There's no question that a vacuum sealer can save you a small fortune on your food bill. If you want to save this money--on less wasted food and on buying in bulk--the only question is, "How much should I spend on a vacuum sealer?"
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I Don't Really Need a Vacuum Sealer, Do I?
In case you've been wondering, yes: you need a vacuum sealer. If you cook and eat at home, a vacuum sealer is a no brainer to help you get the most out of your food budget.
How can we be so sure? Unless you have never wasted a scrap of food in your life, you can benefit from this miraculous machine that keeps food fresh up to 5 times longer than other storage methods and eliminates freezer burn pretty much indefinitely.
Here's a table that shows just how much longer vacuum-sealed food can last (info from the FoodSaver website):
Freezer Shelf Life:
Beef and Poultry
Soups and Stews
Refrigerator Shelf Life:
Pantry Shelf Life:
Flour and Sugar
Rice and Pasta
Pretty compelling, isn't it? And these estimates are conservative. Food can last for years--even decades--when vacuum-sealed. (We're not recommending that you save food for that long. But if you forget about something in the back of your freezer, there's a good chance it's going to taste okay.)
Here are just some of the people that can benefit from having a vacuum sealer:
- People who want to cut down on their food waste.
- People who want to save money by buying in bulk and freezing food.
- People who want to save space in their fridge, freezer, and pantry.
- Hunters and fishermen.
- Gardeners who want to preserve their crops for use through the winter.
- People who sous vide.
- People who want leftovers to last longer in the fridge.
- People who like to marinade meat quickly.
- People who want to practice portion control by weighing out their food in advance
- People who want to prep food in advance and have it stay as fresh as possible.
Vacuum sealers are excellent problem solvers beyond the kitchen, too. You can use them to secure important papers, to make waterproof packages for camping and emergency kits (such as for matches), to protect valuable jewelry and coin collections, and to keep first aid items sterile until needed.
You may be able to live without a vacuum sealer, but there are so many uses for it that once you have one, you'll wonder how you ever got along without it.
How Does a Vacuum Sealer Work?
A vacuum sealer is a simple machine: it pumps air out of a bag, then seals it securely.
The reason this is so useful is that air is the primary carrier of bacteria, mold, and other organisms that cause food to go bad. Air can also create staleness. And the oxygen in the air is the primary cause of oxidation (browning).
So the more you can decrease the amount of contact your food has with air, the longer the food will last.
There are a two basic methods of removing air from containers (primarily bags): externally and internally. External sealers are the most common and the cheapest. They come in two varieties: edge sealers (also called channel sealers) and nozzle sealers. The internal method is done with a chamber vacuum sealer.
External sealing is accomplished with edge sealers (you may also hear them called called channel sealers or simply external sealers) and nozzle sealers.
All edge sealers look something like this:
Edge sealers are by far the most common type of vacuum sealer. You fill a bag and place the top edge in a "channel" meant to hold the bag in place and catch any stray liquids or crumbs that fall out of the bag. A pump draws out the air, then the sealer applies heat to seal the bag.
On the vast majority of edge sealers, this process is fully automated with a few settings for different food types. (E.g., wet and soft foods need special treatment.)
Nozzle sealers work by pumping the air out of a designated hole. The bags have both a zip top for adding food and the hole for pumping out air. Once the air is out, you remove the sealer and the bag is good to go.
Most are handheld, like this one:
This Oliso brand nozzle sealer is probably the heaviest-duty nozzle sealer on the market right now:
Nozzle sealers are notoriously poor at vacuuming out air because they don't have very powerful pumps. Their primary advantage is that the bags are reusable, and usually dishwasher safe as well, so they're a good choice for leftovers and other items you want to open and re-seal often. (And they're definitely better than NO vacuum sealer!)
This is what nozzle-sealer bags look like (it's like a sturdy zip-top bag with a little hole for the nozzle):
Some edge sealers come with a handheld nozzle sealer accessory built in, like this FoodSaver model:
This is useful because the nozzle sealer bags are designed for re-use, while the edge sealer bags are not.
