at the American Royal were up to the task. There was an impressive amount of versatility and great flavors during the Turkey Smoke.

“People were getting really creative, whether it’s making their own injections or putting a signature sauce on it,” Beth said. “A white sauce or something like that is really popular.”

The winner of the American Royal Turkey Smoke won the competition by making a unique take on a barbecue favorite: “turkey burnt ends.”

“We’re really excited about next year to go to the Royal and see it grow even more,” Beth said. “We just want people to see turkey for all the possibilities it has. It’s really an unexpected protein source,” Beth said.


Though turkey is known to many in America as a Thanksgiving dinner centerpiece, the protein is great any time of year, Beth said. That’s because turkey, like chicken, is able to soak up flavor and be incorporated into many different meals. Beth is quick to point out that turkey, though similar to its feathered friend in some ways, is a much different bird – with different flavor and texture.

“A lot of people think of turkey and think of Thanksgiving, but we want people to understand that turkey is a lot more versatile than just your ‘Thanksgiving bird’. It can do so many other things,” Beth said. “It’s a great product for BBQ. There’s a lot you can do to enhance that flavor. It just soaks it up.”

As 2019 nears, the National Turkey Federation is already planning how it can further engage with the BBQ community. They’re working out how to hold a Turkey Smoke at Memphis in May and also looking to partner with KCBS in the future. Turkey Fed wants to get more involved with the National Barbecue and Grilling Association too.

The Turkey Federation has noticed a growing interest in smoked and grilled turkey products lately. Even turkey wings.

“We’ve been seeing an uptick in turkey wings in restaurants, which is interesting. And supermarkets as well,” Beth said.

Turkey wings are of interest to people for their size and how much more meat they pack on than a chicken wing. You can imagine the possibilities and some fun menu names.

In restaurants, serving up a plate of turkey wings is a much different experience than a handing over a plate of buffalo wings with celery on the side. It’s certainly not a common experience.

“A lot of people now are looking for something new and different. It’s a good way to draw people’s eyes,” Beth said.


The number one turkey growing state is Minnesota, but turkey growers have spread their wings all over the country. North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas, California are also all big turkey-producing states.

“We’re really proud of our turkey growers because they work so hard everyday to grow this safe and healthy product to send to places across the world,” Beth said.

Mexico is the largest export market for turkey, but other countries are now opening their doors to US poultry, like Morocco. Beth said many are looking to tap into other big markets like India, where demand for meat is high.


June was Turkey Lover’s Month, and Beth said the Turkey Fed saw a number of outside-the-box recipes circulating that month. There were bold flavors like Thai Turkey Curry, and Turkey Pizza made on a grill.

As a lean meat, turkey has long acted as a healthier “replacement” protein for those looking out for their body. It’s not uncommon to see a turkey burger frying up at a backyard BBQ, for example. It’s a meat that can stand on its own, however, as proven by Thanksgiving where its often the star. The traditional Thanksgiving oven roasting is just one, of many cooking methods.

It’s partly because of Thanksgiving oven roasting, that so many dream up images of a dry whole bird being carved up by Grandpa when they think of turkey. It’s important to break the misconception that turkey is dry, Beth said.

“Turkey isn’t dry if you cook it correctly,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know how to cook turkey, whether it’s professional chefs or folks at home. They overcook it. As long as you cook your turkey to 165, that’s what matters.”

Turkey takes to the low-and-slow method particularly well because that helps to avoid drying it out.

“The whole smoking trend, in general, is a big thing for turkey and a big trend for our industry,” Beth said.

Smoking turkey is hot right now, she said, as evident by the meat popping up on menus across the country.

“We see it on menus a lot,” Beth said.

If all this turkey talk is making you hungry, you’re not alone. Beth grew up eating her dad’s smoked turkey so she knows how great it tastes when you pair the right wood smoke with a big bird. 

Beth not only advocates for the turkey industry, she’s also a fan.

“I may be a little bias, but we love to eat turkey,” she said.