Shopping the bulk aisle, visiting farmer's markets, or hunting, gardening and gathering your own produce are all great ways to procure a real bounty of food. But what happens when you end up with more than you can eat? Vacuum food sealers offer a quick, easy and ultimately inexpensive way of preserving that extra food. Whether you're packaging meat to prevent freezer burn, sealing in fresh veggies to prolong their life or vacuum sealing pantry goods, you can expect properly vacuum sealed food to last three to five times longer than unsealed food. A vacuum sealer is also a must for preparing food via the sous vide method.
One word of warning: Vacuum sealing doesn't eliminate the need to refrigerate perishable goods (or freeze them for long-term storage). See our report on freezers to find out which models do the best job of preserving your carefully packaged food. We also have reports on other popular countertop appliances like pressure cookers and slow cookers; the report on pressure cookers includes a section on pressure canners, another economical option for long-term food preservation.
External vacuum sealers are the most ubiquitous type of home-use vacuum sealer. These rectangular, countertop appliances clamp down on the neck of a specially designed plastic bag from the outside. The sealer then vacuums all the air out and uses a heated sealing bar to melt the neck of the bag shut. Because you don't have to fit the food being sealed into the body of the vacuum sealer, this type of machine excels at packaging large cuts of meat and filets of fish. On the downside, the sealer bar sometimes needs to "rest" for 10 or 15 seconds between uses.
External vacuum sealers are ideal for light to moderate household use, but they struggle with packaging messy foods like flour and anything with liquid in it, from soups to juicy cuts of meat. (This is because they suck the liquid out with the air, which them gums up the machine's internal workings and keeps the bag from sealing properly.)
Some external models have built-in drip trays to keep the juice from going into the vacuum sealer itself, and offer manual control of the vacuum/sealing functions to further cut down on the mess. You also have the option of freezing liquids or juicy meats before you seal them. But
Chamber vacuum food sealers were once the province of professional kitchens, but are becoming increasingly popular for home use. If you deal with messy foods frequently, or if you tend to vacuum seal large batches at a time, it's worth investing in a chamber vacuum food sealer. With these cube-shaped countertop appliances you put the food into the chamber, the vacuum sealer evacuates all the air from the chamber -- establishing a vacuum without squashing anything out of the bag -- and then seals the bag shut. You are limited only by the amount of food that can fit in the chamber. One Other caveat: although chamber vacuum sealers are very dependable, they're also bulky and heavy, making them the best choice for people who can store the machine on a wheeled cart or leave it on the countertop permanently.
Handheld food sealers offer a good balance between convenience and usability. They're a great choice if you want to have a vacuum sealer on hand to use only occasionally, or if storage space is at a premium. These petite appliances either draw the air out through a one-way valve in specially designed bags, or draw the air out through a small puncture in the bag, then seal all the way around the puncture.
However, some caution is advised before purchasing a handheld vacuum sealer. Motor size usually correlates to vacuum power, so they're best reserved for sealing small packages. Expert tests also found that handheld models don't always create a lasting seal, so consider opting for a larger model if you need to store food for long periods or seal medium to large batches.
Vacuum food sealers are meant for use with specially designed bags, usually made of tough polyethylene. The optimal bag type depends on which type of sealer you're using: Handheld sealers require bags with a zip closure and a one-way valve. External vacuum sealers work best with bags that have textured air channels molded into one side of the plastic. Because an external sealer's clamps hold the bag more or less closed as the vacuum works, those air channels give the air a way to move out of the bag. Some external sealers also have built-in cutters to help you slice your own bags from long sheets of plastic (which can save you quite a bit of money), and internal storage for the rolls of uncut bags. The bags for chamber vacuum sealers, meanwhile, are the most economical option; when purchased in bulk, their pre-made pouches cost just a couple of pennies apiece.
