Thursday, February 11, 2016

Why You Should Buy a Vacuum Sealer

I bought a Foodsaver vacuum sealer a few months ago, and I've come to the conclusion that everyone should buy one.  That's a pretty bold statement, I admit.  I'll explain it in detail, but for the TLDR crowd:
  1. Everyone should eat lots of fresh vegetables
  2. Food waste is a big problem
  3. A vacuum sealer will make fresh vegetables (and a lot of other things) last much longer
Basically a vacuum sealer makes it easy to eat a lot of fresh veggies, salad, and other perishable items without having some of them go bad.  It's like a level-up for your refrigerator.  And you can get started very cheaply - for as little as $15.  By using the Foodsaver mason jar attachment, you can vacuum seal in reusable jars, without wasting plastic bags.  Case in point: salad greens:

Spring mix, crisp and delicious after two weeks vacuum sealed in the fridge.

I still use the plastic bags occasionally, but the mason jar attachment is what really makes my Foodsaver shine.  At a one-time purchase of $10, this little gadget is our key to storing food in completely re-usable, plastic-free glass jars.  This turned my sealer from a kitchen toy into a workhorse that has changed my life.  And that is no exaggeration.  I'm eating a lot more vegetables now.  Orders of magnitude more salad.  And I've hardly thrown away any food since I got it.

The attachment hooks up to your Foodsaver with a hose (or you can use it with much cheaper hand pumps, more on that later).  When you want to seal a jar you put on a standard mason jar lid (just the lid, and not the band).  Put the attachment on top of the jar, press the canister button, and let it go to town.  When the motor turns off, undo the lock lever on your Foodsaver to release the pressure (or remove the hose) and take the attachment off.

Sealing some kale in a jar before a road trip - it'll be crisp and fresh in the fridge when I get back.

The lids can be reused over and over again.  There are two sizes of jar lids - the wide mouth and regular.  I prefer the wide mouth for just about everything but the smaller 4oz and 8oz jars are only available in the regular size.

As for opening the jars once they are sealed, there are two good ways.  First, Foodsaver recommends putting a spoon between the top thread of the jar and the lid and turning it.  This uses leverage and is very easy.  But I find it's more convenient just to use my thumbs.  Hold the mason jar in both hands and press up firmly on the lid with both thumbs.  Listen for the "woosh" sound as air enters the jar, and enjoy the contents.

Opening a jar of goat cheese with my preferred method.

So, What Does Vacuum Sealing Actually Do?

It's important to talk briefly about what vacuum sealing does for food storage (and what it doesn't do).  Vacuum sealing a mason jar removes most of the oxygen, and that has several effects.  The most important for me are that it stops mold, slows vegetable wilting and slows flavor changes from oxidation.  This means that it will help some foods last much longer in the fridge, or help dry foods last much longer in the cupboard.  It also prevents freezer burn.

It's important not to use the vacuum sealer as a substitute for canning, because of botulism.  Botulism spores can't reproduce in the cold of the fridge, or in dry food.  But if you are trying to store wet food outside of the fridge in a vacuum you're actually creating ideal conditions for botulism.  So don't do it.  Here's are some things you can (and should!) use a vacuum sealer for!

Fresh Vegetables

Yum, delicious salad!

In my experience, any vegetable you seal in a mason jar will last longer.  This is where my Foodsaver has really changed my diet - I'm eating things like celery and salad again.  Celery stays crisp and fresh for weeks when sealed in a mason jar in the fridge!  No longer do I buy some for a soup and then end up with half of it sad and limp in a week.  I can buy a bunch and use it at my leisure.

Salad is really the "killer app" of the Foodsaver for me.  I got out of the habit of buying it for a long time before I got my vacuum sealer.  I was tired of picking out wilted greens, or having it get slimy in the fridge.  I would end up wasting half of a bag by the time it was done.  I don't like to waste food, so I just stopped buying it.  I'm sure I'm not alone in this problem.

