April 16, 2012

For most of my cooking life, canned tuna has been a very useful pantry item. Tonnato sauce with the first rose veal of the season. Salade nicoise for a ladies lunch. Or an incomparable tuna noodle casserole.

Back many decades ago, the summer between sophomore and junior year of college, I moved to the beach. I worked in the bars, both waitressing and bartending. It was a crazy time, hard work, long hours, multiple jobs, good money, and I was banking every cent for the next year in school.

My apartment was kind of scary, but the kitchen was functional. Even at 19, I knew that cooking for myself was cheaper than eating out. I existed on fresh salads, cheese and bread. I usually got fed at work – fried, bar food, for the most part. Staff dinners? I wish.

One of the four or five jobs I held down that summer was bartending at a small, private marina. The big fishing boats with a whole lot of fellows at sea with young girls and free flowing alcohol. I stayed on land, welcoming them back and raking in the tips.

One fine August day, one of these boats arrived with a 230# tuna, line caught.

Long before sushi was sold in grocery stores, I don’t think I ever imagined fresh tuna. It certainly wasn’t on menus at the time. My grandmother made tuna salad with celery and grated onion, Hellman’s mayonnaise. My other grandmother made tuna noodle casserole with cream cheese, like kugel. Tuna was not overfished, it was barely on the food-radar in 1977. Those were the days of baked potato skins, with everything. And Buffalo chicken wings.

Back then, the fisherman, a customer said, “Hey, you want some tuna?” And handed me a bag of 25 lbs. of red fleshed fish…I had never seen tuna in anything other than a can.

I sliced off a slab and grilled it. Revelation.

I continued to enjoy the tuna grilled, for a couple more days,  and then simmered it in a scented bouillion (peppercorns, bayleaf, lemon slices, parsley) until just done, and flaked it to make familiar tuna salad. I froze a good portion of that cooked fish, and ate it in a million incarnations for many weeks. I remember many tuna casseroles, because I was 19 and I was broke, and I could eat carbs and I lacked food experience and imagination. And free food was a good thing.

I fell in love with tuna that day.

How did we get to this place? Where there are barely enough tuna in the sea. They may disappear. I came face to face with this thought all day today.

I’d been thinking about a blog post on canning tuna. On the benefits, the techniques, the questions that might come up. I trust Vern at the Bethesda Central Farm Market, and when his sign said line caught tuna, I made a purchase, and planned a day of preserving and writing.

I looked at this beautiful fish flesh. How large the fish must have been. I remembered that day more than 35 years ago when fresh tuna was an exotic novelty.I remembered a trip to Italy and the first taste of Tonnato sauce that made me a convert to Italian style tuna, usually preserved in a jar in oil.

For years, I would splurge here and there on this wonderful fish, just as I would buy exceptional sardines, smoked oysters and anchovies. And then I read Well-Preserved (Eugenia Bone) and canned a few jars of tuna. So tender and moist, well and simply flavored. I have canned two or three pounds of tuna every year or two for years.

Yet, this year, today, I was haunted by the stories, the many many stories, about tuna’s precarious situation and the absolute unsustainability of fishing for tuna.

I’ve thought home canned tuna was solid gold in a jar. It’s expensive to produce, about $9./half pint (similar high quality products are $12-18. at gourmet grocers.) I adore it, but perhaps its time to use the experience to learn to preserve other fish like sardines and herring and salmon, and maybe bi-valves, like mussels or oysters (smoked) that are not endangered.

Today, if someone were to hand me 25 lbs. of tuna. I would first ask where and how it was caught. There is a scarcity, a serious sustainability issue, with tuna. I don’t eat much, and I am willing to pay premium prices for line caught fish. For sustainably fished tuna. And a fishmonger who knows the answer to the question – where is this from and how was it caught.

But it’s raising larger issues for me. These are probably the last jars of tuna.

How to Pressure Can Tuna
Inspired by Well-Preserved, informed by the Ball Blue Book of Canning and the NCHFP
Makes 7-8 half pint jars

3 lbs. fresh tuna
Kosher Salt
Olive oil, high quality with a clean, simple flavor

White vinegar (optional)

Get your pressure canner set up.

Warm the olive oil in a heavy pot. You just want to warm, not cook, it.

