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August/September 2014

Vacuum Sealers

With the next generation of home vacuum sealers out, could we find one that keeps food fresh without sucking our wallets dry?

How We Tested

Vacuum sealers are great for storing food. We use them at the test kitchen to help store hundreds of pounds of food weekly. They’re popular at home, too, among hunters and fishermen freezing their hauls, as well as among bulk shoppers, gardeners, and farmers’ market frequenters. They work by pulling air away and creating a tight seal around the food, blocking it from elements that hasten deterioration. We wrote about vacuum sealers a few years ago, but of the eight models we tested, only the winner, the Weston Pro 2300, still exists. Ours is still chugging along, sealing hundreds of pounds of meat weekly, but at $500, its cost and size make it impractical for most home cooks.

Fortunately, a new wave of sealers offers less expensive options, so we set ourselves a price cap of $200 and bought seven models to test, ranging from about $50 to $199. We sealed and froze strawberries, ground coffee, steaks, chicken, and individual portions of lasagna and monitored them for signs of freezer burn. We also portioned and sealed pretzels and cereal and stored them in the pantry, sampling them periodically to gauge freshness.

Comparing Vacuum Strength and Sealing Styles

We have good news to report: In our previous testing, only our winning model kept food freezer-burn-free for two months. This time at two months, food from six of the seven sealers still looked good. But eventually, a pattern emerged. Sealers come in two basic styles—heat seal or valve seal—and the latter lost their seals faster. Valve sealers use what look like extra-sturdy plastic storage bags; you zip the food in and the sealer then sucks the air out through a valve on the bag. We were intrigued by valve versions; they’re typically smaller, quieter, and cheaper. But they aren’t as foolproof because their bags are made of thick, often brittle plastic. It’s difficult to be certain they’re closed, and once they are, a firm jostle can break the seal. One valve sealer proved successful; at two and a half months a few packets had loosened seals but most still looked great, thanks to a small plastic clamp that you run over the zipper to definitively close the bag before sealing. Heat sealers, on the other hand, work by pulling away the surrounding air and closing off the plastic by melting it shut. With these sealers, it was easy to be sure the bags were closed—was the plastic melted or not?

The second factor was power. Vacuum strength is measured in inches of mercury (inHg); a higher number means a stronger suction. There’s a reason the Pro 2300 weighs a whopping 26 pounds: It houses a large motor that pulls 28 inHg of vacuum power. Not every manufacturer shared its sealer’s strength, but with those in our testing that did, we found a range from 11 to 23 inHg and the machine with the strongest vacuum kept food the freshest because less air was left in its bags. Stronger vacuums went hand in hand with larger motors, and for heat sealers a larger motor can support a more powerful seal bar—the chamber that heats up and seals off the plastic. A powerful seal bar heats up faster to quickly seal at maximum suction and seals more consistently, as it can power through small wrinkles and specks of errant food or liquid.

Also important: a manual pulse. Automatic pulse mode is too strong and crushed delicate items in its quest to vacate the air. Manual mode allows control over the vacuum, so you can stop it before it crunches your food. Our winning sealer had a responsive pulse mode, a large motor, and a powerful vacuum. It kept frozen food looking fresh and pantry items crisp for three months and counting.

Crowning the Best Vacuum Sealer

Our new winner is the home version of our favorite Pro 2300. The Pro 2300 has the muscle to seal hundreds of pounds of meat daily, and if money and space aren’t an issue, it’s still the best sealer we’ve tested, but for home use, our new winner has the muscle, seal quality, durability, and smaller footprint we require. The one valve sealer we liked kept the majority of its food fresh for at least three months, and at nearly $70, it’s a great choice for the occasional home sealer; we’re naming it our Best Buy.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

$33.31*

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.