I hate to break it to you, but not only do most people not know the difference between shrimp and prawns, they don’t even know what they don’t know. The shrimp-prawn relationship is actually quite clear cut, despite Brits and Aussies calling both species prawns. This isn’t a rhombus and parallelogram situation, with one being a certain type of the other. It’s not a Peaberry-esque relationship either, with one being a fairly common genetic mutation of the other. And it’s not a question of size either. Shrimp aren’t just prawns in miniature. So what’s the deal with these crustacean cousins? Let me count the ways.
For starters, let’s be perfectly clear that shrimp and prawns are actually two distinct animals. Though both belong to the family of marine life called Decapod crustaceans, the various types of shrimp each fall under the sub-order Pleocyemata, while prawn species belong to the Dendrobranchiata sub-order. The sub-orders are similar, sure, in that they both feature ten-legged animals protected by hard exoskeletons, but the similarities stop there.
Shrimp possess lamellar, plate-like gills and a set of claws on their front two pairs of legs. Prawns, in comparison, have branching gills, and claws on three sets of their legs, with the front pair being noticeably larger. One nuanced visual distinguisher setting shrimp apart is the distinct three segments of their bodies, with the middle segment overlapping the front and rear portion. Prawns, lacking such body segmentation, have straighter bodies than shrimp.
There are other genetic and behavioral difference too, of course, like the way each animal produces eggs. Prawns release a flood of their brood directly into the surrounding waters, while shrimp carry their eggs on the underside of their bodies.
Here’s where the distinction gets relevant to the home chef. Shrimp live exclusively in salty marine water, where they transport themselves by swimming. Prawns, on the other hand, spend their lives crawling along the floors of fresh or brackish waters. The differing habitats place each animal into completely different food chains, and lend themselves to our next qualifier.
How do you think you would taste if you spent your entire life both marinating in a salt brine, and consuming food that had also done the same? It’s subtle for sure, but unseasoned shrimp have a noticeably saltier, more savory taste to them. Prawns, freshly plucked from their fresh water habitats, have a naturally sweeter taste to them prior to being seasoned. Home cooks should be mindful about salting and seasoning, lest you end up with overly salted shrimp or under seasoned prawns.
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In most cases, the shrimp species for sale at grocery stores, seafood markets and in restaurants are going to be smaller than the available prawns that might also be available. As such, shrimp are generally the less expensive option of the two here in the U.S.
But, but, but – there are certainly bigger types of shrimp, like the 15-inch mantis shrimp that can easily dwarf prawns. And then there’s the matter of farm-raised seafood versus wild caught. Under most circumstances, farm-raised seafood tends to be cheaper than the free-range fish caught in traps and nets out in the wild. And then there’s the pricey matter of fresh versus frozen, not to mention pre-peeled versus shell-on.
Aussie actor Paul Hogan was low-key trolling Americans when he offered to “slip another shrimp on the barbie for you,” in the iconic 1984 Australian Tourism Commission commercial. The script was changed from prawn to shrimp for fear that audiences in the U.S. wouldn’t recognize the word, despite the actor literally holding the crustacean in his hand while delivering the line.
The throwaway line would prove to have lasting cultural impact. Jim Carrey delivered an iconic take on it in 1994’s Dumb and Dumber, and Seann William Scott came back for thirds in the 2005 remake of The Dukes of Hazzard. We may not know the difference between shrimp and prawns here in the states, but boy do we ever love recycling this cult classic quote.