Cut the tuna into batons the height of your jars less one inch headspace, and into other chunks. Get the entire piece of tuna cut up and ready to go. Assume 1″ headspace.

Fit the batons into the jar, tucking pieces in to fill the jar snugly.

Add 1/2 tsp. salt to each jar.

Now, carefully add some oil to each jar. Run a jar bubbler (or plastic knife) around the inside of the jar. Let the oil fill all the nooks and crannies in the jars.

The warm oil will start to cook the tuna just a little. That’s okay. Add more oil until the jars are filled to the 1″ mark- watch your headspace. It’s really important these jars are not overfilled.

Clean the top of the jars with a towel moistened with white vinegar. This will cut any oil that might be lingering on the rim, and will ensure a good seal.

Pressure can at 11# of pressure for 100 minutes.

After processing, place jars in a dark closet for six months. Allow the fish to cure.

Canning Tuna at Home on Punk Domestics

72 Responses to “canning tuna at home”

  1. Kimberley

    Wow. This is lovely. I just kind of stopped ordering and buying tuna for all the reasons you write about, but I never gave it a proper farewell. It boggles the mind how such a familiar, everyday fish can be so on the brink.

    • Mike

      Here are your canned tuna: skipjack, albacore, and yellowfin are all sustainable species of tuna.
      Your concern must be for the big Bluefin (Big Eye) which is endangered but coming back slowly, but strongly.
      Seafood Watch® recommends that consumers and buyers source canned tuna from the most environmentally friendly sources: those with moderate to healthy stocks and caught with gears that result in the least amount of environmental damage.

      • Candy

        learn your fish mike . Bluefin and Big Eye are 2 entirely different tunas and Big Eye are still very much endangered!

  2. gluttonforlife

    Can’t bear to think of this beloved fish on the brink. Thanks for the memories, and for the inspiration to move on to home-canned sardines. Recipe, please.

  3. Winnie

    I eat tuna less than once a month these days. And probably shouldn’t eat it at all. So sad. I want to cry. Can’t wait to see what you do instead 🙂

  4. Selena Cate

    It’s so reassuring to read a post like this. I wish more people made conscious decisions when buying food. I used to eat a lot of tuna but I gradually added different fish onto the table including salmon, sardines and herring. With that said, I’d love to have herring that didn’t have corn syrup or sugar in it. I should research that and see if I can find a healthier option. This is my first time to your blog, I followed Hounds in the Kitchen’s link here.

  5. Lana

    I loved the trip down memory lane:) We did not eat canned tuna when I was growing up in Serbia and only when I moved to the U.S. did it become a pantry staple.
    And for some time I enjoyed tuna steaks and sushi, and learned to appreciate the Italian style of canning. But these days I buy it very rarely because of overfishing, but I still keep on hoping its destiny is reversed.
    I would love to try canning tuna, as I already plan to can sardines (which I adore).
    Thanks for the post, Cathy!

  6. Laura @MotherWouldKnow

    Thanks for this very thoughtful post. I’m not into canning (at least not right now), but am trying to be more conscious about what I cook and eat – in fact it’s my New Years resolution for 2012 http://motherwouldknow.com/journal/my-new-years-food-resolution.html . You’ve pointed out that sometimes we find out about issues with food that we would rather not know – but once known, the information can hardly be “unknown”. And what to do with that information? I hope you’ll write more about how you navigate your way through this dilemma – we all should.

  7. Fishhunter99

    Oh Baby I have been dreaming all winter about this. I am looking for a good pressure cooker now and it looks like I need to spend 125.00 to get a big enough unit to do the job with less effort. I spend a few days a year out at sea hoping to bring in a Yellow Fin or Blue Fin tuna. Over the last 3 years I was fortunate to bring meat home. But one can only eat so much sushi with 10 friends. So the Capt. of the boat my friend Joe and I have been talking about putting up in jars a good portion this summer. So I hope to show you the Fruit de Mare this August.

    • Cathy

      Be sure you buy a pressure CANNER, not cooker. Very different. My Amazon store has a link to my favorite pressure canner. I’ve had mine for more than ten years and it has never let me down.

  8. Sharon Miro

    I really liked this post. Every year they fished, until they were too old to work the river, my Dad & Mom canned fish: salmon, oysters, bass, whatever they or their friends caught on their many trips. Beautiful pints & quarts filled with rosy colored fish. Lovely useful skill mostly lost in today’s convenient grocery store environment. I am happy to see it lives in you.

