Vacuum Sealers

From Cook's Country | August/September 2009

Overview:

If you pick bushels of berries, buy steaks in bulk, or return from a fishing trip with unexpected bounty, you have more than you can immediately eat. Freeze your stockpile with the notion of feasting all winter, and just one month later you are likely to find it encrusted with fine white crystals. Should you buy a vacuum sealer, a device that promises to keep food fresher in the freezer (“up to five times longer,” swears one brand) by creating an airtight wrap? We tested eight models with prices ranging from $18 to a whopping $470.

As food freezes, moisture migrates to the surface and forms ice crystals. Over time, the food dehydrates, discolors, and loses flavor. A good supermarket zipper-lock freezer bag can stave off these problems for a few weeks. But in our tests, food stored in freezer bags was covered with frost after a month. Would vacuum sealers work better for longer-term storage?

An Airtight Case

We assembled ground coffee, fresh strawberries, 50 pounds of raw steak and chicken breasts, and a fully cooked Thanksgiving… read more

If you pick bushels of berries, buy steaks in bulk, or return from a fishing trip with unexpected bounty, you have more than you can immediately eat. Freeze your stockpile with the notion of feasting all winter, and just one month later you are likely to find it encrusted with fine white crystals. Should you buy a vacuum sealer, a device that promises to keep food fresher in the freezer (“up to five times longer,” swears one brand) by creating an airtight wrap? We tested eight models with prices ranging from $18 to a whopping $470.

As food freezes, moisture migrates to the surface and forms ice crystals. Over time, the food dehydrates, discolors, and loses flavor. A good supermarket zipper-lock freezer bag can stave off these problems for a few weeks. But in our tests, food stored in freezer bags was covered with frost after a month. Would vacuum sealers work better for longer-term storage?

An Airtight Case

We assembled ground coffee, fresh strawberries, 50 pounds of raw steak and chicken breasts, and a fully cooked Thanksgiving dinner, then sealed and froze all of it. Our sealers ranged from handheld models to countertop devices. Most of the latter were about the size of a shoebox; one was larger.

Two handheld models seemed dummy-proof: We zipped the food into a plastic bag that has a valve, where we pressed the motorized device to suck out air. All was well until a few coffee grounds or a smear of mashed potatoes got in the way of the zipper. Suddenly, the bags refused to become airtight. Countertop models, which use heat for a tight seal, were more reliable. Most came with both premade bags and rolls made of two layers of plastic already sealed along the sides. We preferred the rolls, which let us create custom-sized bags.

To use the roll, you cut a piece to size, insert one open end into the machine to seal it, add the food, and then close the remaining open side, activating both vacuum and seal. All but two of the models required that you press firmly on them while sealing. One cumbersome model required that we press on different corners while simultaneously flattening the bag. Our favorite models all had sensors to detect overflowing liquids.

We pulled out the frozen packages after two weeks. We weren’t surprised that the food in two models was coated in ice crystals, the first sign of freezer burn. Those models had failed to form tight seals from the start, especially around the curvy contours of strawberries. Handheld models had formed seemingly airtight seals, but at the two-week mark, bricks of coffee were limp sacks.

After one month, our top four continued to hold up. One model was frost-free; tiny air pockets filled with frost surrounded the others. After two months, one wrapped steak remained bright red with just a little frost, while the remaining three contenders showed early-stage freezer burn.

It turns out that jagged ice crystals can poke pinholes through plastic, letting air and moisture seep in. At 0.05 mm thick, the winning model’s bags were 0.02 mm thicker than the runner-up bags, and 0.03 mm thicker than a standard zipper-lock bag. Small as it may seem, that extra protective bulk made a lot of difference and pushed our winner to the top.

It's a Wrap

Are vacuum sealers economical? It depends how much food you freeze. Each vacuum sealer works only with its own plastic, and cheaper models didn’t necessarily come with cheaper plastic. A quart bag costs 26 cents with the $470 model and nearly three times that with the $30 model. The others averaged 45 to 55 cents per bag or foot.

Without a doubt, our winner did the best job of getting an airtight seal and keeping food fresh in the freezer. But it requires lots of counter space, a little muscle, and a very large budget. For most people, our runner-up is a better choice. It was the easiest to use and kept a respectable seal after a month. It’s our Best Buy.

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