Can you re-use edge sealer bags? Sometimes, although they're not designed for it. Manufacturers tell you to use the bags once. There can be food safety issues if the bag had raw meat in it or other high-bacteria items and isn't washed out properly.
Other than food safety issues, though, there's really no reason to not re-use the bags, as long as you can wash them well and get them to seal properly. So if you want to re-use these bags, go ahead. Just be sure to wash and dry them thoroughly.
Internal sealers are known as "chamber vacuums" or just "chamber vacs." Chamber vacs work by removing the air not just from the bag, but from the entire internal chamber. Once the air is removed, the heat seal is activated and seals the bag right inside the chamber. When done sealing, the lid pops open and the vacuum is immediately released.
When most people think of vacuum sealers, particularly home vacuum sealers, they think of edge sealers. But this doesn't mean edge sealers are better, or that you should automatically choose an edge sealer over a chamber sealer. The only reason they're the go-to sealer for most people is that they're affordably priced.
But because of how chamber vacs work--evacuating the entire chamber rather than just the bag--these sealers have a number of excellent qualities. In fact, chamber sealers are Rational Kitchen's choice for home vacuum sealing.
Chamber sealers are Rational Kitchen's choice for a home vacuum sealer.
Chamber Vacs Vs. Edge Sealers
Chamber vacs are superior to edge sealers in almost every way. Their only negative point is their weight; chamber sealers are larger and heavier than both types of external sealers. Some chamber sealers weigh close to 100 pounds.
(Oh, and chamber vacs cost more--another drawback, although they are expensive because they're built to last, so the cost is more of a feature than a drawback.)
However, in exchange for this bulk (and the higher initial investment), you gain several advantages:
- Chamber vacs are almost universally tougher and better built than most external sealers (with a few exceptions, like the Weston shown above). Most are commercial grade or light commercial grade. Even those made for residential use usually have the same internal components as their commercial counterparts. They're designed to last for many years (decades, even) of continuous, heavy-duty use. This is not the case with most external sealers, the majority of which are designed to be thrown away and replaced when they malfunction. (Read more about this here.)
- Chamber vacuum sealers use cheaper bags. Because the vacuum works by equalizing pressure inside the chamber, no special ridges are needed to "push" air from the bag, as with external sealers. So despite the higher up-front cost, long term use of a chamber vac is cheaper.
How much cheaper? Well, this varies due to a number of factors. See below for a more detailed discussion about bags.
- Chamber sealers are a little more complicated to use, but this is because you have more control over the settings. Instead of just choosing "Soft Food" or "Wet Food," you can actually set the amount of vacuum pulled.
- Chamber sealers can be used continuously without a cooling off period between seals. Inexpensive edge sealers have mostly plastic parts that overheat easily, so they need a cooling off period between seals. If you have a big job--say, if you bought a side of beef or have a big harvest from your garden--it can take forever with a cheap edge sealer. You spend as much time, or more, waiting for the sealer to cool down as you do sealing!
This is not the case with a chamber vac (or, for that matter, a heavy-duty edge sealer like the Weston). You can seal continuously for hours on end, and your machine will love you for it. 🙂
- Probably the biggest advantage of a chamber sealer, though, is that you can seal liquids with it. The equalized pressure inside the chamber makes this possible.
This is a huuuuge advantage. For one thing, the "Wet" and "Soft" settings on edge sealers work simply by reducing the amount of vacuum pulled--the result being a not-fully-evacuated bag. (This is true even for high-quality edge sealers like the Weston--it's the only way an edge sealer can deal with liquids.) With a chamber vac, you get a full seal regardless of the amount of liquid in the bag.
Since less air equals longer freshness, this is a pretty big deal.
For another thing, the chamber vac is great for marinading and sous vide cooking. You can seal marinades and other liquids right in the bag--no futzing around with freezing or canisters or special settings--and no worries about liquid getting sucked into the pump and ruining it!
Okay, I Want a Vacuum Sealer. How Much Should I Spend?
Our philosophy on vacuum sealers may surprise you, but we believe that you should buy as much vacuum sealer as you can afford.