  9. Jamie Samons

    Cathy: what a beautiful post. I feel your pain about eating fish; we’ve cut our consumption way down, but I still feel the responsibility to support our local fishermen. Enjoy every morself of this beautiful tuna!

  10. Lisa DeNunzio

    Yes, when I was young I thought tuna only came in a can. In fact, I thought all fish was rectangle in shape and contained in a box that read Mrs. Paul’s. During my early days in Manhattan I lived on (and loved) tuna casserole.

    You raise some interesting points about sustainability. I surely hope there is a solution as I so enjoy my tuna.

  11. Shonagh

    Thanks for the inspiration. I recently met a local fisher at the farmers market who line catches tuna and I will buy some from him. The most amazing canned fish I ever had was home canned salmon. A friend had a stream on his property. In went the rod, out came the fish and into the canner. It was rich and absolutely delicious.

  12. Eugenia

    Wait! You don’t have to give up tuna, either fresh or canned. Oregon albacore tuna is sustainably troll-caught and cans beautifully. Come visit in summer when you can buy it off the docks and can it in a rental house on the beach — that’s what many old-time Oregonians do. My post on canning is a helpful resource — just go to my blog and search under tuna.

    • Megan

      I am a fisheries scientist – I work with tuna fisheries in the Pacific. There are several different species of tuna, some are doing better than others. Troll or pole and line albacore is your best bet (both the US and Canada have good fisheries), with yellowfin also OK, at least for now. Stay away from bigeye and bluefin. Skipjack tuna populations (found canned) are doing great, but there are high bycatch issues with these fisheries. Do consider eating lower on the food chain – anchovies, mackerel, sardines, oysters, mussels, sardines etc. Happy eating!

      • Annie

        Thank you for sharing this info. I try to eat responsibly but it’s so hard to know what’s going on sometimes. It’s kind of depressing when you have to spend hours researching everything before you can go grocery shopping.

  13. Domenica

    I believe I have been the beneficiary of one of those ‘ladies who lunch’ lunches and have enjoyed your home-canned tuna. I will be sad to see it go, but you are right to be confronting these issues. Oh, and please let me know if/when you smoke and preserve oysters. I want to be there for that!

  14. Linda

    I know exactly how you feel about the tuna. It’s one of my favorite foods but I feel GUILTY every time I buy it, which is very infrequently. My only consolation is that I’m sparing myself all the mercury as well.

    I would love to see more posts about canned fish, not only in order to learn different recipes for canning fish, but also to discover how people use it. Food52 recently ran a contest for canned fish, and although some of the recipes were very creative I found most of them used the obvious (sardines, tuna, oysters) and the recipes were somewhat predictable. Where I live (north Idaho), many people are able to procure fresh salmon in rather large quantities which they can. Historically, people here used to can ling cod. I’d like to read some of the recipes for how they used it. I guess I’d better get to work….

  15. Eugenia

    @Linda and @Shonagh (from the self-proclaimed proselytizer of Oregon albacore tuna), if you buy Oregon albacore, you buy young fish that doesn’t have mercury deposits. It’s also sustainable. I don’t know how far out in to the rest of the country it’s sold in season, but if you see it, you won’t regret it.

    I also wrote a post on adapting tuna canning to salmon, if you have better access to wild salmon than to Oregon albacore. Advice and a link to the albacore tuna post is here: http://culinariaeugenius.wordpress.com/2011/04/30/salmon-canning-and-hazel-switches/ . Happy canning!

    • Linda

      Thanks for the tips, Eugenia. Occasionally I do make it to the Oregon coast. In what months is Tuna available? Usually I’m in Depoe Bay. Any fishmonger suggestions?

      I’d also love to see more ideas about how to use canned fish, aside from patties, salads, or tuna casserole.

      • Sherri

        September is the best month. Get on line and find the site for Oregon tuna fisheries they have a list of guys who sell the tuna we do it all the time it is wonderful Albacore it is also canning ready they clean it wonderfully for about 3 bucks a fish can’t beat that.

