My last post was on saving money at the grocer. One segment of that article involved using a vacuum sealer (FoodSaver), which can extend the freshness of foods up to 5 times. That segment generated some interest, so I thought I would do a deep dive on the topic. I’ll also provide best practices and tips in this post.
Fact: The average household throws away 30% of purchased foods. A typical family of four can save more than $3000.00/year by using a vacuum sealer to reclaim already purchased foods and to repackage less expensive bulk foods.
Why vacuum seal?
When you vacuum seal something you pump out the air in its package. Then the vacuum sealer heats the open end of the bag to completely seal its contents from the outside. Air contains 21% oxygen, and many foods oxidize when exposed to this gas. One example of oxidation is the browning of cut avocados, potatoes, and apples. Another example is the effect of oxygen on fatty foods, like nuts. Oxidation turns their fats rancid. How many times have you thrown out half of an Avocado or a bag of baking walnuts because they had gone bad? Sealing in a vacuum bag can dramatically extend the life of these foods.
Poorly packaged frozen food is subject to freezer burn, but what is freezer burn? The moisture in the air condenses on the food creating ice crystals that puncture the food’s structure. This alters the texture of the food and causes it to dehydrate. The result of this process is called freezer burn. Remove the air and seal and you eliminate freezer burn.
Baked goods, like crackers, are moisture absorbers. Leave a tube of crackers open for a day or two and they go from crips to stale. Remove the air and seal the package and the crackers stay fresh.
Foods like flour and cornmeal are subject to weevil infestations. These tiny critters can hatch and multiply in grains that have been sitting around. Weevils are not harmful, but no one wants to eat food that contains little bugs. Weevils need oxygen to survive; eliminate the oxygen and you eliminate the bugs.
In most cases, it’s safe to eat hard cheeses that have a little mold on them. Just cut off the mold and proceed. However, why deal with moldy cheese if you don’t have to? Molds are a type of fungus, and they need oxygen to grow. Eliminate the oxygen and your hard cheese can stay fresh for a long time.
Beyond food preservation, vacuum sealing is also used to prepare foods for Sous-vide cooking. This technique allows a chef to perfectly cook foods while retaining their natural juiciness.
If you like to marinate meats you can dramatically speed up that process by using a vacuum sealer. Place the meat and marinade in an external vacuum canister and draw a vacuum. The vacuum opens up the meat and allows the marinade to penetrate in under 30 minutes. You don’t need a marinade function on your vacuum sealer; any machine that has an accessory port will do. You can also marinade in a vacuum bag, but you need to be careful to not draw up the liquid marinade into the machine.
Vacuum sealing can preserve and protect non-food items. Real silverware won’t tarnish when sealed in a vacuum bag. Hunters can vacuum pack ammo to keep it dry and usable. Adventurers have even vacuum-packed clothes for wet outings allowing them to change into something dry after their experience. Vacuum sealing uses are only limited by the user’s imagination.
Why not just wrap in foil, place in Tupperware, or seal in a Ziploc freezer bag?
The above solutions do help keep food fresh longer, but not nearly as long as vacuum packing. Why? They don’t eliminate the air in the package, and they allow outside air and humidity to enter. However, they are better than leaving food exposed.
What do I vacuum seal?
I have used a FoodSaver Compact vacuum sealer for decades. It is a simple manual device. Mine was one of the early machines that were made in Italy (not China), and it is very sturdy and solid. I treat it well and it has served me well.
I know that over time my FoodSaver has saved me a lot of money. I’ll buy meat in bulk, on sale, or when it has a close to expiration price drop. I’ll then split it into meal-sized amounts and vacuum seal it into bags ready to be frozen.
I’ll buy a large block of cheese, and vacuum seal it into smaller chunks. They stay fresh in the fridge.
I’ll cook a turkey breast in my slow cooker, slice it for lunch meat, and seal and freeze it into conveniently sized packages that I thaw as needed.
I also freeze leftovers, like homemade soups and stews. When vacuum packing liquids it is best to freeze them first in another container. Remove the frozen item from the container and place it in a vacuum bag and seal it. I like Souper Cubes because frozen soups just pop out. However, any freezable container will do. If an item won’t release, gently warm the bottom of the container for a few seconds in a bowl of hot water. I have also seen people freeze liquids in Ziploc freezer bags. Once frozen, they peel off the freezer bag and reseal the block in a vacuum bag to ensure a much longer freezer life.
