Save Money, Save Time, Savor Freshness
"Time is money" goes the common adage and have you ever stopped to think about how easy it is to waste both? If you belong to an American household, chances are that you are contributing to America’s $165 billion annual food waste problem. To put that in perspective, the average American household wastes over $2,000 worth of food yearly, which is about $200 monthly. This waste isn't restricted to the American household. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) documents widespread food efficiency losses in the U.S. food supply system in farming, processing, distribution, retail and food service. Some sources (World Resource Institute and the United Nations Environment Programme) have even highlighted how food wastage might be playing a significant role in global warming. The first steps to breaking out of the pack of the wasteful lot that make up the food industry begin with a proper concern for yourself, your kitchen, restaurant and wallet.
In the food industry, air is the enemy of food product freshness and it is not your fault that your fresh food products are at the mercy of fungus, mold, bacteria and the rest of their ilk - you played no role in this unfortunate state of affairs. Perhaps you are already taking active steps to plan your meals and you avoid impulsive buying in order to cut back on waste in your kitchen. However, even after prudent planning, you know of the waste that still happens in your kitchen. The question that follows then is this: Is it still possible, even after taking all the right steps to be efficient in the kitchen, to extend the shelf life of your food products? The answer to your question is YES! Thanks to a neat method of food preservation named: Vacuum Sealing.
What is vacuum sealing?
Vacuum sealing is a method of sealing or packaging food products in plastic bags whereby air is removed with a vacuum sealing machine.
What are the benefits of Vacuum Sealing?
Mold, fungus and bacteria are sworn enemies of your food products. This is true because some pathogenic (illness causing) bacteria thrive in the presence of oxygen - these nasty little things are called aerobic bacteria (oxygen dependent bacteria). Bacteria that cause bad odor, slime and discoloration love having oxygen in their environment. By vacuum sealing your products, you eliminate a factor necessary for their growth, preserving the quality of your food product.
However, it is not altogether true that all you have to do is vacuum seal your products to prevent spoilage. It is a common misconception that the mere removal of air from packaged food products automatically prevents spoilage. Eliminating air from your food products is not necessarily a slam dunk answer to all your product preservation needs.
Apparently there are some nasty little pathogenic bacteria that thrive under anaerobic conditions (with very little oxygen). This means that in certain instances, vacuum sealing can be detrimental to your food's safety. This is so because before vacuum sealing, these anaerobic bacteria had aerobic bacteria to compete with for space on your fresh products. But now, because vacuum sealing eliminates the threat of aerobic bacteria, the anaerobic bacteria now have the entire landscape of your food products to do their dirty deed. What's worse, they do so without any bells and whistles (aerobic bacteria make their presence known through odor, discoloration and slime, anaerobic bacteria do not). So your products look fresh, when in reality, they have been decimated by these silent assassins.
It is worth stating explicitly at this point that Vacuum sealing will not serve as a substitute for proper sanitary processes in food packaging. If you fail to adhere to proper storage and sanitary processes, you will end up in the same wasteful ditch, only this time, you would have also wasted your money on vacuum sealer equipment. Think of vacuum sealing as an added layer of preservation for your food products, like building a fence around your house in the middle of a jungle to ward off wild animals. No one builds a fence around his or her house in the jungle without first warding off the animals from the immediate premises - that would be a waste of time. Although why you would want to build a house in the middle of a jungle is a head scratcher - technically speaking, the wild animals had first dibs.
So, the point is worth repeating: Vacuum sealing does not compensate for poor storage and sanitary processes. If you are dedicated to following proper sanitary processes, then vacuum sealing is worth investing in. See Table 1 for the distinction between the normal shelf life of your food products and that of products that undergo the vacuum sealing process.
Table 1 - Shelf life comparison for vacuum sealing
|Food||Large cuts of meat: beef, poultry, lamb and pork||Ground meat: beef, poultry, lamb and pork||Fish||Coffee beans||Berries: cranberries, huckleberries, blueberries||Cheese – hard, semi-soft and pasteurized cheeses*||Cookies, crackers||Flour, sugar, rice||Lettuce||Nuts||Oils with no preservatives, like safflower, canola, corn oil||Wine|
|Normal Shelf Life||6 months||4 months||6 months||4 weeks||3-6 days||1-2 weeks||1-2 weeks||6 months||3-6 days||6 months||5-6 months||1-3 weeks|
|Vacuum Shelf Life||2-3 years||1 year||2 years||16 months||2 weeks||4-8 months||3-6 weeks||1-2 years||2 weeks||2 years||1-1.5 years||2-4 months|
*Soft cheeses such as Brie, Camembert, Ricotta, Cottage and Teleme MAY NOT be vacuum packaged
As you can see, the Vacuum Shelf Life column is where you want to be with all your food products. However, the benefits of vacuum packaging do not end with this table. See the bulleted list below for some additional benefits:
- You no longer have to worry about freezer burn since your food products no longer come in contact with dry and cold air.
