Prawns and shrimp are often used interchangeably, which begs the question: how do these two crustaceans differ? You may have heard some say that prawns are sweeter than shrimp. Others insist all shrimp are smaller than prawns. So, let's get to the bottom of this and settle the debate once and for all.
Sometimes It Depends on Where You Live
Let’s set some context around conversational and scientific classifications of prawns and shrimp. Colloquially, the language used to describe shrimp and prawns differs around the globe.
- In the U.K and Australia, for example, restaurant menus much more commonly use the word "prawn," regardless of whether the dish contains scientifically classified prawns or shrimp.
- In the U.S., shrimp is a more widely used term in general, though prawns typically refer to those grown in freshwater environments. Hence, everyday conversational uses of the term "shrimp" or "prawn" do not necessarily align with scientific classifications.
Sometimes It Depends on the Species in Question
Prawns and shrimp are both decapods (crustaceans with ten legs) but possess unique anatomical structures. Visually, prawns and shrimp appear very similar. Like other decapods (crabs, lobsters, and crayfish), they have hard exoskeletons and jointed legs. Prawns and shrimp both possess claws, but prawns have claws on three pairs of legs, while shrimp have claws on two. The structure of their segments (head, thorax, and abdomen) overlap in unique ways depending on whether they are prawns or shrimp.
As a result of these differences, shrimp can bend their bodies more easily. Uncooked prawns, on the other hand, appear straighter. Additionally, shrimp have plate-like gills, while prawns have branching gills.
Differences Between Shrimp and Prawns
Prawns and shrimp live in diverse environments. There is a popular but incorrect belief that prawns exclusively live in freshwater, while shrimp live in marine (saltwater) environments. In reality these two crustaceans are found in both environments across warm and cool temperatures around the globe.
Prawns are typically, but not always, larger than shrimp. While many people may refer to any larger shrimp as "prawns," as we've already learned, this isn't necessarily accurate. Prawns are more likely to be larger, but it's not always the case. This size difference explains why prawns tend to be more expensive. Because they tend to be larger than shrimp, ten prawns are likely to cost more than ten shrimp.
Prawns and shrimp can typically be used interchangeably in cooking. Some say that prawns taste sweeter than shrimp, but the reality is that the environment is the biggest factor in the taste. Some prawns are sweeter than shrimp, and some shrimp varieties are sweeter than some prawn varieties.
What Does This Mean in Recipes?
At the end of the day, the most significant difference between these two is not the flavor but the structure of the body―a structure which, for the most part, does not have a meaningful impact on the preparation or cooking methods.
When following a recipe, feel free to swap prawns for shrimp and vice versa. And if you're not sure if you have prawns or shrimp at home, don't sweat it! Just keep in mind that a smaller shrimp will cook more quickly than a larger prawn, so you may need to adjust cooking times as needed.