Countertop food sealers are just that -- a larger appliance that can sit on your counter. Some food sealers use proprietary plastic bags, while others use polyethylene roll plastic (a thick type of plastic that can withstand the heat used in sealing, sometimes with an outer layer of nylon) that is made by a number of manufacturers.
Experts say you should definitely consider operating costs before settling on a vacuum sealer. Although the initial outlay for a countertop food sealer is greater, roll plastic can be bought relatively cheaply in bulk. The plastic can be cut into bags of any length, reducing waste and saving money in the long run. This is not true of handheld vacuum food sealers, however, which function in the same manner (using heat to create an airtight seal) but can be used only with specially designed bags.
FoodSaver is the biggest name in vacuum food sealers, and we certainly found the largest number of reviews for FoodSaver brand vacuum sealers; the company makes about 20 models that vary in features, design and cost. However, while we found plenty of reviews for FoodSaver models, those reviews are pretty inconclusive. In several cases, we found just as many 1-star complaints as 5-star raves for a given FoodSaver vacuum sealer model.
The FoodSaver V3840 Vacuum Sealer Kit (*Est. $150) gets slightly better reviews than other models from this brand, but ratings still aren't great enough for us to recommend buying this food sealer. (This model is also sold as the FoodSaver V3825 or FoodSaver V2825 at some retailers, with no differences other than model number.) The FoodSaver V3840 has LED progress lights, two vacuum speeds, two seal levels, a crush-free setting for delicate items, a built-in cutter, roll storage and a bag opener. It stands about 10 inches tall and comes with a variety of canisters and plastic-bag material. More than 100 owners offering feedback on the FoodSaver V3835 (identical to the V3840) on Amazon.com are evenly split, with as many 1-star reviews as 5-star ratings.
Many reviewers complain that the automatic sensor doesn't detect a bag -- and therefore won't seal -- until the bag is about 1.5 inches into the slot, wasting lots of plastic. Others argue that this amounts to only a few cents per inch and is minimal compared to the cost savings from buying in bulk and preserving foods longer. Other complaints are that the machine is finicky to use -- that you have to have the bag inserted just right or you won't get a seal.
The FoodSaver V3840 is recommended "with reservations" by one cooking magazine; editors say the sealing slot is a bit narrow and the sealer itself is bulkier than other vacuum sealers. And although it offers different settings for dry and moist foods, editors found no difference between the two settings. While it's clear that some owners are happy with this vacuum food sealer, the very high percentage of negative reviews keeps us from recommending this $150 unit.
The least expensive FoodSaver sealer, the FoodSaver V2040 Vacuum Packaging System (*Est. $75), is also sold as the FoodSaver V2060 at some retailers (the sealers are identical other than model number). This compact vacuum food sealer takes up less counter space, but doesn't have all the bells and whistles of the FoodSaver V3840. It does have a push-and-lock latch, which means users only have to hold the lid down until it locks, not during the entire sealing process. It also has an accessory hose for canister sealing. Owners posting to Amazon.com are less than enthusiastic; about 25 users contribute to an average rating of 2.5 stars out of 5. There are many complaints of the V2040 vacuum food sealer not pulling all the air out of bags, not creating a consistent seal or not working at all after only a few uses.
Less expensive than any FoodSaver-brand vacuum food sealers, the Seal-a-Meal VS107 Food Sealer (*Est. $55) performs well in one professional comparison test of eight vacuum sealers, showing only small air pockets after a month and early signs of freezer burn after two months. Canadian shopping pundits and television hosts Anna Wallner and Kristina Matisic review three vacuum sealers on their blog, AnnaAndKristina.com, finding that the Seal-a-Meal VS107 provides good suction strength when measured with a pressure gauge (not as strong as the now-discontinued Deni Magic Vac Vantage, but stronger than the FoodSaver model they tested). The bags also didn't leak during testing.
As with pretty much all food sealers at Amazon.com, owner reviews are hit or miss for the Seal-a-Meal VS107, with a few more 1-star ratings than 5-star reviews contributing to an overall rating of 3 stars out of 5 (based on nearly 45 reviews). The most consistent complaint is that it takes a long time to create the seal, and users must hold down the lid firmly with both hands while operating. There are a few reports of defective units, and some say that although the bags sealed, they sealed with air in them. Several owners also note that upon contacting Rival, they were told that the company does not repair units and does not sell replacement parts. Bottom line: If you end up with a malfunctioning unit, you're out of luck unless you purchase a new machine. Rival sells both bags (*Est. $15 for 22 1-quart bags) and rolls for the Seal-a-Meal VS107 and other Rival-brand vacuum sealers, which can be cut into various sizes (*Est. $10 for two 9-foot rolls). The Seal-a-Meal VS107 can also be used with other brands' bags or rolls, however, such as FoodSaver vacuum sealer bags.