But now salad is so easy to deal with!  I buy large 1-pound boxes of spring mix, pick out whatever has gone bad already and seal the rest in quart-sized mason jars.  The salad will keep for a couple weeks in the fridge this way and stay totally fresh and crisp.  So when I'm in the mood for a salad I just grab a jar and go to town.  No wilting, no sliminess, just delicious salad every time.

Broccoli, roughly chopped and sealed in a half-gallon mason jar.

There are a lot more uses than salad and celery, too.  Got more veggies than you need for dinner?  Cut it all up anyway, seal the extras in a mason jar and they'll last longer in the fridge so you can use them in another meal.  Got some extra lime or lemon halves?  Store them in a jar to use later; they'll keep for at least a month.  Carrots will keep for over a month as well, without drying out or becoming limp.  Basically, put an end to food waste in your household!

Whole limes will keep in the fridge for weeks in a vacuum sealed jar.  Even limes cut in half will keep for a while without drying out.
Dry Food

Some jars in my backpacking food cache.  From left to right: Mountain House fried rice, dried hummus, corn snacks, freeze-dried veggies, dried mangos, dried spinach, home-dried roasted red bell peppers, Nido whole milk powder, and dried pork.

Dry food might not be an obvious use for the sealer, because it is shelf-stable already.  But as someone who has a large cache of backpacking food, I'm well aware of the ways that dry food can go bad.  There are two basic ways that it happens - fats go rancid, and food becomes overly dry.

The rancid part is the most common.  Basically oils oxidize and this makes them taste stale.  The flavor is a lot like the way playdough smells if you aren't familiar with it.  This happens a lot with nuts but also with other backpacking food.  Now that I have the foodsaver I can buy nuts and other dried food in bulk and seal them in jars.  This saves me a lot of money.

The less common problem is that food becomes overly dry.  This happens with dried fruit (dried organic mangoes become brittle particularly fast), and makes it much less pleasant to eat.  It also seems to bring out bitter flavors in some fruit.  It also makes freeze-dried items rehydrate slower.  Seal them in jars and they'll last for months, if not years (maybe decades for freeze-dried food) without losing their deliciousness.

With these two problems at bay, I can keep a backpacking food cache in my garage.  So I can buy things in bulk, and when it comes time to pack for a trip I don't really need to buy much.  This saves me from going to multiple different stores before a trip.  For example, I like to buy dried fruit at Natural Grocer's in Flagstaff, which is all the way across town from me.  It's really good quality but inconvenient to get to.  Now I just buy it in bulk and take it out of the jars as needed.  I do the same with Mountain House dinners in #10 cans, as well as freeze-dried veggies and other ingredients that I have to buy at specialty stores.

Bulk Purchases

Half-gallon mason jars are great for bulkier items like this kettle corn.
This category encompasses some of the previous ideas, but it's worth going into in its own right.  I'm a big Costco/Sam's Club shopper (I wish Flagstaff had Costco but Sam's is what we have).  I think I get it from my grandparents, who would buy food on sale, and had 3 freezers full of ice cream in their basement.  Some day...

Anyway, having a Foodsaver makes a lot of bulk purchases more feasible.  I already mentioned nuts and backpacking food, but the sky's the limit really.  I bought a giant bag of kettle corn on sale at Sam's a month ago, and sealed it in half-gallon jars (yes, they make them that big!).  I've still got one sitting in my cupboard, waiting for snacktime.  Or I can buy queso fresco or goat cheese in bulk, crumble it into a mason jar and seal.  Need just a bit of goat cheese for a salad or a pizza?  No problem, pop open the jar and pour some out.

Those examples were great cost-savers, but some of my bulk purchases are more about convenience.  If I know I'll go through something it's easier to buy a bunch of it than to have to go back to the store later.  For example, I buy good quality Morena sugar for making ice cream in bulk, and seal it in jars so that it won't clump up over time.  You could do the same for any kind of sugar.  No longer do I have old bags of rock hard brown sugar in the cupboard.  I also use arrowroot powder as a thickener (it's great for ice cream), and I've read that it will lose thickening power over time.  Not in a vacuum sealed mason jar it won't!