No matter what type of vacuum food sealer you choose, it has just two jobs: Sucking all the air out of the food bag, then sealing it shut. The best models evacuate the air completely, but also offer manual controls to keep the powerful vacuum motor from crushing soft or delicate foods. Once sealed, food should last at least three months in the freezer without showing frosting or freezer burn, and pantry goods should come out of the bags still tasting fresh.
If you want a top-of-the-line external vacuum sealer, the stainless steel Weston Professional Advantage (Est. $210) vacuum sealer is the top pick from a well-known test kitchen. Those expert testers praise this Weston for its compact size, powerful motor and intuitive controls, which include both automatic and manual control of the vacuum motor. Users love how the Professional Advantage's fan-cooled motor keeps it from overheating, and the nice wide seal it forms on the bag. That said, several comment on the amount of force it takes to close the hinged top.
Like most external vacuum sealers, the Professional Advantage's motor is loud, and users voice mixed opinions about how well it works with liquids. We also see mixed reviews on how well the Professional Advantage works with non-Weston bags, but the Weston bags are competitively priced at about $22 for 100 8-by-12 inch pouches. You can also purchase vacuum canisters and an accessory hose, which connects to the Professional Advantage so it can suck the air out of the canisters.
The Weston Professional Advantage can handle just about anything a typical household throws at it. But if you're a frequent, heavy user, consider the Weston Pro 2300 (Est. $380), also made of stainless steel. It has the same manual/automatic control and intuitive LED display that shows its vacuum progress, but seals bags up to 15 inches wide and packs a powerful 935-watt motor for frequent, continuous use. On the downside, the Pro 2300 doesn't have a built-in cutter for making your own custom bag sizes, and both units are relatively big and heavy -- great qualities when it comes to durability, but problematic when it comes time to store them.
Both the Weston vacuum sealers just referenced are great deals if you plan to use them frequently. However, if your vacuum sealer use is light to moderate, a price tag of less than $100 becomes a real selling point. The two best-reviewed cheap countertop vacuum sealers both come from FoodSaver: The space-saving FoodSaver V3240 (Est. $100), and the FoodSaver V2244 (Est. $80).
The FoodSaver V3240 offers particularly good control over your vacuum sealing, with moist/dry food settings, an accessory port and hose for sealing vacuum canisters, and two vacuum speeds to choose from. All you have to do is feed the bag into the slot at the bottom of the FoodSaver V3240, lower the handle, and the machine does the rest automatically. Many users say they love watching this machine work; however, it receives poor reviews for its ability to handle moist cuts of meat. Some users say the only solution is to pre-freeze the meat -- and anything else with any liquid in it -- so the juices won't be sucked into the machine. A built-in bag cutter makes it easy to cut your own bags from FoodSaver rolls, and the removable drip tray is dishwasher safe.
The FoodSaver V2244 also comes with a dishwasher-safe drip tray and an accessory port/hose for vacuum-sealing canisters. However, it takes up more counter space than the more vertically designed V3240. The V2244 has just one speed to choose from and requires you to manually latch the lid down. Users appreciate this appliance for being exactly what it is: A great bargain for light use, with a vacuum motor that's strong enough to crush bread unless you freeze it first (or watch carefully and hit the "Seal" button to stop the vacuum motor). However, most users agree that if you need to seal more than a few bags at a time -- or if you want a built-in bag cutter -- it's worth investing in a more expensive model. If you buy premade FoodSaver bags, they typically run about $17 for a box of 44 quart-size bags.
Chamber vacuum sealers offer the most versatility and power. There's just one limitation: Whatever you're sealing has to fit into the machine's internal chamber with the lid closed. The VacMaster VP112S (Est. $665) offers a great compromise between internal space and a relatively low profile; its 12 by 11 by 5 inch domed chamber can hold pouches up to 12 by 14 inches and, at 46 pounds, it's downright portable -- for a chamber vacuum sealer, anyway.
