There was a time when vacuum sealing foods was totally in the domain of large food processors. That all changed with the introduction of home vacuum sealers in the U.S. in the 1960’s. Even then, few people used them but as the prices have come down more and more people are using them for food preservation.
How Vacuum Sealing Works
The process of vacuum sealing food involves removing oxygen from the container or bag to create an air tight vacuum seal. This is done with a vacuum sealing machine and can be used on any type of moist or dry food like seafood, meats, vegetables or dry foods like rice, pasta and cereals.
The purpose of removing oxygen is to prevent the growth and accumulation of bacteria and micro-organisms such as mold or fungus. These bacteria reproduce and multiply and ruin not just the look and taste of food, but can also cause serious illness when eaten.
When you vacuum seal food, you deprive it of the oxygen most bacteria need in order to grow. Therefore, food stays fresher much longer.
The Food Storage Advantage
One of the best ways to store many foods is to vacuum seal them whether they are being stored in a pantry, refrigerator, root cellar or freezer. According to the manufacturers of vacuum sealers, vacuum sealing has the following benefits:
1. Vacuum Sealing Saves Money
Anytime you buy in bulk you usually get a discount. The downside is that most families can’t eat or don’t want to eat massive quantities of the same thing in a very short time. Conventional freezing is an option, but freezer burn often results over time. Vacuum sealing lets you divide any bulk purchase into smaller portions and seal and freeze them without fear of freezer burn.
2. Vacuum Sealing Saves Time
Vacuum sealing makes portion control easy. You can determine the exact proportions for each meal and vacuum seal them so they’re ready to go. Portion control usually helps you avoid the leftover hassle as well.
3. Speaking of Leftovers…
Leftovers are a fact of life and vacuum sealing will extend the shelf-life of your leftovers and make them easy to enjoy again. It’s also easy to divide leftovers into portions for that planned leftover lunch we never seem to get around to.
4. Vacuum Sealing is an Excellent Way to Preserve Food
Vacuum sealing allows you to preserve food without preservative additives or other complex food preservation methods. Vacuum sealing deprives food of oxygen so bacteria and mold cannot flourish.
5. Vacuum Sealing Extends Shelf-Life
Vacuum sealing can extend the shelf life of many foods by a factor of 3 to 5 times longer than food stored in conventional packaging. How long specific foods will last varies depending on how they are stored. Freezing presents the longest shelf life followed by refrigerator and then dry-storage in a pantry.
6. Vacuum Sealing Protects Meats, Fruits and Vegetables
Vacuum sealing not only prevents freezer burn but protects many foods from dehydration. Because the food is cut off from contact with the air, moisture cannot evaporate which is the driving factor in freezer burn and food dehydration. This works regardless of where you store it.
7. Vacuum Sealing Makes Food Organization Easy
The clear plastic used for vacuum sealing makes it easy to identify the contents of any vacuum sealed package. The vacuum process actually reduces the size and bulk of any food so it takes up less room regardless of where it is stored.
8. Vacuum Sealing Makes Food Taste Better
Vacuum sealing seals in the juices, moisture and other flavor factors that are often lost in food stored in conventional packaging. It’s also easy to pre-season foods before vacuum sealing to enhance the flavor.
9. Vacuum Sealing Keeps Food Grocery Store Fresh
Vacuum sealing prevents rancidity in any form of food containing fats.
10. Vacuum Sealing Liquids is Easier Than You Think
The key is to freeze any liquid before vacuum sealing. This is a great way to preserve stocks, fresh juices or any other liquid that puzzles you when it comes to preservation and storage. Just return the vacuum sealed frozen liquid to the freezer and it’s ready when you are.
11. Vacuum Sealers are Great for Snacks
Choose your favorite: potato chips, pretzels, trail mix, mixed nuts –they’ll all last longer, stay crisp and retain their flavor. The key is to only use the sealing control on your vacuum sealing with delicate snacks like potato chips and pretzels. Using the vacuum control will crush the snacks, but the sealing feature creates an airtight way to store any snack for the next snack time.
The benefits are pretty clear but it’s not magic, it’s science. That’s why you should continue to practice common-sense food-safety practices like thoroughly washing food before vacuum sealing an storing, and making sure you keep countertops, cutting boards and other surfaces clean to prevent the threat of cross-contamination.
But Don’t Get Cocky
Vacuum sealing does a great job at giving foods their best chance for safe and long-term storage, but it’s not magic -it’s still science. Vacuum sealing does not mean you can ignore common sense food preservation practices related to canning, pressure canning, sanitation, refrigeration and freezing.
The foods should continue to be stored where originally intended. If you vacuum seal frozen food –put it back in the freezer after vacuum sealing. If you’re vacuum sealing dry foods like pasta or rice, store them in the pantry where you would typically store dry foods.
While vacuum sealing will prevent spoilage to some degree, and extend the shelf life of many foods –food spoilage can still occur even in a vacuum. Here are the critical things to keep in mind when vacuum sealing any foods:
- On a fundamental level, vacuum sealing is simply another way to package food. It does not magically replace other food preservation methods. If you are vacuum sealing refrigerated foods, put them back in the refrigerator after vacuum sealing. The same goes for frozen food. Just as important, vacuum sealing is not a replacement for home canning.
- And it’s not just about fish. Some vegetables like raw onions, fesh mushrooms and fresh garlic can also present botulism when vacuum sealed raw. Store your garlic, onions and mushrooms in the traditional way and keep them away from the vacuum sealer.
- Some foods just aren’t meant to be vacuum sealed. This is particularly true with breads, pastry and other delicate foods that will be crushed by the vacuum sealing process. Like we said, vacuum is a good idea but it’s not magic.