Ok, no, you don't need to spend 6 grand on a giant industrial sealer. But if you want to do vacuum sealing right, you should be willing to spend $300-$1000.
Before you stoop over to pick your jaw up off of the floor, let us explain our reasoning.
Think About How Much You'll Save
First of all, look at your savings. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average family of four spends about $700 per month on food. Of the perishable food they buy (dairy, produce, and meat), up to 30% gets thrown out. (Some studies say that figure is as high as 40%!) If we estimate that perishable food is about half the grocery bill ($350), and conservatively say that 20% of that is thrown out, then the average American family is throwing away about $70 worth of food per month.
If you think that's high, start keeping track. You will probably be disgusted at how much you're actually tossing out.
Even if it's half that amount, or about $35 per month, that amounts to $420 per year in food waste. And if it actually is the full 20%, then the average family wastes close to $1000 a year in food. (And quite likely even more.)
Therefore, if you spend $1000 on a chamber vacuum sealer, it will pay for itself in about a year!
Okay, you'll probably still have some waste--after all, a vacuum sealer can't rescue everything. But remember, that $1000 figure is conservative--and even if it takes 2 years to pay for itself, that's nothing compared to the life of the chamber vac!
For an average American family, a $1000 vacuum sealer can pay for itself in less wasted food in about a year--but you don't have to spend anywhere near that to get a great chamber vac.
Don't Forget About the Bags!
And don't forget about the bags: since bags for the chamber vac are a fraction of the cost of bags for an edge sealer, you'll save even more money in the long run with the chamber vac.
A side-by-side comparison is impossible here because the cheapest way to buy edge sealer bags is on a roll (like this). Chamber vac bags come pre-sized because you can't cut them yourself--they're inside a pressurized chamber when they're sealed. A box of 500 8-in. x 10-in. chamber bags is about $50, while a 100-ft roll of edge sealer bags is about $16.
If you use 10-inch bags, which is a good average size, you'll get about 120 bags out of that roll. This is about $0.13 per bag--not bad. Definitely a better buy than pre-made edge sealer bags (although they're a bit of a hassle to use because you have to seal one end before you can seal the food inside it). With VacMaster bags of a comparable size at about $0.10 per bag, the edge sealer rolls are still more--but not by much.
So you can see that the chamber bags are less expensive. And remember, we're comparing brand name chamber bags to generic edge sealer bags--you can buy generic chamber bags too, which cost even less. We haven't tried them (VacMaster bags are cheap enough) so we didn't include a comparison.
And if you're super thrifty and want to re-use these inexpensive bags, it's even easier than with edge-sealed bags. Why?
First, because chamber vacuum bags have no ridges, so they're easier to get clean.
Second, because you can completely control where the seal goes--so if you want to use a bag multiple times, put the seal at the very top and move it down as you re-seal it.
This is much harder to do with an inexpensive edge sealer because most of them require quite a bit of bag for the sealer to work--some up to a third of the bag. The FoodSaver FM2000 is an exception to this, and it is Rational Kitchen's number one choice for an economy-priced sealer.
Throwaway Products Vs. Durability
Inexpensive vacuum sealers are considered throwaway items. That is, once they're broken, they're broken. It costs as much to repair them as it does to replace them. And repairs rarely return the vacuum pump to "like new" condition.
This is true for all the edge sealers that cost less than $150 or so--and even true for some that cost more! (If you want more information on this, check out Vacuum Sealer Reviews: The Best Sellers on Amazon. This article goes into a lot of detail about the differences between vacuum sealers.)
However, if you make a higher initial investment in a vacuum sealer, you're going to get a product that you can buy parts for, maintain and repair yourself, and/or send off to the company for repairs.
(The irony is that you probably won't need to repair a $600 vacuum sealer anytime soon.)
If you're handy, you can fix some problems on the throwaway sealer yourself: the seal bar, for example. But this isn't really the point.
We prefer not to contribute to our "throwaway society" mentality whenever we can avoid doing so.
One great way to do this is to invest in quality products instead of in products designed to be tossed in a landfill after just a few years of use.
