Offgrid Preparation Vacuum Sealer Basics
For most, the thought of eating dog food would cause a shudder of...
Late night infomercials either suck you in or result in lost credibility. They do tend to be very effective for products that need a more detailed explanation or benefit from demonstrations. At some point, you may have seen an infomercial about a vacuum sealer. It might have been full of hyperbole with a host sporting a cool accent and a studio audience stocked with people who would probably give a standing ovation to a small poodle lazily licking himself.
As any hunters in our readership probably already know, don't let any of those negative associations sway you — vacuum sealers are truly handy and useful appliances.
Remember that periodic table you had to memorize back in grade school? The eighth element, oxygen, is highly reactive and easily forms compounds with other elements (e.g. oxides such as rust). It's generated by photosynthesis, and without it, we would all asphyxiate and die.
But exposure to air — and the O2 that comprises 21 percent of it — has all sorts of deleterious side effects. It can, for instance, cause food to spoil. The presence of oxygen allows for the growth of bacteria and mold; we've all seen this with leftovers in the back of the fridge that we forgot about. Food also contains certain enzymes (oxidizing enzymes) that lead to spoilage when exposed to O2 — if you've ever left some vegetables out on the counter, the browning that you see is an example of this. And when fats become rancid? That's from oxidation, just simply from exposure to oxygen.
A Natural Resources Defense Council research report estimated that America wastes a staggering $165 billion's worth of food each year, from the farm to your fork. At a household level, a typical family of four is estimated to waste approximately $1,350 to $2,275 of food each year. That's a lot of meals, no matter how you slice it.
Vacuum sealing is the process of packaging items in a plastic bag or container, removing air from within, and sealing it closed. You end up with an airtight, watertight, vacuum-packed item. Think about that — it's not just foods that can benefit from those properties. You can inhibit metals from rusting and silver from tarnishing. You can waterproof documents or other important items. You can prevent evaporation. A vacuum-packed item also gets compressed and takes up less space.
So, it goes without saying that a vacuum sealer can be a great tool for the prepared individual.
Fundamentally, vacuum sealers need to do two things: evacuate air and seal the package. There are two primary methods to create the vacuum. The first is to place one open end of a plastic pouch into the sealer, which sucks air out of the package. The other is to place the entire package inside a large chamber from which air is removed. The former is known as an external sealer, and the latter a vacuum chamber sealer.
A typical external sealer clamps down on the open end of the plastic pouch, encasing just the end within a rectangular or oval vacuum chamber while the rest of the bag sits outside of the machine. In the chamber, there's a vacuum port through which the pump extracts air. Once all the air has been extracted, a heat sealing bar melts the plastic to seal the pouch. Note that since the sealer is pulling air out of the pouch, liquids or powders may get sucked out, compromising the seal and potentially damaging the machine.
Chamber sealers, on the other hand, have a large compartment that engulfs the entire bag to be vacuum packed. Air is then removed from the entire vacuum chamber, rather than sucking air out of the bag itself. As a result, they're very effective and there's no issue with soups, sauces, and powders. However, chamber sealers are large, heavy, and very costly, so they're most commonly found in commercial and industrial applications. Therefore, we focus on external sealers in this article.
Bags made for vacuum sealers can come in various guises. Pouches, open on just one end, come in a variety of different sizes. Rolls are open on both ends — you cut a piece to the exact length that you need, seal one end, then insert your items and vacuum and seal the other end. Zipper bags include a zip-lock style opening to make frequent access more convenient. Bags designed to be used with external sealers have special embossed interiors to help extract air from them; the texturing creates tiny channels for the air to be sucked out by the sealer, whereas two smooth surfaces might create a seal prematurely before all the air has been removed. However, because the pouch collapses and shrinks around the contents, delicate items can get crushed and sharp items might puncture the bag. Bags and rolls are available in various thicknesses, typically 3 to 4 mil. Some can be boiled, some not. Be sure to get bags with the characteristics you need for your application.
Many sealers have an accessory port to connect a hose to the vacuum pump. This allows you to remove air from various other accessories, from special canisters to mason jar sealers to bottle stoppers.
