The Real Difference Between Shrimp And Prawns

Is "prawn" simply another word for "shrimp," the delicious crustacean we love grilled, fried, or scampi? Is a prawn just a big shrimp? The answer to both questions is "no." Although both prawns and shrimp belong to the 800-species Decopoda (meaning "10-legged") order of crustaceans (which also includes lobster, crab and, crayfish) the fact is that shrimp and prawns are two distinct animals (via New World Encyclopedia).

Shrimp belong to the suborder Pleocyemata. Physically, the most obvious difference is that shrimp are smaller in size and feature a distinctive curved shape. This shape comes from the fact that the second segment of their shrimp's shell overlaps both the first and third shell segments, and this pulls the animal inward. If you're buying your shellfish fresh, you'll also be able to notice that shrimp have claws on two pairs of their legs, whereas prawns have claws on three pairs.

Prawns belong to the suborder Dendrobranchiata. In addition to the extra claws, the legs of the prawn are longer than those of shrimp. Another difference is that prawns' shell segments overlap differently: The first overlaps with the second, and the second segment overlaps the third, giving their bodies a less curvy figure (via Southern Living). The most commonly consumed shrimp come from saltwater, unlike prawns, which come primarily from freshwater (via Eater). An interesting note is that colder waters produce smaller shrimp (via Kitchn).

Water and habitat affect quality and flavor

Even people who profess not to like fish often love shrimp. Americans consume about a billion pounds of this little crustacean annually, more than any other seafood (via South Florida Reporter). The U.S. consumes more shrimp, but worldwide, prawns are more popular (via Food & Wine).

When shopping for seafood, how can consumers tell the difference between shrimp or prawns? The easy answer should be to look at the packaging or the signs at your market's fish counter. But shrimp and prawn labels can be misleading. Large shrimp are often mistakenly labeled as prawns. Adding to the confusion is that some shrimp are actually named after prawns, such as the short-seasoned Spot Prawn (via Kitchn). Again, the overlaying of the shell segments can help distinguish a shrimp from a prawn.

Shrimp and prawns have similar flavor profiles and can be used interchangeably in recipes. But prawns are meatier and sometimes sweeter than shrimp, and for both species, cold water tends to produce sweeter meat. Experts advise choosing wild-caught shrimp and prawns whenever possible, as they generally have a more intense flavor than their farmed counterparts of the same species (via Chef's Resources). More importantly, beware of imported shrimp. Most of the shrimp imported to the U.S. comes from places with lax seafood farming regulations, which can make their shrimp and prawns downright toxic. Choose well and enjoy some sweet, succulent shellfish without the harmful stuff.