- You no longer have to worry about clumped up solid and/or dry foods, like brown sugar, because they have no source of water from exposure to air.
- Insects won't have time to hatch their eggs in your food products since they cannot live without oxygen.
- Vacuum sealing opens up the pores of your meat and fish products. This cuts down on the time needed for marination.
There is one added benefit of vacuum sealing that deserves our attention, and its own little sub-header in this blog, namely "Sous Vide."
What is Sous Vide?
"Sous Vide," which in French literally means "under vacuum," is a cooking method whereby foods vacuum sealed into food-grade plastic bags are submerged into a temperature controlled water-bath, producing tasty results that far exceed that of any traditional cooking methods. The method was re-discovered by two engineers in the mid 1960s.
With traditional cooking methods, be it a burner or an oven, heat flows from either source onto your food at a temperature higher than the desired temperature. This is done, in part, to raise the core temperature of the food to a target cooking temperature. Every food product has a “sweet spot” temperature at which the tenderness, moistness and flavor reach their peak. Because the traditional cooking temperature is so high, you are slaved to a narrow time window for a perfectly cooked food product. That narrow window of time is the reason you constantly check on your food as it is in the oven or on a burner.
Furthermore, since traditional cooking methods were not designed for today’s leaner and younger meats, what you also lose by adopting the old method is precision and quality. Leaner and younger meats-the source of the majority of our meats today-can be easily overcooked and undercooked, and in both cases, you end up with flavorless and/or dry results.
These points serve as major distinctions between Sous Vide and traditional cooking methods. With Sous Vide, you can cook your foods at the desired temperature for maximum quality with the widest possible window of time. So you gain precision and quality in cooking, and you also don’t have to be slaved to an oven or stove. Sous Vide has been gaining traction both in restaurants and homes since its inception, because it can be used on a wide array of food products - plants, fish, meats, poultry, shellfish, etc.
Now, back to our original point in addressing this cooking method. Sous Vide is only possible because of the food-grade bags used in vacuum sealing. Without these bags, the target temperature would not be evenly and efficiently distributed. Vacuum sealing allows you to extend the shelf life of your packaged food products and it also allows you to cook your food products with precision while simultaneously giving you control over your time in the kitchen. The result? Ease of mind, tasty food products, predictability and consistency in the quality of every cooked product, and money well spent.
Now that you are convinced about the value of vacuum sealing, here are a few kitchen accessories that you will need to accomplish your money saving transition.
Vacuum Sealer Bags
Vacuum sealer bags come in different shapes and sizes and are typically rated based on their temperature threshold and compatibility with a vacuum sealing machine. Click on the specifications tabs here and here for a tabulated list of different types and sizes of vacuum sealer bags.
Note that Out-of-Chamber machines are not compatible with vacuum sealing liquids. An In-Chamber machine would be needed to vacuum seal liquids.
Common questions about Vacuum Sealing
Are the vacuum sealer bags safe?
Plastic bags typically get a bad rap when it comes to anything related to cooking, and rightfully so, since it has been proven that some plastic bags contain harmful plasticizers that can contaminate foods such as cheeses and meats. However, latest research has shown that the materials with which most, if not all, Vacuum sealer/Sous Vide bags are made provide the safest food-grade bags. Note that these bags are BPA-free and this ought to quell any concerns about their safety.
Are vacuum sealer machines necessary?
Vacuum sealer machines are not necessary for Sous Vide especially when you don’t have to cook for an extended period of time. However, you will still need a contraption that will keep the bag in place as it sits in the temperature-controlled water-bath. You do not want to expose your food products directly to the water bath.
Must vacuum sealer bags be used for storage?
No, regular plastics bags will do, but remember that you will get back in quality what you invest into your storage bag.