        Good luck

  16. Tammy Kimbler

    I’ve wanted to make this for years! And with my new pressure cooker, now I can. But I have the same reservations about tuna that you do. Might be time for me to make this with some line caught wild, sustainable, oily fish from elsewhere in the world. Any good suggestions on what kind would work? I know salmon, sardines and herring, but any other ideas would be much appreciated. Yum.

  17. IthacaNancy

    It may not work for more serious foodies, but I’ve substituted home-canned chicken for tuna. My pastured chickens were involved in a terrible slaughter by foxes last year, just a week or two before I had planned to process them. I decided to can the undamaged breasts and legs. The white meat acts like very mild canned albacore in recipes.

    I agree completely about the problem of over fishing. In addition, climate change and energy resources being squandered on eating out of season, out of region, and ‘out-of scale’ (e.g. industrial agriculture) have changed the way we eat – but for the better most of the time.

  18. Cathy

    Thank you all for your supportive and thoughtful comments. Eugenia, LOVE your posts on both tuna and salmon, and will be looking your way as I start to figure out salmon and, yes, Domenica, SMOKED OYSTERS. Really, can you imagine anything more fabulous? This fall, I’m going to start the experiments.
    Thank you all for reading and being here!

  19. Eileen

    I’m generally a water bath canner, so I’d never even considered canning my own tuna. A very interesting plan! I think Eugenia’s Oregon beach rental and canning spree sounds like a great sustainable way to go. And I know my fishing relatives in Michigan will be happy to hear about the possibility of canned salmon!

  20. ecoteri

    Last summer a friend who takes a trip out to the west coast of Vancouver island brought us back a ‘swack’ of salmon. we froze some, we smoked a lot and then we canned some fresh and canned some smoked. the whole experience gave me a renewed respect for late nights. And a relax inside about the fish jars downstairs. I would recommend learning how to smoke fish, we should have smoked colder but Mr. P. was not aware of my plans to can. even so it smells and tastes wonderful.
    this summer we are members of a CSF = community supported fishery. we will get salmon, prawns and (!!) octopus!. Guess I get to learn more about local!

  21. Jamie

    What a great story, Cathy, and one with a moral! I love fresh tuna and rarely eat it any other way. When we do buy canned tuna for sandwiches and salads, we spend more for better quality and get what we pay for. In Italy we bought the really good stuff in jars, again, more costly, but so delicious and it actually gets eaten! Your post is more than useful and your method could be used to preserve so many types of fish. Great post!

  22. Andreea

    Wonderful post!
    Delightful to read and heartwarming to see the caring showed in here for this amazing fish, indeed on the brink of extinction due to over-fishing.

    Very moving.

  23. Sherri

    Every other year I can enough tuna to last us for 2 years. We love it and eat it regularly. We buy it from the fishermen off the Oregon coast and it is wonderful Albacore tuna nothing quite like it. I do not add olive oil to mine the fish has enough oil itself. Just a little salt.

  24. Dottie

    Lovely post, Cathy. I’ve been canning tuna for years, and have found there are some great variations. 1) a little salt, leave out the olive oil 2) leave out the salt, use lemon infused olive oil (Great in salads) 3) salt & diced jalapeño, 4) tamari 5) Cajun spice mix these are all good & I am sure the possibilities are endless.

  25. Virginia

    Hello Cathy,
    this is my first time here via Facebook on Food in Jars, I think. Here in Eastern Canada we are well aware of the results of over fishing. I grew up on mackerel as it was sold from trucks on the street. As much as I like tuna, I will now choose more wisely and make suitable substitutions.

    Thank you so much for the information.

  26. Beth (OMG! Yummy)

    Hi Cathy – lovely post and message but oh how I would love to try that tuna. We were in Hawaii last week and what a revelation it was to eat tuna there – even cooked. We never order it cooked here – always seems dry but when it’s fresh caught, it’s just sublime. I did not realize how bad the situation was with tuna. So frustrating – we are trying to eat more fish but with one kid allergic to salmon and all the complicated labeling of what’s ok and what’s not and the cost of so much of it, to be honest, we don’t eat it very often. I’ll look forward to see what you’re up to next!

  27. elizabeth

    I think a huge issue with choosing tuna is that the same type can be deemed either “Avoid” or “Best Choice” depending on where it comes from and how it was fished (as evidenced when I looked up Bonito’s sustainability as Spanish tuna is my favorite kind to indulge in), so I can completely understand wanting to avoid tuna as a whole. It’s frustrating because so many of those fine fish you mentioned as better alternatives–namely sardines and anchovies–are so difficult to find fresh even in this day and age. Blerg.