Recently, I bought a Chinese chamber-style vacuum sealer off eBay, and it has been a game-changer. It is now easy to vacuum pack liquids and powdery foods (like flour) without any prep. Additionally, chamber-style vacuum bags are very inexpensive, even cheaper than Ziploc bags. With this new gadget, I’m starting to vacuum seal additional foods, like vegetables. Many vegetables are reasonably priced, but why waste half of a bunch of celery if I don’t have to? More importantly, I know that I’ll have soup fixings in my freezer even if I don’t have the fresh veggies in my crisper drawer. I can freeze enough celery and carrots to make an entire pot of soup using a single chamber-style bag that only costs 3 cents.
The history of vacuum sealing.
The first commercial vacuum sealer was invented in the 1940s. The first home vacuum sealer was designed by Karl Busch in 1963, but it was very basic. The first practical home vacuum sealer was developed by Hanns Kristin in 1984 and was named the FoodSaver by Tilia. The unit was easy to use but had a nozzle to remove air instead of the now ubiquitous vacuum channel. This FoodSaver hit the market in the late 1980s, but it didn’t take off. Sales increased dramatically in the 1990s when the company started to air infomercials about it. The early models were very well built and made in Italy; current units are manufactured in China. Seal-a-Meal was an early competing brand that was originally owned by Dazey Corp. The FoodSaver and Seal-a-Meal brands are now owned by Newell Brands; that company also owns many other household brands including Rubbermaid, Mr. Coffee, and Sharpie.
Many other companies make commercial and home vacuum sealers. Prices for home sealers range from around 20 dollars to several hundred dollars. Commercial/prosumer sealers range from hundreds of dollars to thousands of dollars.
Foods that vacuum seal well.
Many foods benefit from vacuum sealing. Fresh and cooked meats and fish, hard cheeses, soups, stews, most vegetables, grains, pasta, cookies, crackers, coffee, and more. However, you may need to adapt the way that you seal some of these items. I’ll describe some techniques below.
Foods that don’t vacuum seal well.
Raw fruits, like bananas and pears, emit ethylene and will over-ripen when that gas is trapped in a sealed bag. However, cooked and dehydrated fruits store well.
Some vegetables freeze better when first blanched-place in boiling water for a few minutes, then rapidly cool in cold water, and pat dry. When in doubt, Google how to freeze a particular vegetable. However, you don’t have to always blanch every vegetable. My excess carrots and celery just get vacuumed packed and tossed in the freezer. I know that they will be fine for soups and stews.
Mold is a fungus that requires oxygen to grow, a vacuum sealer removes the majority of the oxygen in a package, but a tiny bit remains. Mold can still slowly grow under these conditions. Moist foods are vulnerable to mold growth even if vacuumed sealed. Naturally, mold can’t grow if food is frozen.
Certain strains of bacteria thrive without oxygen and can create deadly botulism toxin* or bacterial illness. You shouldn’t vacuum seal soft cheeses**, or certain vegetables like fresh mushrooms, garlic, and onions.* However, you can vacuum seal blanched or cooked vegetables. In addition, most pathogenic bacteria can’t grow at freezing temperatures, Listeria being the exception, so it is OK to peel and chop an onion, vacuum seal it, and freeze it for future use.
*Botulism poisoning is very rare. The CDC reports that there are around 27 cases of food-born Botulism a year (The US population is 329 million). All of the cases that I could locate were caused by poor home canning techniques or improper processing of commercial foods. I could not find a single case of botulism poisoning due to home vacuum sealing. However, better safe than sorry. Clostridium botulinum (the bacteria that makes the botulism toxin) cannot grow at freezer temperatures.
**Listeria is a bacteria that may proliferate in soft cheeses and other foods. It can grow without oxygen, and it can even slowly grow at freezer temperatures. Since many other bacteria need oxygen, the lack of it can provide an open playing field for Listeria to multiply. Listeria can cause serious GI illness, which is why you shouldn’t vacuum pack soft cheeses.
Practice common sense.
Vacuum sealed foods last longer, but they still can spoil. Vacuum sealing is an additional step, not the only step in food preservation. Food left out will still go bad. Treat vacuumed sealed foods just like you would if they were not vacuumed sealed. If you would normally refrigerate a leftover, do the same.
Always practice standard sanitary practices when repackaging food. Wash your hands and utensils before and after a repackaging session. Clean surfaces and sanitize your area before and after. Additionally, wash and sanitize between packing different foods. If I’m repackaging beef and chicken I’ll re-sanitize everything between the two jobs. You can wear and change out gloves if you wish; I just wash my hands a lot.
What are the different types of vacuum sealers?
The handheld vacuum seal systems.
These are either battery-powered or manual pumps and are used with special Ziploc-style bags or containers. They are sometimes sold with canister sets, and they are useful in situations where you are opening and closing a package. Salad greens, cereal, and fresh strawberries are some foods that come to mind. They can also be handy for marinating.
Channel vacuum sealers (below) often have an accessory hose or port that can be used to vacuum special canisters. However, many people don’t have the counter space to leave a machine out. The handheld pumps are small and can be tucked away in a drawer.
The channel vacuum systems.
This is the most common type of home vacuum system. All current FoodSaver machines are channel-type vacuum sealers. An external bag is placed in the machine’s vacuum channel and the device is closed. A vacuum is drawn and the bag is then sealed using a heat bar. The channel will protect the unit’s vacuum pump from being contaminated if a small amount of liquid is sucked up from the bag. However, foods that contain large amounts of liquid can enter the machine’s innards and damage it. Most home systems will accommodate standard 11” and 8” wide bags, however, a few will only accept 8” wide bags. A machine that handles all sizes of bags offers the greatest versatility.
Advantages of channel systems
These units can be small, accommodate a wide range of bag sizes, and you can make custom bag lengths using rolls of bag material. Many units are inexpensive. You can buy an off-brand machine for as little as 20 dollars, and a basic branded one for about 50 dollars. Add more features (many unnecessary) and the price can go up to several hundred dollars. Popular brands include FoodSaver, Seal-a-Meal, Cosori, Hamilton Beach, and Nesco.
Household sealers have small motors, tiny plastic vacuum pumps, and thin heating bars. Most are made for limited use and will overheat if you try to vacuum seal many bags in one sitting. This is not usually an issue for the home user but could be a problem for someone like a hunter, prepper, or gardener who needs to seal dozens of bags at one time. A home sealer’s longevity will depend on its level of use and care. Mine has lasted decades, but hunters (who may package an entire animal in one session) may need to buy a new machine every year or two.
High-use individuals are better off buying a commercial-grade channel sealer. These sealers are built to last and have quality vacuum pumps, strong motors, and good cooling systems. Professional and prosumer sealers start around $300. Popular brands include Weston, VacMaster, LEM, and Avid/Amor. These units are designed for near-continuous use, and some can accommodate bag widths greater than 11 inches. They are bulkier than home units and can take up quite a bit of counter space.
What these sealers are good for; what foods require additional prepping?
Solid, dry, and moist items are good candidates for channel machines. Powdery or liquid foods require special preparation to be successfully vacuum-packed using a channel-type sealer.
Meats can ooze juices when vacuum packing, which can contaminate the sealing area and prevent sealing. Some machines have a “Moist” setting that extends the sealing bar’s heating time/temperature to ensure a seal. My old FoodSaver is a manual model. I seal the bag before I see the meat juice reach the sealing bar. Very cold, semi-frozen, or frozen meat won’t ooze when vacuum packed. Another easy trick is to place a narrow strip of paper towel after the meat but before the bag’s sealing zone to catch the juices. This works with any channel machine.
Powdery foods, like flour, can get sucked up into the vacuum system and damage it. An easy solution is to repack bulk flour into brown lunch bags. Fold over or loosely tape the lunch bag’s top and insert it into a sealing bag, vacuum as usual. I like keeping an extra 5-pound bag of flour as a backup. I simply put the flour (in its original bag) in a gallon vacuum bag and vacuum seal it to keep it fresh and weevil free.
Liquids, like soups, can get sucked up into the machine’s internals, and that is not a good thing. Some folks carefully vacuum seal liquids, but there are easier ways. If you have leftover soup, freeze it in another container, then remove it from that container and vacuum seal it in a bag. It will take up less space and stay fresh longer. You can also vacuum seal it in a Mason jar (using a jar vacuum sealing adapter) and then freeze it.
Bags and rolls.
Channel-type vacuum sealers require special embossed bags that allow air to be pulled out of them. These bags can be quite expensive. I looked on the FoodSaver website and quart bags were over 50 cents apiece. I have been using generic vacuum bags for years, and they work well. Instead of paying 50 cents, I can buy a generic quart bag for 12-14 cents, which is roughly the same cost as a Ziploc freezer bag. Bags come in pint, quart, and gallon sizes.
Many people prefer using rolls of bag material, often citing that rolls are more economical than bags. That is only partially true. If you made an equivalent number of bags from a roll it will cost you roughly the same amount as premade bags. The cost savings of rolls come with the fact that you can customize the size of your bag. A quart size bag is 8” x 12.” Let’s say you mostly use a bag size that is 8” x 10,” over time you will save a little cash because of this. However, I’m lazy and use pre-made bags.
FoodSaver always claimed that you could reuse their bags by washing them in the dishwasher, keeping the bag open with something like a clothespin, and pointing the open-end down. They have now revised this recommendation, and advise to not reuse bags that have been previously used to store meats or cheese, as they may not be cleaned adequately by this method.
Manufacturers upsell consumer vacuum sealers by adding features, many of which are not needed unless you have a specific need. Here are some of them.
Motorized bag feeds– unneeded and just one more thing to break.
Marinade function– Meats marinade in minutes when placed under a vacuum. Machines with a marinade function pulse a vacuum to enhance this action. However, just using the vacuum function also works well. It is best to marinade in an external canister, but it is possible to use a vacuum bag. Just be very careful to not suck the marinade into the machine.
Moist sealing setting– Nice when vacuuming moist things like meat. The sealing bar stays on a bit longer to ensure that the bag is sealed even if a small amount of meat juice has contaminated the bag’s sealing zone. Some machines are programmed to reduce their suction a bit if you use this option. If you don’t have a moisture setting there are several workarounds (see above).
Gentle cycle– this function is used for delicate items like chips, crackers, and cakes. A weaker vacuum is pulled, so these items are crushed less. However, a weaker vacuum means that less air and moisture is pulled out; besides you will still get some crushing. A better option is to use an accessory canister or a Mason jar sealer for crushable items like crackers. I freeze soft items, like muffins, in a Tupperware container, and avoid vacuum sealing altogether. They will still stay fresh for quite some time when stored this way.
Built-in roll storage– Many units have a space to store vacuum seal rolls. In addition, they will often have a cutter so you can easily cut the roll into bags. This is nice if you are a roll user. However, this also makes the machine’s footprint larger, which could be a problem if you have limited storage or counter space. Many folks keep their rolls in a drawer and simply cut their bags using a pair of scissors. Additionally, you can also buy separate roll storage containers with cutters.
Removable channel tray-It is OK if a small amount of liquid is sucked into the vacuum channel. Just wipe it out with a damp paper towel. Some vacuum sealers have trays that can be removed and washed directly in the sink, which may be a convenience for some.
Accessory port– A wonderful feature that I rarely use. Many machines have a little port that allows you to connect a hose to the machine. This way you can vacuum seal special containers or (using a jar accessory) vacuum seal mason jars to be used as storage containers.
I know several people who have vacuum sealers and none of us use this handy feature. Why? Because it is inconvenient to pull a machine out for one task. However, there are prepper types on YouTube who love this feature. They preserve all sorts of things, from spices to nuts in Mason jars that are then vacuum-sealed.
Most people will only use a vacuum sealer for its most basic function, bag sealing, so avoid wasting a lot of money on extras unless you know that you will use them.
Are there performance differences between models and brands?
No vacuum sealer can completely pull all of the air out of a package. However, a partial vacuum is still adequate for food preservation. Models within a brand perform similarly and are differentiated mostly by features. A vacuum sealer must pull at least 20” Hg to properly seal a bag. Food Savers will pull around 22” Hg, and pro-style channel systems may pull as high as 25” Hg. Chamber-style machines are capable of pulling an even higher vacuum.
It is pretty easy to tell you your machine is working well enough. Vacuum seal a block of cheese and examine the results. If the block is sealed with no air gaps your machine is working.
The chamber sealer systems.
Chamber Sealers are the way that most commercial products are vacuum-sealed. They have several advantages, but they also have some disadvantages for home users.
A chamber sealer is a large appliance that has a cavity (or chamber) where the vacuum bag is positioned. A vacuum is placed on the entire chamber instead of sucking the air out of a bag.
Advantages of Chamber Sealers.
Because the entire chamber is placed under a vacuum there is no pressure difference between the bag and the chamber. Liquids (even water) stay in the bag and as do powdery items like flour. You can easily and quickly vacuum pack all sorts of things from homemade soup to pasta sauce. Fill and place the bag, press a button, wait a bit… and it’s done!
Chamber-type bags don’t require special embossing, so they are much cheaper to buy than channel-style bags. A quart-size bag can be had for 5-6 cents and a pint-size one for 3 cents. This makes them less expensive than Ziploc bags. Because the bags are so inexpensive it is more likely that you will vacuum seal foods that you might not if you had a channel-style sealer.
Chamber vacuums are designed for continuous operation. They have big motors and strong vacuum pumps. They use wide sealing bars to ensure high protection from leakage. Parts, including the sealing bar, are replaceable.
Disadvantages of a chamber vacuum sealer.
These gadgets are commercial machines. Until a few years ago the most basic ones were over $1000.00. They are big, bulky, and heavy. They can’t easily be tucked away and pulled out when needed.
Bags have to fit the chamber. You can’t customize a large bag like you can with a channel sealer. There are no roll bags, just premade bags.
Recent chamber sealer trends.
Manufacturers have recognized that there is a consumer market for these machines and many are now making somewhat smaller units for home use. These machines are lower-priced, in the $500-$1000 range. You can also buy Chinese clones. My Chinese chamber vacuum sealer was purchased on eBay for only $250, and that included free shipping. Naturally, quality control can be an issue when buying an unknown brand. So far, mine is working.
Other vacuum sealing systems
There are a few other systems that you may come across. The original FoodSaver was made in Italy and built like a tank. People are still using these machines that were purchased in the 1980s. They had a vacuum nozzle instead of a vacuum channel. They require regular FoodSaver embossed bags (just like current FoodSavers). They are simple to operate, easy to repair (many parts are still available), have a high duty cycle, and their manual operation lends itself to adjusting on-the-fly. I own one of these original machines, which I’m in the process of trying to repair.
Lastly, a few companies make machines that resemble channel vacuum sealers, but they have retractable nozzles. These sealers can use the less expensive chamber-style bags and have an external canister to catch liquids.
A vacuum sealer is one of those appliances that you may think that you don’t need, but you do. Studies have shown that you can save thousands of dollars a year in food costs by using one.
For most, a channel-type vacuum sealer is the way to go. They are inexpensive, and they do the job. Their consumables (bags) are more expensive, but you can find generic bags on sites like eBay or Amazon. Shop around as prices are variable even for the same brand. Rolls may save you a little money, but I prefer the convenience of premade bags.
The internal components for most consumer vacuum sealers are pretty similar, a small motor that powers a cheap plastic vacuum pump. If you want to use your vacuum sealer to save money by purchasing bulk foods and freezing leftovers, just about any model will do. I watched many product reviews on YouTube and they all seem to work. However, if you want assurance, stick with a name brand like FoodSaver or Nesco. As far as I can tell the motor and pump for a basic FoodSaver are the same as a more expensive one. The more expensive one just has more features, many of which you are unlikely to use.
If you want to vacuum seal other items, like liquids or powdery foods, watch YouTube videos to learn some simple techniques. Some YouTubers seal liquids without freezing, but, I wouldn’t advise that as you could suck up the liquids into the machine and damage it.
If all you want to keep fresh are salad greens or chips, you may want to consider a system that comes with several canisters and a small hand-operated pump.
Some foods should not be vacuum sealed (see above), and other items lend themselves to other freezing methods. I don’t vacuum seal soft items like cupcakes or muffins. I simply freeze them in Tupperware-style containers. They stay fresh, and they are not crushed by a vacuum.
If you seal foods in very large batches, consider a prosumer or professional channel sealer. They cost more, but you won’t be replacing them every year or two.
If you are very serious about high volume vacuum sealing consider a chamber vacuum sealer, which offers a stronger vacuum, great durability, and the ability to vacuum seal liquids and powdery foods with no additional prep. Some consumer-oriented chamber-sealers have accessory ports and marinade cycles. However, prepare yourself for higher costs and a bulkier footprint.
If your goal is to preserve small amounts of food your refrigerator’s freezer will suffice. However, if you plan on buying bulk, shopping sales, or freezing garden harvests you will need a separate freezer. Small freezers are surprisingly affordable. See last week’s post on that topic.
Lastly, a vacuum sealer is only useful if you use it. Think about your needs, freezer space, and goals. If you don’t use it, a vacuum sealer is just another paperweight.
Here is a fun infomercial from the 1990s.