You may have heard people refer to prawns as the freshwater equivalent of a shrimp. They aren’t entirely wrong, but they aren’t entirely right either. Both shrimp and prawn have ten legs and an exoskeleton, but that’s about all they have in common.
There are actually more differences between the two crustaceans than similarities, besides their natural flavor and how you cook them.
You’ll have to look closely at a live shrimp and prawn to tell them apart, but you’ll be able to see the difference. Prawns are generally larger than shrimp, measuring about 6 to 8 inches when fully grown. Shrimp are, well, shrimpy! They only grow to an average of 1.5 to 3 inches long.
Shrimp have plated gills and claws on the front two pairs of legs, whereas prawns have branching gills and claws on three sets of legs. Prawns also do not have the trademark segmented bend to their bodies like shrimp do.
You’ll also see that their coloring is different. A shrimp’s shell is pink, while its flesh is bluish-grey. When you cook them, the flesh turns pink. Prawns have a greyish shell that turns red when cooked.
The quickest way to tell the difference between the two is by looking at their legs. A prawn’s second set of legs is their largest while a shrimp’s biggest pair of legs is their first.
There’s Something in the Water
Most species of shrimp live in saltwater, making them marine animals. Prawns live in brackish (somewhat salty) water and freshwater. However, we know them to be mostly freshwater crustaceans.
What Do They Eat?
Both shrimp and prawns are scavengers. They’ll eat any small thing they can find on the water’s bottom. This includes decaying fish, shellfish, and marine plants. They’ll also eat each other’s dead bodies (creepy right?).
The difference in their diet comes into play when you look at prawns. Prawns eat mud and dirt unless they are cold-water prawns. Cold-water prawns, also called Northern prawns, prefer to snack on zooplankton at night.
Both of these tiny sea critters lay eggs, but their gestation differs. Shrimp carry their eggs on the underside of their bodies. Prawns release their eggs into the water.
The Flavor of Shrimp and Prawns
If you’re reading this because you want to make a menu decision, we’ll tell you how they taste. Shrimp are savory and slightly salty. Unless you’re planning on grilling or sauteeing the shrimp, you generally don’t season them.
Prawns are sweeter. Traditionally, you season prawns with cajun seasoning or Old Bay. This gives them a mild spice.
In traditional Western cooking, you’d devein a shrimp, peel the shell (leaving the tail), and eat the meat. A restaurant will generally serve prawns whole. You twist off the head, suck the juices out, and eat the meat from the body.
Now you know, prawns are not shrimp! They are so different that to use their names interchangeably is a crustaceous catastrophe. They are both tasty, though. So put on your a-prawn and cook up some shrimp!