    Thank you for sharing your story, in any case. It was a lovely read and I’m sure the last of your canned tuna will be absolutely delicious.

  28. erin @ from city to farm

    I stopped eating tuna for the most part several years ago, never in a can and only occasionally in sushi. I’m so glad to see you bring up the issue, one that so many popular food blogs ignore in their rush to showcase the newest salmon or tuna recipe. (Salmon isn’t doing that well either, with the exception of a few sustainably fished areas and farmed is an atrocity, both for eco and health reasons.)

    We all have to make some tough choices, or there won’t be a choice to make in a not too distant future. Bravo, and bring on the sardines!

    • Teresa

      I can Oregon albacore tuna every summer. I’ve never added oil or any liquids. It is exquisite, not to mention extremely convenient. As mentioned above, it is line-caught, sustainable, and has undetectable amounts of mercury. Thanks for posting!

  29. John

    I am 64 yrs and a 3rd generation Commercial Fisherman, and have watched my mother when I was a kid and helped her while an adult can lot of Tuna for our family. My Mom’s canning procedure was similar to yours. One thing is to make sure when you buy Tuna, make sure it have been “bled” on the boat right after being caught. This helps get most of the blood out of the meat. Also, my Mom used to soak her tune over night in a salt brine. Rinsing thoroughly in the morning. This will draw any more blood that is left in the meat out. Blood gives Tuna the “fishy” flavor that most folks do not like. Hope this helps. Enjoy

    • Dean

      Thanks for the info. I was fishing out of Charleston OR this summer and lucky to get line caught tuna, that is fun! I hope to can some soon, I hadn’t seen info about brining so will follow your advice. Any advice about smoking?

  30. Ed Borne

    I pressure cook my raw tuna first, then pack in jars and pressurize the jars in pressure canner again. Any thoughts on this process as opposed to fresh packing? I have gotten excellent results this way.

  31. Jeff

    Great article but very limited info on the status of tuna. There are several species of tuna and many healthy stocks. To give the impression that “tuna” as a group are all on the brink in entirely misleading. Some facts or links to current info would show that Eastern pacific Yellowfin Tuna and albacore stocks are stable and well managed. And right now the California Pacific Sardine is in serious decline.

  32. IthacaNancy

    Patrick Booth wondered about the relatively long pressure canning time, given that he eats tuna raw . . . I’m sure it is quite fresh when he eats it raw – in order to keep the fish safe to eat after months of non-refrigeration, one must kill any pathogens. In the case of meat and fish, the high pressure allows for temperatures high enough and long enough to keep meat safe without refrigeration for a long time. It is imperative to follow a tested recipe in order to be sure that those who consume the fish don’t die of botulism toxin from food held in an anaerobic atmosphere at room temperature. Because fish is a low acid food, it must be pressure canned, unlike tomatoes and many fruits and pickled vegetables which as high acid foods can be canned in a water bath canner.

  33. Thomas Joiner

    The title of the article would lead one to believe this was a how to can the tuna- the bulk of the story is about your struggling youth working in bars, etc. What a bore

  34. Art Moody

    I caned tuna, and I opened a jar for lunch. I found a small black spot on the inside of the lid,it was sealed properly I know,any ideas,should I throw it away?

  35. Patrick Booth

    I used the method above, but instead of running a spatula around the tuna in the bottle, I tossed it in olive oil first, then put it into bottles. It slid in easier, and every surface was covered, no mistakes. I also pressure cooked it for 60 minutes, and it came out perfectly.

    • Sharon zook

      I just pressure cooked my tuna at 11lbs of pressure for 60 minutes. Do you feel this is safe??

      • Cathy

        Timing and pressure are dependent on altitude, but 60 minutes does not sound like enough time at any altitude. I’m at sea level and half pints need 120 minutes at 10 pounds of pressure. Yours is not safe.

      • Patrick Booth

        Personally I believe it is perfectly safe. Any recommendation by the FDA needs to be taken with more than a grain of salt. I live on a yacht, and we do everything differently, and we and our sailor friends are all perfectly healthy.
        We never keep eggs in the fridge, nor cabbage and tomatoes, potatoes or onions or garlic, and we only get back to re-provision every 2 weeks.