And Here’s the Big Caution
Michigan State University has done a lot of research on botulism as it relates to fish that are vacuum sealed and frozen. According to MSU, Botulinum is an anaerobic bacterium, which means it can survive without oxygen and produce a deadly toxin.
This toxin leads to an illness called botulism and is generally life threatening. Some C. botulinum strains do not grow well in the refrigerator, and keeping the package sealed in cold conditions can prevent its growth.
But there are different strains of C. botulinum, and some can grow in cold temperatures -fish contain these strains. This means that even though fish is kept cold in the refrigerator, the C. botulinum can survive & produce a toxin if it is kept in the sealed ROP package. In other words, don’t thaw fish in a vacuum sealed package.
To reduce your risk of botulism from fish thawed in vacuum sealed packaging, remove the fish from packaging before thawing. Exposing the fish to oxygen will prevent the toxin from forming. It’s also recommended that any frozen foods that have been vacuum sealed always be thawed in the refrigerator –especially fish.
Michigan State University Extension recommends following these thawing recommendations to reduce chances of foodbourne illness. For more information on food safety, visit MSU Extension’s Safe Food & Water website.
Don’t Get Discouraged
Vacuum sealing works great for almost all types of foods and will keep them food safe and extend shelf-life. Just be careful with the fish. On that note, here are some general tips to think about when vacuum sealing various types of foods.
Liquid is the Biggest Challenge
You obviously wouldn’t try to vacuum seal a liquid like grape juice. Anyone who does will see the juice vacuumed into the unit and it will either create a giant mess or destroy the machine. If for any reason you want to vacuum seal any liquid (stocks, gravies, juices, soups, chili, syrups) freeze them first before placing in the bag for vacuum sealing.
If you’ve ever vacuum sealed a juicy steak or even chicken breasts you may have noticed the blood or juices getting sucked into the vacuum sealer. A simple solution is to once again freeze or partially freeze the meat to prevent the blood or juices from being drawn from the meat. The same applies to fish although remember the caution about thawing the fish outside of the package.
Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
Most fresh vegetables can be vacuum sealed raw after rinsing in water and towel drying. The drying is important to once again minimize liquids. You could also blanch the vegetables in boiling water for about a minute and then shocking them in ice water. Here again, drain and pat them dry before vacuum sealing. They can then either be refrigerated or frozen.
However, there are just as many recommendations that any fresh fruits or vegetables be flash frozen before vacuum sealing. The argument is that it will do more to retain color and taste and minimize moisture. A lot of that is up to you and your time.
Although there is a distinct advantage to freezing some of the more delicate fruits ahead of time. This is particularly true for berries that could get crushed under pressure while vacuum sealing. Freezing berries like blueberries first will help them retain their shape and their juice.
It all starts to get a little easier when the foods are dry like rice, beans, grains, pasta, potato flakes, dried fruits, dried vegetables, and even beef jerky. Just measure out the portion you want to package and let the machine do the work.
Vacuum sealing is great for leftovers but you may need to freeze them first if they are wet or greasy. Be sure to refrigerate or freeze them depending on when you’ll finally get around to eating them.
Label, Label, Label
Like any other style of food preservation, make sure you clearly label the contents and the date it was vacuum sealed. As time goes on you will no doubt have other food packages inter-mixed in the refrigerator and freezer and without a label it will be hard to keep track.
Vacuum Sealing Non-Food Items
Vacuum sealed packages are airtight. They’re also watertight. That combination is why some people choose to vacuum seal items other than food.
The benefit of a watertight seal is related to the effects of humidity and oxygen on many non-food items.
Going on a Canoe Trip?
It may be worth a bit of time to vacuum seal a spare cell phone, first aid kit, matches or anything else you don’t want to get wet in a very wet environment. Once you remove them from the vacuum sealed package they won’t be quite as waterproof, but even putting them back into an open plastic bag will afford some protection from water.
Important Documents in Storage?
Insurance policies, wills, birth certificates, diplomas, and other important documents are usually kept in a safe place. Vacuum sealing them adds another layer of protection from humidity, floods, or deterioration over time. The same is true with old and cherished photos or other paper based keepsakes and heirlooms and even CD’s with valuable photos or files.
Oxygen and humidity takes its toll on rare coins, stamps, collectible comic books, jewelry, and other keepsakes from grandpa’s watch to grandma’s cookbook. If it’s valuable and you want to protect it, vacuum sealing can add a layer of protection.
Stuff You Might Need Someday
If you don’t often use it but still don’t want to lose it –vacuum seal it. This could apply to obscure hardware, electronic components sensitive to moisture, medicines in long-term storage, and anything else that you want to store safely. Vacuum sealing is not expensive and the sealed items will be easy to identify through the clear plastic.
You could also vacuum seal things like a power outage kit, survival kit, ammunition, or anything else you want to store for an emergency. The sealed package is easy to grab and transport and again, the clear plastic makes it easy to identify the contents.
Choosing the Vacuum Sealer that’s Right for You
There are a lot of options out there when it comes to vacuum sealers. Prices vary across a range of machines with different features. Most people can get by with a basic vacuum sealer. Here’s a link to an article about the 10 Best Vacuum Sealers.
Some vacuum sealers are very affordable, while others are very expensive. As usual, you get what you pay for. However, any vacuum sealer can have a problem with gaskets that will cause the machine to fail to seal. If that happens, open the lid and check to see if the gaskets are in place and if need be, replace them. Too many people replace their vacuum sealers simply because a gasket has come loose or needs to be replaced.
It’s Still an Excellent Approach to Food Storage
If you follow some of the tips and cautions we’ve offered you’ll find that vacuum sealing is highly effective at preserving the flavor of food, extending shelf-life and keeping food safe to eat. All food preservation techniques require a series of steps and vacuum sealing may be the best step you can take.
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