While user reviews for the Seal-a-Meal VS107 are similarly frustrating compared to those for the FoodSaver sealers, the Seal-a-Meal version costs a lot less. That's why we're giving it a cautious nod in our report. But frankly, all vacuum food sealers seem problematic for one reason or another.
In most cases, experts say vacuum sealers with lots of bells and whistles aren't worth the added cost. But if you want to keep foods perfectly sealed and frost-free over several months, editors at a leading food magazine say the Weston Vacuum Sealer Pro (*Est. $450), sold as the Cabela's CG-15 on Cabelas.com, is worth the extra expense. It was the only vacuum sealer in a comparison review of eight models that kept foods frost-free after two months of freezer storage. It's not a hands-free sealer -- you have to push on the lid during sealing -- and it's big and bulky at 26.5 pounds. If you need to freeze large quantities of food for two months or more and have the storage space, the potential savings (from buying in bulk and extending the storage life of foods) could justify the hefty price tag.
About 200 owners contribute to an average rating of 4.6 stars out of 5 on Cabelas.com, where user reviews say this heavy-duty model is worth the cost, especially if you seal large quantities of fish or game. There's only one sealing setting, but there is a manual mode that can be used to seal soft foods without crushing them. Replacement parts (gaskets, sealing strips) are also available to extend the life of the Cabela's CG-15. A few owners say this vacuum sealer isn't the most ideal for use with wet foods; others say it can be done with caution. A few owners posting to Amazon.com (where it has an average rating of 5 stars out of 5 based on just under 10 reviews) note that this vacuum sealer doesn't function as well when using bags from other manufacturers. The Weston/Cabela's bags (*Est. $30 for 100 8-by-12-inch bags) are reusable and dishwasher-, microwave- and boil-safe.
Handheld vacuum food sealers run on batteries and cost a fraction of the price of countertop food sealers. Reviews say they are best reserved for light-duty sealing and for foods that are destined to be sealed just once, not opened and resealed repeatedly. Unlike countertop vacuum sealers, handheld food sealers use zipper bags, which don't have to be cut open with scissors. Although this is convenient, countertop food sealer bags, made of heavier-gauge plastic, are better at preventing freezer burn over the longer term than zipper bags. In Fine Cooking's tests, two of the most popular handheld sealers --- the Debbie Meyer Reynolds Handi-Vac and the now-discontinued PackMate Vacu-Seal -- couldn't keep all the air out of bags that had been sealed once, then opened and resealed.
The Debbie Meyer Reynolds Handi-Vac (*Est. $15) gets good (but not great) overall feedback from owners posting to Amazon.com and Viewpoints.com, although it is now sold primarily through HSN (though you may find it at some discount retailers as well). Most agree that it's easy to use and works pretty well. Many say it's limited in comparison to countertop models, but just fine for simple use. As with other vacuum food sealers, there isn't much middle ground in user reviews. For example, at Amazon.com alone, out of more than 130 total reviews (and an average rating of 3.5 stars out of 5) about 60 owners give the Handi-Vac a 5-star review -- but just over 40 give a 1-star rating. The complaints are uniform, with most saying that it's nearly impossible to suction out the air and get a good seal with the Handi-Vac. About 50 owners contribute to an average rating of 4 stars out of 5 on Viewpoints.com -- a better overall score -- where 82 percent of reviewers say they'd recommend this handheld vacuum sealer. The most common complaint here is that the batteries don't last very long and are difficult to replace. Comments are similar at HSN; some users say the Handi-Vac works well, while others complain that the bags don't hold a seal very well.
The proprietary Handi-Vac replacement bags may be hard to find in stores, but they can be found on Amazon.com (*Est. $30 for 30 1-gallon bags). Professional reviewers are also split on the Handi-Vac. One consumer testing organization found that foods were free of freezer burn after more than a month, but testing conducted by a popular cooking magazine notes that air seemed to leak into the bags over time and some foods were covered in frost after 30 days. The area around the seal must be dry, so it can be difficult to seal bags of soup or fruit purees tightly.
The verdict on the Handi-Vac: It's inexpensive and probably worth a try. You'll know quickly whether it works for you or not. Those who like this gadget really seem to love it, but a fairly large percentage of owners aren't happy with it at all.
FoodSaver also makes a handheld vacuum sealer, the FoodSaver FreshSaver Handheld Vacuum Sealing System (*Est. $20), but little feedback is available for this model. Just over 20 reviewers provide feedback at Amazon.com, where it has an average rating of 3.5 stars out of 5. Most owners say that the handheld sealer works just fine, but the bags don't hold the seal for longer than a day or two. Other reviewers say they've only experienced this problem when they've resealed the same bag numerous times. There are also numerous complaints that the canister adapter is not included in the package as advertised. FoodSaver FreshSaver bags (*Est. $10 for 12 1-gallon bags) are about the same price as the Handi-Vac bags, and several owners suggest the bags are interchangeable.