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The Difference Between Shrimp and Crawfish: Your Ultimate Guide to These Delicious Crustaceans

The Difference Between Shrimp and Crawfish: Your Ultimate Guide to These Delicious Crustaceans

If you can’t tell the difference between shrimp and crawfish, you’re not alone! These two shellfish are often confused with one another, and it’s easy to mistake them if you don’t eat them often.

If it’s your first time trying one or the other, it can be hard to know what to expect – are they different? Are they the same? How similar are they?

Let’s dive in and explore the differences between shrimp and crawfish.

We cover the following items in this post:

First Things First: Is Crawfish Shrimp?

A crawfish boil. The difference between shrimp and crawfish

The short answer is: no. Although they’re very similar, crawfish are not the same as shrimp!

Crawfish and shrimp are both classified as crustaceans, along with lobsters and crabs. Their anatomy is roughly similar – certain varieties of shrimp and crawfish are close in size (though shrimp are typically the larger of the two) and can occur in very similar colors.

They also move alike, using both legs and a flat tail at the end of their segmented bodies to propel their movement through the water. They’re both known as scavengers or “bottom-dwellers” thanks to their dietary habits.

It’s easy to see why anyone would conflate the two, so now let’s take a closer look at these crustaceans and see what differentiates them, namely, the key differences between the two in their habitat and anatomy.

What is the Difference Between Shrimp and Crawfish?

An Overview of Shrimp

To start, shrimp can be found in freshwater as well as saltwater and inhabit all of the earth’s oceans. They primarily reside on the bottoms of moving bodies of water in mud or sand, where they scavenge for their food.

Shrimp have a semi-translucent, soft, segmented shell that naturally ranges in color from blue to gray to green-brown. When cooked, the shell typically turns pink or red and can easily be peeled away from the meat by hand.

In contrast to crawfish, shrimp possess way more “legs” – having a whopping total of thirteen pairs of leg-like appendages along their body. The five closest to their tail are used mainly for swimming and controlling navigation, followed by five longer jointed legs for walking, and finally ending in three pairs of feelers (called maxillae) for feeding closest to their head. If you want to easily tell the difference between shrimp and crawfish, just count the legs!

An Overview of Crawfish

Unlike shrimp, crawfish inhabit freshwater exclusively, with very few exceptions. They exist (either naturally or because of human intervention) in various countries on almost every continent.

They thrive in swamps, marshes, rice paddies, lakes, streams, rivers, ponds, and creeks and will burrow deep in mud and dirt in areas where freshwater is seasonally present. 

In terms of anatomy, crawfish look almost exactly like a tiny lobster, with similar segmented tails, similar colors, and similarly shaped claws–a feature you won’t find on shrimp. In addition to those claws, they have four pairs of legs for walking.

They also have a harder shell, like crabs or lobsters, that must be cracked or cut to remove when eating, whereas most shrimp can simply be peeled. You have to work a little harder to eat crawfish!

Shrimp vs. Crawfish – The Taste Test

A woman eating shrimp. The difference between shrimp and crawfish

In addition to their physical differences, shrimp and crawfish aren’t hard to distinguish on the palate if you know what you’re looking for. At first bite, they are definitely similar. They both taste vaguely like lobster, though crawfish is definitely the more closely comparable of the two. 

Does Crawfish Taste Like Shrimp?

Crawfish taste like shrimp, with some subtle differences. In a pickle, you can substitute the two for a seafood feast. However, you should be aware of the differences:

  • Crawfish has a firmer, meatier texture and slightly sweeter taste, close to crab or lobster.
  • Shrimp has a lighter, more tender texture, almost like fish (but not quite), and a slightly saltier bite. 

One of the many key differences between shrimp and crawfish is that crawfish have claws, which are also edible!

It can be difficult to harvest claw meat from smaller crawfish. Still, if you have larger specimens, you can open the claws the same way you would a lobster: by twisting the claw at the joint and wiggling the movable pincer until it comes loose, then cracking the claw with a special cracking tool or prying it open with the tines of a fork.

However, neither of these items should have an overly fishy taste. That’s a quick indicator that they are likely spoiled and could make you sick if too much is consumed.

How about Crawdad vs. Shrimp? Is That Any Different?

There’s no difference between crawfish versus shrimp and crawdads versus shrimp, as crawdad is just another name for crawfish.

The two terms are essentially synonymous and the use of each one depends on what area of the world you’re in. They’re also colloquially known as crayfish, mudbugs, crawdaddies, or freshwater lobsters in different parts of the U.S. 

Crawfish are most commonly referred to as such in the South, especially as you get closer to the “Crawfish Capital of the World” – Louisiana. The term “crawdad” is typically used in more western states.

So, in short, no! It’s not at all different from crawfish vs. shrimp.

A person holding a globe. The difference between shrimp and crawfish

As for the more popular of the two, it depends on where you are!

Geographically, crawfish and shrimp are each fairly popular wherever they’re widely available. Crawfish are found on every continent except for Antarctica and are more likely to be the most popular choice inland near their natural habitats.

Shrimp can be found in all oceans and many freshwater sources around the globe and are a hot ticket item on coastlines where they can be caught and served within hours.

In the U.S., crawfish are more popular in southern states (especially Louisiana), where they flourish in the swamplands, but in the southern states, where both shrimp and crawfish are easy to find, it’s a matter of individual preference.

You can find them featured in crawfish boils, added into omelets, or sandwiched between buns in a po’boy in some of the most famous American crawfish dishes. In most northern and eastern states, shrimp is much easier to find and is, therefore, more commonly preferred. I grew up in Maryland and can’t recall ever seeing crawfish on a menu, but shrimp was available in tons of restaurants.

In recent years, crawfish farms across Asia (mostly China) have become major global producers of crawfish. You can find these crustaceans featured heavily in Chinese cuisine, though the same can also be said of shrimp. You’ll also find native shrimp and crawfish dishes throughout Europe, Africa, Australia, and South America.

And if you ever find yourself in New Orleans, you can use this guide to find great crawfish spots in town!

Final Thoughts on the Difference Between Crawfish and Shrimp

Though they’re very similar, crawfish and shrimp have distinct differences that will help you distinguish between the two and could influence your preference for one over the other. Next time you’re staring down the menu at a seafood restaurant or deciding which species to add to your hobby fish tank, you’ll be able to make a confident decision!


What’s The Yellow Stuff In Crawfish?

This yellow stuff is a crawfish organ named hepatopancreas. As crawfish don’t have brains, this organ exists in crawfish heads, where you would expect the brain to be. It functions like a liver for crawfish. And you can eat it!

Can You Substitute Shrimp For Crawfish?

Yes, you can. Crawfish have a stronger flavor profile than shrimp, but not dramatically. If you need to get creative and substitute shrimp for crawfish, you may want to add a slight bit more seasoning to the shrimp.

What Is The Difference Between Shrimp Prawns And Crawfish?

There are a few differences between the two:

  • Prawns are found in saltwater, whereas crawfish, or crayfish, are found in freshwater.
  • Crawfish are larger than shrimp prawns.
  • Crawfish are closer to lobsters in anatomy, while prawns are closer to shrimp.

Are Crawfish Healthy To Eat?

Yes! They’re a great source of protein. They’re also low in fats and total calories.