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Whether served on a bed of grits or cradled in a corn tortilla, shrimp are the undeniable all-star of any coastal kitchen. Throw the term “prawn” in the mix, and things get a little confusing—is it an Australian term? Just a really big shrimp? Let’s put this coastal culinary quandary to rest.

By Mary Tomlinson

How to Tell the Difference Between Shrimp and Prawns

When it comes down to their biology, both shrimp and prawns are decapods, meaning they’re crustaceans with 10 legs.

Shrimp, the more petite crustacean, live in saltwater. To tell if your crustacean is a shrimp, there are a few small but distinguishing details to look for. Shrimp have claws on two of their legs, and the second segment of their shell overlaps the first and third shell segments. This also gives a distinct bend to their shape, another detail to watch for when seafood shopping.

Prawns live in fresh or brackish (somewhat salty) water, often near the bottom. These crustaceans have claws on three of their legs, which you can spot if you purchase your seafood unpeeled. Prawns' shell segments overlap down their abdomen (first overlaps second, second overlaps third), meaning there's less of a distinct bend in their body.

A good rule of thumb to differentiate between the two is size, as prawns are typically larger than shrimp. If you really want to know what crustacean you purchased without making a trek out on a shrimp boat, just check the shell. If the second segment overlaps the first and third, you’ve got a shrimp; if the segments overlap down the abdomen, you’ve got a prawn.

Can You Taste the Difference?

Does this mean you need to run to the fridge and inspect the shell of every little crustacean before your next shrimp boil? No need! Culinary-wise, the flavors of the two have no major distinguishing factor, aside from prawns’ slightly sweeter taste. Prawns also tend to be more expensive than shrimp.

But overall, your purchase is more likely to be affected by the diet, habitat, and region of the seafood. Your energy is better spent on finding out where the product is sourced from as opposed to the minutiae of its taxonomy. Wild-caught shrimp are best, as the majority of farmed shrimp comes from regions where regulations are limited. 

Related: How to Make a Classic Shrimp Boil

 

Let’s Get Cooking

Now that we’ve gotten the biology out of the way, here are a few delicious recipes to serve friends and family while you dazzle them with your newfound seafood knowledge.

Crispy Salt-and-Pepper Shrimp over Green Grits
Recipe: Robby Melvin; Photo: Greg Dupree; prop styling: Claire Spollen; food styling: Chelsea Zimmer

Our Favorite Shrimp Recipes

Did you know? “A Marine Yabby” is an Australian nickname for the Australian ghost shrimp

Recipe: Shrimp Poke

Recipe: Crispy Salt-and-Pepper Shrimp over Green Grits

Recipe: SoCal Shrimp Tacos

Maya Prawns with Chipotle Mezcal Sauce
Photo: Gentl & Hyers

Our Favorite Prawn Recipes

Did you know? “To Come the Raw Prawn” means to deceive someone, especially by pretending you have no knowledge of something

Recipe: Maya Prawns with Chipotle Mezcal Sauce

Recipe: Prawn Tamales

Recipe: Grilled Red-Chile Calamari and Prawns