Vacuum sealers can help you avoid freezer burn, wilted and spoiled food, mold, and a stale snack or dinner. Savings from reducing your food waste by itself might seal the deal for you. But there are many more benefits, especially for those focused on preparedness.
You can enjoy the cost savings of purchasing food supplies in bulk, vacuum sealing portions of it to use over time. The prolonged shelf life of your vacuum-sealed food would serve you well in extended emergency situations, not to mention protecting your supplies from creepy crawly things. For example, pasta, grains, and nuts that might normally be good for six months can instead last one-and-a-half to two years. Meat or vegetables that might only go six to eight months in the freezer without getting freezer burn can remain fresh for several years. Of course, perishable food still needs to be refrigerated or frozen. You can't vacuum seal a raw chicken thigh and just throw it in your pantry. Also, remember that vacuum sealing isn't equivalent to canning either.
In Issue 9, we featured an article about building a six-month food supply — a vacuum sealer would be a great tool to help you effectively package your supplies for storage.
Here are some tips for vacuum sealing food:
– Don't Stuff the Bag Like Santa Claus: Leave several inches of space at the open end, and be sure to carefully clean the open end, to ensure the machine can get a good heat seal. If you want to be able to open and reseal the same bag with its contents one or more times, leave even more extra space and trim off just enough of the bag when you open it. Straighten and smooth out the bag as much as you can when placing it in your sealer.
– Get Frosty: While many sealers tout a “moist” mode, drip pans, and other features to deal with wet items, your best bet will be to par-freeze them before vacuum sealing them in a bag. That means putting the items in the freezer just long enough for them to solidify, perhaps one to two hours. With items that aren't too moist, placing a paper towel in the pouch between the items and the open end works — just seal the paper towel in with your goodies.
– Be Berry Careful: Soft or fragile foods like berries, cookies, pastries, and breads will get crushed during the sealing process. Par-freeze them as well before sealing to prevent this. The best way to do this with items like berries is to spread them out on a cookie sheet so they're not touching. If you allow them to clump up in a frozen block, air pockets may form and interfere with the vacuum seal.
– Paper-Towel Wrap: Dried foods with sharp edges like pasta and nuts can be wrapped in a paper towel to prevent punctures. A paper towel will also stop shredded cheese from being sucked out during the sealing process.
– Bag the Bag: For powdery or grainy substances, you can leave them in their original bag before sealing it inside a pouch.
– De-enzyme Your Veggies: We discussed how enzymes in vegetables lead to browning and loss of flavor. Blanching vegetables prevents this and is your first step before vacuum sealing them. Briefly boil the vegetables, then immerse them in cold water. After drying them off, seal them up.
Sealers can also help with cooking. You can use a canister accessory to marinate meat — the vacuum helps the meat absorb your marinade way quicker than normal. If you like to cook using the sous-vide method, where food is slowly cooked in a temperature-regulated water bath, a vacuum sealer is a must to bag your items. You can also prep meals (either fully or partially) on the weekend and vacuum seal them to make it quicker and easier to make lunch or dinner during the week when you're pressed for time.
Just like your guns or other tools, take care of your vacuum sealer. Keep it clean and maintain it as per the manufacturer's instructions.
Just like your buddy at college who got an electric deep fryer and started deep frying everything in sight, when you get a new vacuum sealer you'll feel an urge to vacuum pack anything within reach. In fact, any items that you wish to protect from oxidation, moisture, and corrosion is fair game. Here are just a few useful applications beyond food supplies:
– Store guns and ammunition, safe from corrosion
– Protect key survival gear that you plan to cache for later use
– Preserve currency (cash, precious metals, etc.) or barter goods for your cache
– Keep matches and tinder dry and ready for use
– Shield first-aid supplies from dirt, moisture, or contamination
– Safeguard important documents. (Note that having a manual or pulse mode will be useful for sealing delicate items like documents.)
– Store personal items that will become “luxuries” after SHTF, like cigarettes or your favorite book
The list of applications is limited only by your imagination. Vacuum sealers are truly useful tools. So, with this in mind, we've listed on the following pages a – representative sample of various types of vacuum sealers.