It seems the whole world has embraced the ethos of the ant this season, and not the grasshopper. Collectively we are preserving and storing food more than ever before: to maximize summer/early fall produce bounties, to reduce food waste in anticipation of tighter access to foods in coming pandemic months, and to have something productive to do while spending so much time at home. It’s been a big turn for many of us, but in many ways a good one.
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Which is why it’s time to talk about vacuum sealers. Built to do just what it sounds like—seal up food for easy long-term storage by removing any air—vacuum sealers can be tremendously useful for food preservation of all kinds. Here are the top 3 reasons you should consider investing in a vacuum sealer now, plus great models to buy now.
It might seem counterintuitive for a small household, but a vacuum sealer is a terrific investment if you are only one or two at home. Since smaller households tend to go through food at a slower pace, the ability to preserve foods in smaller amounts or to store them over a longer time will help you avoid food spoilage. Whether it is repackaging a partially used wedge of parmesan cheese, breaking down a package of meat into smaller portions for freezing, or re-sealing pantry items like crackers or cereal to keep them from staling, a vacuum sealer is a great thing to have in your kitchen.
A vacuum sealer does two things: it removes air from the container (usually a bag), then it seals the bag with a heated strip, trapping the vacuum inside. Air is removed with a pump that works by pulling air at a faster rate than ambient air can replace it.
Pump quality varies, and is in large part the deciding factor on the price of a food vacuum sealer machine. Many edge vacuum sealers have pups with plastic parts. They work alright and can achieve a decent vacuum, but they overheat easily. They have to cool down in between uses, and often can't withstand heavy use.
Higher quality food vacuum sealers have heavier-duty pumps made of sturdier parts. They can withstand frequent use and don't need to cool down between uses.
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Why Is Vacuum So Great at Preserving Food?
Contact with oxygen is what deteriorates food, causing spoilage. In the freezer, it causes ice to form, creating freezer burn. Vacuum packing removes almost all of the oxygen from the food container. When there is little oxygen to react with, food stays fresher longer in the pantry and the refrigerator, and won't get freezer burn in the freezer. That’s really all there is to it.
It is not possible to remove 100% of the oxygen by vacuum sealing. So vacuum-sealed food doesn’t last forever. But it can remove enough oxygen to greatly extend shelf life. Some estimates are that vacuum sealing extends the life of frozen food by up to 5 years!
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The Two Types of Food Vacuum Sealers: External and Internal
There are two main types of food vacuum sealers: edge sealers and chamber vacuum sealers (typically called “chamber vacs”). Both types have advantages and disadvantages.
Edge sealers, also called external sealers or suction sealers, are the simplest and most common type of automatic vacuum sealer. You simply fill a bag with food, place the bag in the sealer, and begin the sealing process. The vacuum is created inside the bag only, which makes it nearly impossible to seal anything but solid foods (because the pump will suck out liquid as it sucks out air).
Many edge sealers have options for moist foods and soft foods, allowing you to control the amount of vacuum they pull so as not to draw moisture up into the pump or crush soft food (bread, for example) with too much vacuum. Decreasing the vacuum leaves air in the bag, however, so you may get similar results by just using a Ziploc or other food storage bag for soft/moist foods. One clever workaround is to freeze liquids before vacuum sealing.
They use special resealable bags that have a small hole through which vacuum is pulled. Handheld sealers are tiny and generally don't pull a super strong vacuum, but because the bags are reusable, usually for up to 10 times, they're great for leftovers and sous vide (as opposed to long term freezer or pantry storage).
In general, edge sealers are the most economical choice, but are sometimes not as well made as chamber vacuums. Most consumer brands--like FoodSaver and Seal-a-Meal--are not designed for heavy use. The pumps overheat easily, so you need to let the machine cool down in between uses. This can be frustrating and time consuming if you're freezing, say, half a cow or a few bushels of veggies from your garden.