And again, even though the up-front investment is more, your long-term savings is going to be greater. A chamber vac or high-end edge sealer will last you decades; you may even pass it on to your children.
The Joys of Using a Quality Product
Buy once, cry once.
That's a life philosophy we at the Rational Kitchen try to follow, even though it usually means spending more the first time.
This goes hand in hand with durability vs. throwaway products. There is a certain pleasure inherent in using good tools. Tools that have a heft and solidity, that function smoothly and perfectly every time.
If you're a fan of good quality items, you know what we're talking about. If you're not, you should learn! Not just because of the buy once cry once philosophy. A large amount of our day-to-day happiness and sense of satisfaction is dependent on the kinds of objects we choose to surround ourselves with.
No, you don't have to buy top-of-the-line items in every area of your life, but in some areas, it's important. You should own a few items of beautiful clothing, a few quality pieces of furniture, at least one nice piece of jewelry. And you should have good tools for the jobs you do every day, because cheap tools are just plain drudgery to use, and you deserve better.
Nowhere is this more important than in the kitchen, the hearth of the home and the place you probably spend the majority of your time when you're not sleeping.
This is not a plea to spend, spend, spend and own more and more things. Rather, it is a plea to buy quality tools for the tasks you do every day.
It will make you happier to have a few high quality tools than cupboards full of throwaway junk.
All The Advantages of a Chamber Sealer
We talked about all of these already so we'll just summarize them here:
- You can seal liquids
- Bags are much cheaper than edge sealer bags
- A chamber vac is built to last
- You can replace parts rather than the whole vacuum sealer
- You have more control over the process
- Marinades and oils/seasoning for sous vide without messing around with freezing first.
Additionally, because you have more control over the process, you can seal soft foods like bread as well--no, it doesn't have a "Soft Food" setting, but it has something better: the ability to set exactly how much vacuum you want to pull.
Our Recommendation: The VacMaster VP210
Rational Kitchen highly recommends the VacMaster VP210 chamber vacuum sealer. It is the best sealer for home use on the market right now.
- Robust yet maintenance-free dry piston pump
- Easy-to-use control panel
- Can use continuously with no cool down period needed
- Uses inexpensive chamber sealer bags
- Will pay for itself in a year or less (in less food waste)
- ...And it can seal liquids!
This is a great all around vacuum sealer that will serve you well for decades. It's well worth every penny you spend on it. This is one purchase you won't regret!
If You Can't Spend That Much, Buy One of These
If you really, really want a vacuum sealer and really, really can't afford the VacMaster VP210, get one of these:
Weston Professional Advantage Edge Sealer (about $180, with good quality components):
FoodSaver FM2000 (about $60, including a starter kit of bags--uses the least amount of plastic to seal of all inexpensive edge sealers):
Don't Be Fooled By Bells and Whistles
FoodSaver makes a dizzying array of models, and it's hard to make sense out of all of them without doing a lot of research. You can go from a basic, mostly manual model all the way up to one that unrolls, cuts, and seals the bags automatically.
In general, when you're buying inexpensive sealers, more automation = a higher price tag. So if you want a model that does it all for you, you're going to have to pay for it.
What you generally don't get with the higher price tag, though, is higher quality parts. A $180 FoodSaver sealer is going to have most of the same internal components as a $60 FoodSaver sealer--but with more to go wrong on it.
We're not anti-automation. It's a nice feature. We just think you're better off buying a sealer that has a heavy duty motor in it rather than automated features and cheap internal components. So if you want to spend somewhere around $200, you have to decide: do you want automation (the FoodSaver V4440), or do you want a more powerful vacuum and better build quality (the Weston Professional Advantage)?
There's no wrong answer, although our preference is the Weston.
So, how much should you spend on a vacuum sealer?
- If you are on a tight budget, spend about $60 on the FoodSaver FM2000.
- If you can spend a little more, get a Weston Pro Advantage for about $180 or a Weston Pro 2300 for about $400.
- If you can afford it, throw down for the VacMaster VP210. It will last for years, it can seal all types of foods, and it will pay for itself in about a year in less wasted food.
Note: These prices are approximate and subject to change.
Thanks for reading!