        • Cathy

          Sorry. I have to disagree. Keeping fresh food out on the counter is entirely different than sealing high pH foods in containers. The National Center for Home Food Preservation — food safety scientists — provide the recommended times and PSI, not the FDA.

          FWIW, eggs do not need to be kept in the fridge especially if straight from the bird and UNWASHED until used. There is a coating on the egg that keeps it fresh. The USDA requires our farmers to wash eggs before sale. This is a shame. Not true in Europe.

          • IthacaNancy

            Thank you for your comment. Food on the counter or in the fridge will decompose in ways that can easily recognize, but canned food can develop botulism toxins without the danger being recognizable. Facto-fermentation is a great way to preserve items if it isn’t possible to can them safely.

      • Tony Lovell

        After many questions to friends and family alike. They all agree on 100 minutes at 11 pounds.

  36. T.L.

    If you can get Bonito, it will be an excellent substitute. It is in the tuna family, and the population is very dissatisfied l sustainable.

  37. T.L.

    If you can get Bonito, it will be an excellent substitute. It is in the tuna family, and the population is sustainable.

  38. Rob Peel

    Thanks for the wonderful insights & recipe! I found this page by googling ‘home canned tuna’ because after spending most of my life fishing, I’ve never actually thought to can fish! I’m one of those oddball carnivores that doesn’t agree with 90% of modern fishing or farming practices & I source ALL my meat first hand. I hunt or fish for every scrap of meat I eat & make no apology for it.
    I can many pounds of venison & wild hog every year (I’ve also canned ‘gator, turtle, turkey & upland birds. Canned quail is to DIE for!) but never considered trying tuna!
    My pressure cooker is rattling away behind me as I write this & I simply cannot wait to try the results! I’ve SO missed a simple green salad with tuna in lemon mayo, the way my Mum used to make when I was a kid. I catch a couple of Yellowfin & 4 or 5 blackfin every year on charter trips in Louisiana & I’ve only ever had them as seared steaks, sashimi, sushi & stir fry. Why canning never occurred to me until today I’ll never know.
    Thanks again for the recipe & inspiration!

  39. Shannon Fortuna

    Can I completely smoke the tuna and then put into jars with olive oil and give them a water bath to seal jars?

    • Cathy Barrow

      I’ve never done this, but it concerns me that the tuna will be fully cooked before processing. The processing is long, and will make the tuna either tough or dry. I’m not sure this is the best option for smoked tuna. I would vacuum pack and freeze instead.

  40. prepperdaddy

    Just finished canning 100 pounds of Albacor fillets (200 pounds carcass) weight. Got 104 pint jars very full. I just clean, pack and cook 90 minutes at 15 pounds, nothing added. Fav tuna recipe; place a piece of Pepper Jack cheese on a Trisket, add some canned Tuna, heat in the microwave and serve with jalapeno slices.

  41. joan

    Once the seal has been broken on the home canned tuna, does it have to be consumed immediately? Can it still be ok to eat 3 days later?

  42. Shari

    Our Pacific Northwest Albacore is one of the healthiest tuna stocks in the world! I go out 3-4 times a year and usually have 15-40 albies to process a season.

    We are fortunate to have the “Canning Ladies” from the Oregon State University extension agency who provide us sportsmen with the current best practices on seafood canning. They give seminars at sports shows and extension agencies. 110 minutes at 11#. It is scary what people post here. Botulism is very lethal and real. Your respiratory system shuts down.

    This link provides you with the best and safest information on the home preservation of tuna. It is a very dense fish and requires more canning times than other fish.


  43. bill hamelman

    I am old school, for me 90 min at 10# has been the mark I use. I smoke my salmon both spring or fall salmon until the skin starts to get loose and then can, no salt or oil required. Five years ago I was invited by an neighbor who had moved back to Kona for thanksgiving. The last Sunday we went out ten miles and hooked seven Ahai ( yellow fin) and landed five, smallest at 57 #. I brought home one and applied my recipe awesome.

    I just recieved my care package for this year and will process this week.



  1.  Canning Tuna, Guide And Tips - LivingGreenAndFrugally.com
  2.  10 Things on my Preserving Bucket List - WellPreserved.ca

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