Ingredient Intelligence

No, Prawns Are Not Just Really Big Shrimp — Here’s the Difference

updated Dec 17, 2022
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side by side graphic showing prawn and shrimp
Credit: Photos: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

If you’ve ever perused a menu or stood at a seafood counter, there’s a good chance you’ve had to choose between small, sweet shrimp or big, meaty prawns. And, let’s be honest, many of us don’t actually know what the differences are between the two.

For example, I always thought “prawn” was a regional, British name for the animal that Americans call shrimp. As it turns out, there is actually a scientific difference between a shrimp and a prawn—and it isn’t just about their respective sizes. This guide will help you tell the differences between shrimp and prawns, once and for all.

The Differences Between Prawns and Shrimp

While very similar in appearance, shrimp and prawns are two distinct species. Prawns tend to be larger than shrimp, and often taste sweeter. There are more varieties of shrimp, too.

Both animals have 10 legs, but prawns have pincers on three pairs of legs, while shrimp just have one clawed duo. Shrimp are also bendier than prawns due to their flexible shell structure, whereas prawns have overlapping segments and less mobility.

What are Shrimp?

Shrimp come from both fresh and salt water and can live in both cold and warm waters. Shrimp that hail from cold waters will be smaller in size. There are more salt-water than fresh-water species of shrimp, and salt-water shrimp tend to more frequently sold in grocery stores and fish markets.

What are Prawns?

Prawns can come from salt or fresh water, but most of the ones you can buy will be fresh-water prawns. Like langoustines, prawns will be larger and plumper than shrimp. They have bigger pincers and longer legs than shrimp, and their meat is usually much sweeter when cooked.

How to Buy and Cook Shrimp and Prawns

When it comes to buying and cooking shrimp or prawns, labeling can cause confusion. Large shrimp are often labeled as prawns, and some shrimp are actually named after prawns (like the short-seasoned Spot Prawn).

While true prawns have a slight sweeter taste, most recipes that call for shrimp can use prawns and vice versa. Just make sure you buy shrimp or prawns in the size your recipe calls for.

Some of our favorite shrimp and prawn recipes include: