I have been a FoodSaver user for decades. My last post outlined the benefits of vacuum sealing, and I also explored the different types of vacuum sealers that are available for home users. I’m going to continue along this vein in two more posts. This post is a Q and A post. The next post will attempt to answer the question, “Which sealing system is right for me?”
I’m basing both of these posts on my decades of experience, as well as quite a bit of research on the topic.
What are the advantages of vacuum sealing?
Vacuum sealing removes most of the air from a thick plastic bag or other vessels. Air contains oxygen, and by removing oxygen the enclosed food stays fresh longer for several reasons.
Vacuum sealing can eliminate oxidation, which is the process that turns some cut foods brown, and also causes oily foods, like nuts, to go rancid. In addition, oxygen is important for most organisms to live; removing it can prevent or slow down certain microbial growth, and eliminate insect (weevil) infestation. In addition, moisture is removed along with the air which prevents freezer burn.
Does a vacuum sealer remove all of the air in a vacuum bag?
It is impossible to obtain a 100% vacuum, even with laboratory-grade equipment. A small amount of oxygen remains, so certain organisms, like mold, can still grow if the conditions are just right. However, mold will grow at a much slower rate under these conditions.
Do all vacuum sealers remove the same amount of air?
No, home channel sealers create less of a vacuum than commercial channel vacuum sealers, which, in turn, create less of a vacuum than a chamber sealer. Unless you are trying to store food for a very long time this difference is not significant.
Does vacuum sealing prevent food from going bad?
No, it only slows down the spoiling process in properly stored foods. For instance, a pound of hamburger stored in the fridge will stay fresh longer when it is vacuum packed. However, if it was left out on a warm counter it would quickly spoil.
Freezer burn is the dehydration of frozen foods caused by damage from ice crystals. Vacuum sealing reduces ice crystals from forming and can eliminate freezer burn.
However, certain bacteria don’t require oxygen to live and may “overgrow” in a low oxygen environment. Some of these bacteria can cause illness. It is not advisable to vacuum pack soft cheeses, as well as a few other foods because of this.
The bottom line is to always use good standard practices when preserving food. Vacuum sealing is an additional step in food preservation, not the only step.
What foods vacuum seal well?
Cooked and raw meats and seafood. Hard cheeses, but not soft cheeses (like ricotta). Vegetables, with the exception of raw onions, garlic, and mushrooms. However, these vegetables can be vacuum packed if cooked or immediately frozen for future meals. Prepared foods, such as soups, stews, casseroles, and side dishes. Coffee, and tea. Flour and cornmeal, beans and lentils, and many other foods.
It is also possible to vacuum seal non-food items to preserve them or to keep them dry.
What foods don’t vacuum seal well?
Vacuum sealing soft cheeses may promote a bacteria called Listeria to grow, which can cause illness, so they should not be vacuumed sealed. However, hard cheeses vacuum seal well.
Vacuum sealing certain raw vegetables, such as garlic, onions, and mushrooms could promote the growth of the bacteria that causes botulism, so they should not be vacuumed sealed. However, these vegetables are safe to vacuum seal if cut up and then immediately frozen, or cooked (as in a dish) and frozen.
Soft or fragile foods can be crushed when vacuumed sealed in a bag. However, they can be successfully sealed if placed in a jar or canister which is placed under a vacuum. In addition, you can first freeze berries to prevent crushing and then vacuum seal them in a bag.
What else can a vacuum sealer do?
A vacuum sealer can vacuum seal meat for sous vide cooking.
Meat plus a marinade can be placed under a vacuum and will marinate in around 20 minutes. This is usually done in an accessory container.
What is the most common type of home vacuum sealer?
The majority of home vacuum sealers are the channel (also called external bag) type. In these sealers, the open end of a special embossed bag is placed in the machine’s vacuum channel and the sealer is closed. A vacuum is pulled on the bag. At a set vacuum level, a wire is heated which seals the open end of the bag.
Are there other types of vacuum sealers available for the home user?
Yes, there are a number of different systems. Some use manual or electric hand-held pumps with special Ziploc bags or vacuum canisters. Others place the vacuum bag inside of a vacuum chamber. Still, others may use a nozzle inserted into the bag to create a vacuum. Each system has advantages and disadvantages.
Is a channel-style vacuum sealer complex?
No, it is a simple machine. An electric motor powers a vacuum pump which pulls a vacuum on the bag that the operator is sealing. A sensor determines when the vacuum is sufficient, which triggers a sealing wire to heat up and melt the open end of the bag sealing it. At that point the process is complete.
What are the advantages of a channel-type vacuum sealer?
Many home-style sealers are affordable and do a good job. Even prosumer and professional channel type sealers are reasonably priced. They can seal a variety of different sized bags, and you can make bags of any reasonable length out of special vacuum sealer roll material.
What are the disadvantages of a channel-type sealer?
Channel type sealers use a sucking action which can suck liquids into the machine and damage it. It is necessary to freeze liquids, like soups, in a separate container and then transfer the frozen food into a vacuum bag to be sealed. Some people carefully vacuum seal liquids without freezing, but I would not recommend it.
Moist foods, like meats and fish, can ooze juices when vacuumed sealed in a channel-type sealer. In most cases, the small amount of juices will be trapped in the sealer’s channel and won’t damage the machine. However, the meat juices can contaminate the bag’s sealing area making it difficult for the bag to seal. Many machines have a “moist” function that extends the sealing time in these situations. Other options include partially freezing the meat before sealing, or placing a strip of paper towel in the bag between the food and the bag’s sealing area to absorb extra moisture.
Channel-type sealers require special embossed bags that can be pricey if you buy the brand-name versions.
Do you have to use brand-specific bags?
I have used generic bags from various manufacturers for many years without problems. However, I can’t say that newer machines won’t include some sort of bag recognition to force you to buy their particular brand of bag. This has nothing to do with the quality of generic bags, and everything to do with the profit of a company. Sort of like the way printer manufacturers incorporated print cartridge recognition to prevent people from refilling their printer cartridges.
Do you recommend a particular generic chamber bag?
I have used bags from a variety of vendors without problems.
Why not just use the brand-name bags?
The only reason to not use a brand-name bag is cost. If you shop around you can find generic bags and rolls that are roughly one-fourth the cost of their brand-name version placing generic bags at a price point similar to a Ziploc bag. You are more likely to preserve a wider variety of foods if the bags are cheaper. If a brand-name bag costs over fifty cents you may think twice about vacuum sealing half of an avocado. However, if it only costs twelve cents you are more likely to do so.
Are there any differences in channel bags that I should be aware of?
Many bags are 3 mil in thickness, which is fine for most uses. Some bags are thicker, for instance, 4 mil, and they would provide a greater barrier from the outside environment. I have never had a reason to use a thicker bag in my decades of vacuum sealing. However, I could imagine some case scenarios. For instance, a hunter freezes large amounts of meat which he will store for a number of years. That meat could be better preserved using a thicker bag.
Have channel-type sealers changed over time?
The basic concept and components have not changed, but the materials used have. I have an original FoodSaver (launched in the late 1980s) as well as a FoodSaver Compact (launched in the 1990s).
The original FoodSaver’s components are more robust than the FoodSaver Compact. However, both machines have significantly larger power transformers and motors than current models. Smaller components may lead to a shorter appliance life span.
Newer FoodSaver models also have more electronic circuitry. This allows for additional features, like programmed sealing cycles (dry/moist), and vacuum levels (regular/gentle). However, circuit boards and their components add another point of failure.
Some higher-end consumer models will have motorized features, like automatic bag loading.
Do I need all of the new features?
No, if a vacuum sealer can pull a vacuum on a bag and then seal it, it is doing its job. Nothing else is needed.
Are there some features that could be useful?
The answer is subjective. You do you.
Here are a few features that I think may be useful.
A moist sealing setting may be useful when packaging moist foods like meat. However, there are a number of workarounds if you don’t have this function.
An accessory port may be useful if you plan on sealing canisters, Mason jars, or special Ziploc vacuum bags. However, this feature is completely unnecessary if you only plan on sealing vacuum bags.
A bag cutter may be useful if you use bag rolls instead of premade bags. It is not needed if you only use premade bags or if you can cut with a pair of scissors. Some machines with bag cutters also have a bag storage area, which is a convenience. However, this also makes the machines bulkier. Besides, the storage areas often limits bag rolls to be no larger than 20’. You can buy rolls that are 50’, 100’, and even 150’, but they wouldn’t fit into a consumer-level machine.
A pulse function Allows you to pulse the vacuum pump in bursts. This can be useful if you have a soft item and you don’t want to crush it as you can stop the process before the bag is maximally evacuated. Conversely, some sealers will have a gentle option, which performs a similar function. Other machines will allow you to press “Stop” or “Seal,” which will stop the vacuuming and immediately seal the bag.
Is there a difference between lower cost and higher cost machines from the same brand line?
As far as I can tell the machines use very similar vacuum components. Additional costs may give you more features, like a motorized bag feed, or a permanently attached accessory hose. In addition, you may get cosmetic enhancements, like a thin piece of stainless steel over a plastic shell.
Some companies may make machines that are specially designed for a purpose, and they will be different from base models. FoodSaver has a GameSaver line that has a number of features desirable for hunters who need to process an entire animal in one session, and Nesco’s top-of-the-line VS-12 features a double vacuum pump and a double sealing strip which allows faster and more secure bag sealing. Both of these models would be of the prosumer variety.
Professional level machines are built to last. Plastic is replaced with metal, and motors, pumps, and power supplies are much more robust. Many professional machines have cooling fans that allow them to run longer without overheating. These machines are big, bulky, industrial-looking, and designed for work. However, for the average home user, they are overkill and too big for a standard kitchen.
What is a seal?
When you close a bag with a unit’s heat bar you seal it. A premade bag is open on one end, so to close it requires one seal. A bag made from a roll has to be sealed on both ends, so that would require two seals. A unit that can perform 20 seals would allow you to process 20 premade bags, or 10 roll bags before it is needed to cool down. In addition, many consumer and prosumer level machines advise a 15-60 second “cool down” period between sealing every bag.
In consumer machines, the seal times are fixed, and with repetitive seals, the bar will get hotter and hotter. Eventually, it will melt the bag to the point of cutting the bag with the seal bar. More professional machines may allow the user to either set the sealing time or they will sense the temperature of the sealing bar and automatically adjust the bag fusion accordingly.
How long can I continuously run my vacuum sealer?
Many consumer machines will want you to wait at least 15-60 seconds (depending on the model) between sealings to prevent the sealing bar from overheating. Some units have built-in circuitry that monitors and adjusts the temperature of the sealing bar and eliminates the “wait” restriction.
There is usually a limit as to how many bags you can seal in a row. Often that number is about 20 to 30 seals for a consumer-level machine. After your machine’s recommended number you should allow it to rest for 15-20 minutes so its components can cool down. For the normal consumer, this restriction is not a problem.
Prosumer machines vary. The FoodSaver GameSaver machine can do 80 seals before it requires a cool down. Other machines may allow even more seals. For instance, LEM’s prosumer model can do up to 250 seals before it needs to rest.
Professional machines can do hundreds of seals, or hours of use before they need a break. Some of these machines intelligently reduce the heat on the sealing bar to prevent overheating. Others allow you to adjust the sealing time, which accomplishes the same goal. It is common for a professional machine to allow for over 500 seals (or 5 hours uptime) before they need a cool-down period. Some machines can do over 1000 seals (or 10 hours run time) before they need a break.
Are there different size heating bars, and why is that important?
Yes, different machines may have different size sealing bars. The size of the heating bar will determine the maximum width of the bag that you can seal. For instance, a few machines have a small 8-9 inch bar and will only seal bags with a maximum 8-inch opening. This can be limiting.
Most machines have an 11-12 inch bar which will allow you to seal any bag up to an 11-inch opening. This allows maximum flexibility.
A few machines have larger heating bars in the 13-15 inch range. These larger machines are only needed if you need to freeze very large cuts of meat and might be used by individuals who process entire animals, like hunters. With that said, many hunters can get by using a machine with a standard 11-12 inch sealing bar.
Is the thickness of a seal important?
Most home sealers will fuse the two sides of a bag together with a very thin line. Prosumer and professional sealers will often fuse the bag with a thicker line or in some cases several lines. Both of the latter options provide more assurance that the bag will remain sealed and air-tight. This may be important if the bag is stressed, or if the food is to be stored for a very long time.
With that said, the FoodSaver that I have used for decades fuses with a thin line and a properly sealed bag has never failed me.
Do all vacuum sealers remove air at the same rate?
No, professional sealers can vacuum a bag and seal it faster than a consumer product. However, this is only an issue if you are doing very high-volume sessions.
How long can I expect a vacuum sealer to last?
It is very difficult for me to give you an absolute answer to this question. However, longevity depends on the level of use as well as the level of care from the customer.
The motors on newer consumer vacuum sealers are quite small. However, I couldn’t find any complaints of motors failing.
The vacuum pumps appear to be cheaply made, being all plastic (including the piston). However, the only time that I could find reports of vacuum pump failure was the result of a user sucking up liquids into the pump mechanism.
Consumer-level machines are mostly plastic, including high wear areas like the latches. I did come across a few reports of plastic parts wearing out or cracking. However, these issues were usually after a machine had been used for a number of years.
I came across some complaints that a sealer had stopped sealing. The seal wire in all machines will eventually fail. On a consumer-level machine, it is not replaceable. However, a wire should last for years in a normal use situation.
One area of frequent failure is the gasket system, especially the gasket that encircles the vacuum channel. If that gasket is defective it is impossible to get a proper seal and you will not draw an adequate vacuum on your bag.
What causes a gasket seal failure?
The gasket is elastic and spongy. It is compressed every time you seal a bag and eventually it will cease to properly seal the channel. However, that should take quite some time.
You can shorten the life of a gasket by contaminating it with food debris. In addition, you can quickly ruin a gasket by storing your device in the locked position, as this is the position where the gasket is the most compressed.
How long should a gasket last?
Another difficult question. The gasket on my 1990s FoodSaver Compact is a very solid rubbery material. It is permanently glued in and still works fine decades later. Newer gaskets are more spongy, and I would expect them to have a shorter lifespan, even with good care.
FoodSaver suggests that their gaskets should be charged out yearly for “heavy users.” However, that is a very arbitrary statement. My pressure cooker manufacturer also suggests a yearly change out of the pressure cooker’s sealing gasket. However, I take care of my gasket and it has lasted me over 5 years and it is still going strong.
A gasket should be changed if it is no longer providing a seal for the vacuum channel. For some, this may be within the first few uses (if they somehow damage the gasket). For others, I suspect that a gasket will last years.
What should I do if my gasket isn’t sealing?
The first step is to inspect the gasket. Does it have food particles on it? If so, clean it. Is it not seated properly in its channel? If so, reseat it.
If your gasket is permanent (like on some older machines) you can try to repair or reseal it. I have read articles where people have used food grade silicon and even gasket sealant (food grade?) to repair a permanently mounted gasket. I recently used form-a-gasket sealant to repair my original 1980s food saver. It has a sump plug that was sealed by an O-ring. The O-ring was in good shape, but it had stretched a bit causing it to lose its seal. I couldn’t get a replacement so I “glued” it in with the sealant and my old FoodSaver is once again working.
If your gasket is removable you might try to gently wash it. Dry it before returning it to the machine. You could also try to invert it (put the bottom on the top) to see if that would help.
Brand-name vacuum sealers (like FoodSaver) often sell replacement gaskets at reasonable prices. Other brands will sometimes provide an additional gasket or two with the original purchase. If you get an extra gasket, store it in a cool, dry place where it won’t be crushed. Replacing a gasket is a very simple job.
How long should my vacuum sealer last?
If you are a very heavy user, like a hunter who has to process entire animals in one sitting, you will overtax a consumer-level machine and it will likely fail in a year or two. You should purchase a prosumer or professional sealer.
If you are a typical consumer who treats their machine with respect and care it should last 3-5 years or longer.
Do brand-name vacuum sealers work better than no-name vacuum sealers?
If we are talking about consumer-level machines, my subjective answer is, no. I watched numerous videos of people using off-brand machines and they seemed to be as quick and sealed as well as brand named products. It is likely that most of these machines are built in the same factories in China.
Will a brand-name machine last longer than a no-name vacuum sealer?
I have tested a couple of no-brand machines in the $30 range. One was an Aldi brand, and the other was an unknown brand purchased from Amazon. Both machines were fairly lightweight and their plastic parts were not as robust as my old Compact FoodSaver. However, the same could be said of a modern FoodSaver. Things are not built as well as they used to be.
My guess is that if the construction seems similar to a brand-name device it will last about as long as a brand-name unit.
Should I buy a prosumer or professional model?
Only if you have a need for one. For instance, if you are a prepper and seal dozens of bags in a sitting you may overheat and damage a consumer machine. You would be better served with a more robust device.
Prosumer devices are designed for bagging a lot of product infrequently. Professional devices are designed to work heavily on a daily basis.
Professional devices are more serviceable. Most will allow you to change out components, like the sealing bar. Professional devices are often simpler in design. Many won’t have a latching mechanism as having one slows down workflow.
Professional models will pull a greater vacuum than a consumer model. That may be important if you are storing foods for years. However, it won’t make much of a difference for the average user.
Lastly, some prosumer and professional models will accept a bag width greater than 11”, which could be useful for those needing to package huge cuts of meat.
What are the disadvantages of buying a prosumer or professional model?
Some prosumer models look very similar to a consumer model, so their only disadvantage is a higher cost. Other prosumer models are bigger and bulkier than a typical consumer model and may be awkward to keep on the counter, or difficult to pull out of a cabinet.
Professional units will be larger, heavier, more industrial-looking, and have noisy cooling fans. Some will omit functions like an accessory port or the marinate feature, as they are unneeded for packaging. Naturally, these units will cost more, starting at around $300 and moving upwards.
What are some other types of vacuum sealing systems, and why would I want to use them?
Two types that some may find useful are handheld devices and chamber devices. I won’t discuss nozzle systems, which are uncommon in the consumer world.
What is a handheld device?
These are mini-vacuum pumps that are either battery operated or hand-pumped. They are used as part of a system. For instance, with special Ziploc bags, or specific vacuum canisters.
Why would I want to use a handheld system?
For convenience and size. The handheld pumps can be stored in a drawer and easily used. These units do not heat-seal bags like a traditional vacuum sealer. Ziploc-type bags have a traditional zipper closure, and canisters have a vacuum valve on their lids.
These devices can be less intimidating than traditional sealers. In my house, I use the vacuum sealer for food preservation, but everyone else is comfortable using a little canister set with a hand pump to preserve salads and soft fruits (like strawberries).
A handheld system can also speed marinating, and slow down oxidation in foods like vegetables and nuts.
Generally speaking, the level of vacuum will not be as great as if you used a standard sealer with an accessory port.
What is a chamber sealer?
A chamber sealer is a fairly bulky device that contains a vacuum chamber instead of a vacuum channel. In these machines, the vacuum bag is placed inside the vacuum chamber.
What are the advantages of a chamber sealer?
There are a number of advantages. Since both the chamber and the bag are placed under a vacuum at the same time, there is no fluid sucking from the bag and into the machine. Therefore, it is easy to vacuum seal liquids without freezing them first.
Powdery substances, like flour, require special treatment when vacuum packing in a channel machine. However, flour can be put into a chamber sealer with no additional prep.
Chamber sealers use non-embossed vacuum bags, which are considerably cheaper than the embossed bags that channel sealers use. In fact, you can buy a pint-sized chamber bag for around three cents, which is less than a Ziploc sandwich bag.
It is more likely that you will waste less food if you have a chamber sealer. Carrots and celery are inexpensive vegetables and it made more sense for me to toss unused vegetables than vacuum seal them. However, since a pint-size chamber bag is so cheap I now freeze unused vegetables for my next stew or soup. The combined cost of a bunch of celery and carrots is around $3 where I live. If I throw away half, I’m giving away $1.50. I can now save that money using a 3-cent bag plus a tiny amount of electricity.
Chamber sealers can pull a stronger vacuum than a channel sealer. In most cases, this won’t make a difference. However, it may be important if you are storing food, like meats, for a very long time (years), or if you plan on doing redux canning.
What are the disadvantages of a chamber sealer?
Until recently, chamber sealers were commercial machines. Even the small ones were close to 100 pounds in weight, and took up a large amount of kitchen counter “real estate”. Many chamber sealers have an oil-type vacuum pump that requires some maintenance. Most chamber sealer styles are more suited for a functional butcher shop rather than a homey kitchen.
Chamber sealers can only accept bags that will fit inside of their chamber. You use premade bags (which come in many sizes) instead of rolls of bag material. Industrial chamber sealers may be slightly more complicated and intimidating to operate than most channel sealers, which only require a single push of a button. Until recently, even the cheapest chamber sealer was close to $1000.00 and did not offer any additional functionality.
Are there any consumer-level or less expensive chamber sealers?
Yes, in the last few years some new models have been introduced. They may have a smaller capacity and use more plastic, but they are considerably less expensive. You can buy a consumer-oriented chamber sealer in the $400-$1000 range. In addition, some of these consumer-oriented machines offer functions like an accessory port, or a marinate function. Some of these machines have a dry vacuum pump instead of a wet vacuum pump (oil-based) which eliminates pump maintenance.
You can also buy Chinese clones of traditional chamber sealers. I have one, and my sealer was inexpensive. However, my chamber is only 2” deep with a 2” lid dome (4” total), which is much shallower than a commercial brand. In addition, my chamber is painted steel instead of stainless steel (wouldn’t pass NSF certification), and it is likely that the overall quality of my components is not as good as a commercial machine. However, it works well enough for me!
Is there an advantage to having an oil-based vacuum pump?
All channel-type sealers use a dry (not oil-based) pump, whereas professional chamber machines mostly use oil-based pumps. Dry pumps are maintenance-free, so why use oil vacuum pumps at all? Oil-based pumps are more efficient and will vacuum larger volumes of air faster. In addition, oil-based pumps last longer.
Changing the oil on an oil-based pump is a simple job. However, you have to remember to do it. Your user manual will recommend when you should change the pump’s oil.
Are there any vacuum sealers that are manufactured in the US?
I can’t speak on industrial-level sealers, but as far as I know, all vacuum sealers mentioned here are manufactured in China.
A company may design a unit in the US and have a Chinese manufacturer build it, or it may modify a Chinese designed unit, or it may simply rebrand a Chinese designed unit.
When it comes to consumer-level machines it is likely that a no-brand machine is similar in construction to a branded machine. However, it is easy to return a defective FoodSaver to Costco, but few will return a no-name device bought on eBay back to China.
I hope that I have answered any questions that you may have about vacuum sealers. The next post will help you sort through which sealer is best for you.