Thursday, December 8, 2016

Vacuum Sealers

If you've ever found a package of food at the bottom of your freezer that you misplaced months ago, you've experienced freezer burn. Most of the packaging used for food is not air-tight, and some of it is barely water-tight, so food left in a freezer for a long time will lose moisture (low temperature = low humidity) and will look slightly burnt. This will affect the flavor of the food and can make it harder to cook.

The way to avoid freezer burn is to repack food for long-term storage in air-tight packaging. Fortunately, there are tools called vacuum sealers which are fairly inexpensive and simple to use. Their makers claim that vacuum sealing your food can extend the freezer-life up to five-fold, so buying food in bulk and repacking it might make a bit more sense if you know it will still be worth eating by the time you get to it. 

The original Dazey Seal-a-Meal was built to seal food in a boil-able pouch to make meal preparation easier. The early ones didn't have vacuum pumps in them, but it's hard to find one today that doesn't have a vacuum pump. The invention and adoption of microwave ovens killed the idea of boiling food in bags for the most part, although the food snobs around here will know what sous vide means.

Brand names will vary (if in doubt, read the instruction manual), but they all work in the same manner. Starting with a tube of suitable plastic and a vacuum sealer, the sequence goes something like this:
  1. Measure out how much of the tube you think you're going to need to hold the food. 
  2. Add an inch (or more, depending on your sealer) to each end for the seams. The first few attempts will let you know how much extra you'll need. 
  3. Cut the tube to the desired length. Most sealers have a cutter built into the lid to ensure straight, even cuts because the machines are not very tolerant of jagged edges. 
  4. Place one end of the tube in the sealer and activate it to melt the plastic together, creating a pouch. 
  5. Carefully place the food into the pouch, keeping the plastic on the open end as clean as possible. This ensures a good seal can be made when you're done. 
  6. Place the open end of the pouch in the sealer and activate the vacuum pump. Depending on the size of the package and type of food, removing the excess air can take a few seconds or a few minutes. 
  7. Most sealers have an automatic sealing function once the vacuum pump reaches a set pressure. The cheaper machines may need you to press a separate button to start the sealing. 
  8. Remove your sealed package and label it. Brand-name bags have a white area every few inches to give you a place to write using a permanent marker.
Vacuum sealers some in a variety of sizes and functions.
  • The cheaper ones will work with standard 8 inch wide rolls of plastic. These are good for occasional use and smaller items, but they may not have a very long life. Prices are usually under $50. 
  • The mid-level ones, priced between $50 and $100, will handle up to 11 inch wide rolls and may have a tube or port for use with special lids or containers. Repair parts are available at this level, and the pumps are much better than those in the cheap machines. 
  • The high-end machines, the ones that will set you back more than $100, will almost always have a connection for a hose and tend to be better built. Warranties tend to be better, repair parts are available, and the machines at this level tend to use more metal in their construction.
The sealers themselves aren't hard to find (I got mine at a thrift store for $10 and it works); the real expense is plastic rolls. Brand-name rolls and pre-cut bags get expensive, but there are other options, so if you're using your sealer a lot, look for generic rolls online. I have yet to see anything other than the brand-name rolls on a store shelf, so you're going to have to hit Amazon or eBay to get a better price. 100 ft of 8-inch tube for $20 sounds better to me than 40 ft of the same size for $20. Shop around, because once you see how well these machines work, you'll find other uses for them.

Speaking of which, next week I'll explore sealing things other than food with a vacuum sealer. Plastic is a great way to keep dirt and bugs out of and off of things in storage.

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