The vacuum sealer enthusiasts at VacuumSealerDigest.com choose the VP112S as one of their top chamber vacuum sealers, and users agree: They love the versatile controls that let them tweak vacuum strength, vacuum time, and time and temperature for the sealer bar, although mastering the controls has a bit of a learning curve. If you only vacuum seal a few items a week, a machine like this may be overkill -- but when it comes to heavy use and sealing soup, flour, or the juicy cuts of meat that often cause problems for external vacuum sealers, owners are uniformly thrilled about having made the investment in a chamber sealer.
If you need a little more space, the VacMaster VP210 (Est. $840) has a slightly deeper chamber, at 11.25 by 15.25 by 5 inches. Its maximum pouch size is actually a little bit smaller than that of the VP112S -- 10 by 13 inches -- but the deep, flat bottom works better for vacuum sealing multiple canning jars or vacuum canisters. (No accessory needed for either machine, as long as the container fits into the internal chamber.) The VacMaster VP210 weighs a hefty 72 pounds, so most users either make it into a permanent fixture on the countertop or place it on a wheeled cart. No matter which VacMaster model you choose, the bags are a real bargain, coming in about $29 for 250 10-by-13-inch bags.
If you want a vacuum food sealer for occasional use that's small enough to store in a kitchen drawer, look no further than the Waring Pro PVS1000 (Est. $60) pistol vac sealing system. The only handheld model to receive a recommendation from a professional test kitchen, this valve-sealing model is smaller, quieter and cheaper than most external or chamber vacuum sealers. Its built-in battery lasts for about thirty sealings between recharges, and it comes with two dozen reusable valve bags that are BPA-free and dishwasher safe. (Once the bags need replacing, you'll pay about $25 for two dozen gallon-size bags).
That professional test reports that most of the food sealed with the Waring Pro PVS1000 still looked great after three months of storage -- far superior results to the other handheld models they tested. Most owners report similar results, praising the PVS1000 for its power and performance. It's so powerful, in fact, that if you're vacuum-sealing bread and operate the pump for too long, users warn the bread can be sucked down to not much more than a large crouton. Full manual control helps keep that from happening, though, as long as you're attentive. You can even use the PVS1000 to seal vacuum canisters; just place the suction cup at the point of the PVS1000 against the valve in the jar lid and run the pump.
The one thing the Waring Pro PVS1000 doesn't do well is seal liquids or juicy cuts of meat -- it sucks the juice into the valve, which can keep the bag from sealing. Users also warn that if you let the Waring Pro's battery go completely dead, it won't recharge; so it's best stored on the charger when not in use.
If you're looking for an inexpensive handheld vacuum sealer, the best buy we found was the FoodSaver FreshSaver (Est. $20). Although we did find plenty of concerns about its durability, users love that this little gadget -- about the size of your hand -- is such a great bargain for occasional use. The FreshSaver works with valve bags and rigid, valved containers from both Ziploc and FoodSaver: Just place the suction area against the valve and press the button to begin. When it comes to bags, replacements typically cost about $35 for 34 quart-sized bags.
The biggest issue with both models mentioned here -- and really, any handheld vacuum sealer -- is making sure that the bag's zip closure is securely fastened before you start sucking the air out through the valve. Overall, users say the Waring Pro's bags perform best, and also seem to hold up to longer periods of reuse. They especially like that the PVS1000 comes with a small tool that you can slide over the bag's zip closures to make sure they're really sealed.
Although few experts review vacuum food sealers, they're fair game for the expert cooks in the Cook's Illustrated test kitchen. Subscribers can access the test results on all seven models the cooks tested, two of which are recommended without reservations. VacuumSealerDigest.com, meanwhile, offers a wealth of reviews, often the result of hands-on testing. User reviews at sites such as Amazon.com, Walmart.com, Costco.com, and JCPenney.com are invaluable at gauging how easy the sealers are to use, and how well they operate under real-world conditions.