What Is the Difference Between Crawdads & Crawfish?

Crawfish vs. crayfish? Crawdad vs. crawfish? You wouldn't be the first one trying to figure out the difference between crawdads and crawfish and crayfish, but don't despair. The difference between these regional names depends on the people eating them, not the crustaceans themselves.

What Is the Difference Between Crawdads & Crawfish? (Image: gitusik/iStock/GettyImages)

What Is the Difference Between Crawdads and Crawfish?

Don't let the confusion stick in your craw. When it comes to crawfish vs. crayfish or crawdads vs. crawfish, everybody is talking about the same creature, more or less. While there are hundreds of crawfish species throughout the world, their various common names of "cray" or "craw" don't refer to these minor differences among the species.

Globally, the crayfish phylum is classed into three main groups: Cambaridae, Astacidae and Parastacidae. In North America, the Astacida crawfish are mostly settled in the Northwestern areas. The biggest population in the U.S. is part of the Cambaridae group. All crawfish are freshwater crustaceans that can be found in lakes, ponds, streams and rivers. Some species need running water to survive, while others like to burrow in swamps.

In general, crawfish really do look like shrunken-down lobsters. They're about 6 to 7 inches long depending on the species. Crawfish are hard shelled, and their front legs have claws. They have several sets of whiskers near their mouths that they use for holding on to their food. Shell colors vary greatly among crawfish species.

Different Regions, Different Names

Want to fit in when you travel? Roughly speaking, southerners refer to the crustaceans as "crawfish," while in the mid-Atlantic or Gulf Coast states, you won't get weird looks if you ask about "crawdads." Across the northern U.S., "crayfish" is more common.

One culinary distinction worth remembering is that Louisiana, which lists the creature as its official state crustacean, is a regional leader when it comes to preparing them. In Louisiana, they definitely go by "crawfish" as in the area's famous crawfish boils. The southern part of the state has proudly proclaimed itself "the Crawfish Capital of the World."

Have a Crawfish Boil

Once you get past figuring out the difference between crawdads and crawfish, learning new ways to prepare this tasty treat is half the fun. Not only do they look like tiny lobsters, but they taste like them too. When cooked whole, the traditional way to eat crawfish is to pinch out the tail meat and suck the flavor from the heads.

For an old-fashioned, Louisiana-style crawfish boil, you'll need a 20-gallon pot and about 40 pounds of rinsed live crawfish to feed your crowd. Recipes vary, but usually several pounds of potatoes and onions are boiled with a large jar of powdered "crawfish seasoning" and a few halved lemons for about 15 minutes, after which the crawfish are lowered into the pot for a few additional minutes.

Once the heat is turned off, chopped ears of corn go in, and the whole pot is left to stand for up to 20 minutes. Then, it's time to dump the crawfish boil onto a table spread with newspaper.

Other Crawfish Uses

Unlike crawfish boils that use whole crawfish, only the tail meat features in other classic preparations. In a New Orleans-style etouffee, for example, the spicy stew is comprised of crawfish tail meat, chopped vegetables, tomato paste, seafood stock and sherry. The simmered stew is traditionally served over rice.

Because crawfish meat is so similar to lobster and crab, you can use it in just about any patty, casserole, stew or soup in which you'd normally use other shellfish. Chop the tail from a cooked crawfish, pinch off the bottom of the tail and pull the meat right out. You may need to do a bit of additional peeling, but essentially, the meat is easily removed.

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