Arrowroot powder and brown sugar - no clumping here!

Where To Get The Supplies

Pretty much any FoodSaver brand vacuum sealer has a hose for use with Foodsaver canisters or the jar sealer.  But I'll provide links to the Amazon listings for some options I recommend.  These are affiliate links, which means I get a little bit of Amazon credit if you click on them and order the product.  It doesn't add any cost to you.  I'm not going to get rich off of this but why not?  If you enjoyed the read you can support the time I spent writing it and maybe I can buy a book or two.

For the vacuum sealer, I use this Gamesaver model, because it has good reviews and I've heard the Gamesaver series is heavier duty than the regular models.  I'm not sure if that's true and I haven't had mine long enough to tell, but it seems sturdy and I trust the reviews.  My only complaint is that it's a little loud, but I think that's true of any vacuum sealer except the Ziplock kit (read on).

There are two cheaper options - the Reynolds Handi-Vac and the Ziplock starter kit.  They both come with a pump and special bags, and in both cases the bags aren't very good.  But the pumps work on top of the Foodsaver mason jar attachment.  So with the Ziplock kit you can start vacuum sealing mason jars for under $15, and the Reynolds pump isn't much more.   I have the Ziplock pump as a backup.  One advantage is that it's hand powered and therefore quiet.  It doesn't pull as strong of a vacuum, so I still use my Foodsaver most of the time.

All of these sealers require the Foodsaver wide-mouth mason jar attachment.  You can also get the regular-mouth attachment here.  I recommend the wide mouth attachment for most foods - it works better, plus the wide mouth jars are more convenient and easy to clean.  The regular mouth sealer is quirky and requires you to use two lids when sealing a jar - the bottom lid will seal onto the jar and the top is just a spacer that makes the sealer work.  I only use the regular-mouth attachment for 8oz and 4oz jars, to seal spices and other small items.

As for the mason jars, I don't recommend ordering these online.  You should be able to find them locally if you shop around - half of the grocery stores in my area have them and half don't.  But the cheapest place is actually my local ACE hardware store, and that seems to be true in other places as well.  So check your hardware store first.

Lastly, I splurged a bit and got this Stainless Steel Wide-Mouth Funnel.  Unlike most canning funnels it's specifically made for wide-mouth jars, and it's built to last.  It's a bit expensive for a funnel but it's been well worth it for me, and I expect to get decades of use out of it.

Other Uses For the Sealer

Here are some more uses for the sealer that didn't fit into the post.  I'll add to this as I think of more:
  • Fresh berries (I haven't tried this but I've heard it works really well)
  • Some spices are worth storing in jars - I have some nutmeg sealed in a small jar.  It should last me for years at the rate I use it, and it won't go bad on me like it has in the past
  • Next time you buy a bunch of green onions, chop up the whole bunch at once and seal in a small jar to use as needed
  • Shred a whole block of cheese at once with a food processor and seal in jars
  • Freeze homemade ice cream in freezer-safe mason jars (like wide-mouth pints), then vacuum seal to prevent freezer burn
  • I make homemade yogurt by the gallon and seal it in quart jars - it'll keep for months in the fridge
  • Buy meat in bulk, cut it up all at once, then freeze it in portions so you can just pull it out and cook with it.  Normally all the extra surface area from cutting would subject the meat to freezer burn, but when vacuum sealed that doesn't happen.
  • You could seal cookies . . . if they last long enough in your house to get stale.  That's never been an issue for me.  But you could double your batches and seal half of it to eat later.  Since they're dry goods they can be stored at room temperature and they should keep texture and flavor better than if stored in the fridge or freezer.
Have your own ideas or experiences?  Post a comment below and add to the discussion.