The Shell Game: All the Types of Shrimp, and How They Differ

Summer’s the season for a seaside getaway, and, more importantly, seafood by the shore. We don’t discriminate when it comes to which shellfish we wish to eat—but it helps to know the difference if you’re planning on ordering up a few.

Shrimps v. prawns

A big batch of peel ‘n’ eat shrimp is mighty… well, appealing. But where do prawns come in? It’s commonly thought they are the same animal. They aren’t, it turns out. Confused? We got you. The words “prawn” and “shrimp” are used to refer to a group of disparate (but close enough) species of little crustaceans—folks in the UK, Ireland, and other Commonwealth English countries tend to say “prawn,” while US residents tend to say “shrimp,” no matter what animal they’re actually eating.

There are a few key physical differences between prawns and shrimps. Prawns have an extra set of claws on their front legs, a slightly different body shape, and a visibly different variety of gills. Prawns are predominantly found in freshwater (though there are some salty varieties), and shrimp can live in any clean aquatic home. But: they are totally interchangeable when cooking (and more importantly, eating)—that’s how we ended up in this little quandary, after all.

Crayfish, crawfish, mudbug, etc.

If you know what a crawfish is, we’re going to guess that you’re a Southerner. If you’ve heard of them, we’ll bet you’ve heard of them in the context of Southern cooking: especially an old-fashioned crawfish boil in NOLA. Pop quiz, then, hotshot: what’s a crayfish? Extra credit: who’s the crawdad?

Trick question: they’re all the same thing! Crayfish, crawfish, crawdads, mudbugs, and other regionalisms are a kind of small, freshwater-only lobster. You’ll hear different names for them throughout the United States. Southerners favor “crawfish” and “crawdad,” while Northerners favor “crayfish.”

Lobsters, langoustines, and other L-words

Consider the lobster. Even better, consider the picturesque New England lobster pound—serving up boiled, crack ‘em yourself crustaceans for delectation. You’ve got a good handle on those. So wait, what’s a langoustine?

It turns out, a langoustine is of a similar family to lobsters, and shares a saltwater habitat, but is just much, much smaller. They often get confused with crawfish by those who don’t know the salt score, and can also be confused with gnarlier, larger species of shrimp—but they’re lobsters down to the core. (You can tell: langoustines are better walkers than swimmers—shrimp have “swimmerets,” a kind of limb for swimming.) The important thing, though, is that you’ll need to pack a pair of crackers. Bon appétit.

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