What's the Difference Between Shrimp and Prawns?

Grilled shrimp on skewers
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The names "shrimp" and "prawn" are often used interchangeably. Understandably so. Shrimp and prawns have tons in common. They both are crustaceans, they both have 10 legs, they both are found in salt and fresh water, and they both live near the floor of whatever body of water they inhabit.

The Difference: Biological, Not Culinary

Despite their similarities, biologically speaking, they are different animals.

Things labeled prawns are often larger but aren't necessarily true prawns. And plenty of shrimp aren't shrimpy in size at all.

Want to get really confused? Some "prawns"—such as spot prawns—are biological shrimp, and some "shrimp"—notably ridgeback shrimp—are technically prawns. (Who's ready to pull their hair out?)

So What Is the Difference?

  • Shrimp have branching gills, a side plate that overlays segments in front and behind, and carry their eggs outside of their bodies beneath their tails.
  • Prawns have lamellar gills, side plates that overlap tile-like from front to back, and carry their eggs inside their bodies near their tails.

The Bottom Line

While different varieties of shrimp and prawns vary in taste and texture, those differences do not divide along "shrimp" and "prawn" lines.  In short, while shrimp and prawns are not the same, they are interchangeable in the kitchen. 

How to Choose: Shrimp or Prawns?

Choose your shrimp or prawns based on what size you want and your recipe calls for, and whether they've been caught or raised in an environmentally responsible way.

U.S. wild-caught shrimp/prawns is a well-managed fishery, for example. Similarly, U.S. shrimp/prawn farms follow better practices than many others. For more information on choosing sustainably raised or caught shrimp and prawns, see Seafood Watch.

Along with size and how the shrimp or prawns came to be at the store, different types definitely have different flavor profiles and qualities.

Different types of shrimp and prawns are good for different dishes. Learn about American shrimp varieties here.

Buy fresh when you can because frozen shrimp and prawns often have a rubbery, tougher texture after cooking.

Delicious Shrimp and Prawn Dishes

There are many ways to cook and serve shrimp and prawns. They can be grilled, broiled, fried, or steamed, and can be cooked with the shell on or off.

It can't be understated that shrimp and prawns cook fast. If using them in a stir-fry dish, for example, wait until the last minute to add them as they often will cook in under 1 minute. Here are a few recipes to get you started: