October 4th 2006
The pfft! tells you that it's fresh.
Whether it's a can of coffee or a jar of roasted peanuts, the sudden rush of air when you open a vacuum-packed container tells you that the contents inside should be as fresh as the day they were packed.
That's why Elaine D'sa of Athens, Ga., uses a vacuum sealer at home.
"I have found that vacuum-packing spices extends the shelf life, and prevents their pungent odors from permeating other foods," D'Sa said. She vacuum-packs many of the items in her pantry, she said, because she likes to save money by buying in bulk; repackaging her purchases keeps things fresh in her small household.
"It prevents freezer burn, if not [eliminating] it completely," she said. "If you buy meat [at a warehouse store], it lets you use it more efficiently."
D'sa, a research coordinator with the National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia, has figured out what many consumers have learned as well: The vacuum sealers touted on television infomercials and elsewhere may cost a pretty penny, but they can save a bundle of dough.
Perhaps the most widely seen is Tilia's FoodSaver line. But other companies--Pump-N-Seal, Rival, Black & Decker, Hamilton Beach, Dazey and Deni, among others--have tested the home market too. (See sidebar on the one we liked best.)
Essentially, the machines do at home what food manufacturers do on their processing lines. By removing excess air (hence, oxygen) from a container, spoilage of the food inside is radically slowed. Vacuum-packed foods stay crisper, retain nutrients and last longer on the shelf or in the refrigerator. Meats and poultry that are vacuum-packed before freezing don't get freezer-burn, prolonging their useful life.
"You can portion-pack your foods," D'sa said. "Cook once, [portion them out], vacuum-seal them, then microwave them later in the week. If you do it in a bag, you can microwave or boil in the bag."
In pantry storage, D'sa said, "the important thing is always to keep air, moisture and insects away. Vacuum packing lets you do all of that. I use it for sugar, brown sugar, flour and dry milk. It's helpful for storing foods you buy in bulk, especially if you're single."
D'sa said she has found the vacuum-sealer handy for uses beyond the kitchen. She vacuum packs ice for camping, silver to prevent tarnishing and important papers for storing.
The "take-home message" is that vacuum-packing doesn't change the storage method, D'sa said. "If you would normally keep it in the fridge, then keep it in the fridge if it's vacuum-sealed," she said.
A few words about food safety
The very thing that keeps vacuum-sealed foods fresh longer can also create the perfect environment for botulism.
Botulism, produced by Clostridium botulinum bacteria, thrives in anaerobic, or oxygen-free, environments. Because vacuum sealing removes air, it sets up anaerobic conditions.
Botulism is so toxic that just a couple of nanograms of toxin can sicken or kill. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta report an average of 27 cases of food-borne botulism each year (the rest of the 110 cases each year are either infant or wound botulism). Symptoms of the disease, which usually manifests itself within 36 hours, include weakness, dizziness, double vision and progressive trouble in speaking and swallowing.
That's the bad news. The good news is it's easy to prevent botulism in vacuum-sealed foods.
First, remember that vacuum-sealing doesn't replace traditional food-preservation techniques. Shelf-stable dry foods, like crackers and cereal, pose no threat. But vacuum-sealed low-acid foods like fruits, vegetables and meats should still be refrigerated or frozen.
"It's critically important to protect the temperature--keep it under 40 degrees," said Michael Doyle of the Center for Food Safety in Griffin, Ga. "We still have to use good food-handling practices, so hot foods should be hot and cold foods should be cold. Keep the food under 40 degrees, or heat it to more than 140 degrees."
To be completely safe, heat foods to 180 degrees for 10 minutes or longer to be sure all botulism bacteria are killed.
Second, never thaw frozen vacuum-sealed foods at room temperature. "As long as you keep the temperature down, you'll prevent the germination and growth of spores," said Barry Swanson, a professor of food science and nutrition at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash. "You have to store in the freezer, and thaw in the refrigerator." Swanson said to cut the vacuum-sealed bag open before thawing to let in air, which prevents botulism from growing.
Vacuum sealer also a saver
Vacuum-sealers are widely available at warehouse stores such as Sam's Club and Costco, some retail stores such as Wal-Mart and from online outlets such as Amazon.com. Prices range from $50 to $300, and most require special bags (which aren't interchangeable among brands).
We've used a Tilia FoodSaver for nearly a decade, used a Rival Seal-a-Meal in the Tribune test kitchen, and tested a Pump-N-Seal for this story.
We fell in love with the less-expensive Pump-N-Seal, distributed by Pioneering Concepts of Wapiti, WY. It works like a bicycle pump in reverse, takes only a few seconds to operate and uses no electricity. At $20 for the basic set-up and video instructions (optional accessories are available), the Pump-N-Seal represents an excellent value. Plus, it doesn't require special containers.
Instead of pricey specialty bags (we priced a box of 48 Tilia FoodSaver quart bags at $20 at Target recently, about 42 cents per bag) the Pump-N-Seal works with regular zip-top bags (we priced a box of 35 Hefty quart freezer bags at $4.19, or about 12 cents apiece). The procedure is easy enough, if a tad finicky. We sealed some graham crackers in a Glad bag; the vacuum was still tight 10 days later and the crackers still crisp.
Items that can be packed into jars--coffee, fruits, vegetables, herbs--can be sealed in canning jars or any clean commercial jar that has a soft ring inside the lid. After using a thumbtack to make a hole in the lid, you place a small Band-Aid-like seal, called a Tab-Chek, over the hole. A few quick strokes with the Pump-N-Seal, and the jar is airtight. Tab-Cheks, which are reusable, cost about 7 cents apiece. We sealed a half-pound of dry beans in a pint Mason jar; the process took less than two minutes. More than two weeks later, the lid was still snug.
Pump-N-Seal says its vacuum saver pulls a stronger vacuum (28.9 inches of mercury, or Hg, the standard U.S. vacuum measure) than its competitors. (The closest rival, according to Pump-N-Seal, is the Tilia FoodSaver at 24.2 inches Hg.)
For more information about Pump-N-Seal, visit pump-n-seal.com or call (800) 323-3965.
What is 'sous vide' cooking?
Cooking sous vide (soo VEED), the French phrase for "vacuum- sealed," has been the rage for the last several years among chefs, including Chicago's Grant Achatz and Charlie Trotter. Food writer Paula Wolfert credits French chef George Pralus with inventing the process in the 1970s, and includes three sous vide recipes in her revised "The Cooking of Southwest France."
The idea is that vacuum-packing literally pulls flavors through foods, and the low temperatures allow foods to retain their nutrients and flavors. The process usually involves vacuum-sealing meat, poultry or fish, then poaching the package in water heated to a simmer, not a boil. Directions might say, as one of Wolfert's recipes does, "Seal the salmon steaks in their special packaging and drop them directly into simmering water to cook for 7 to 8 minutes."
Health inspectors hate the idea, because vacuum-packed foods can provide environments for botulism to grow. City health inspectors in New York last spring began to fine chefs using the process, even though it had not been outlawed, The New York Times has reported.
Chefs use carefully calibrated equipment to maintain consistent, even temperatures when they cook sous vide. At the moment, such equipment is not available to home cooks. Until it is, food safety experts such as Washington State University's Barry Swanson suggest that home cooks limit vacuum-sealed cookery to boiling frozen foods in the bag.
"Sous vide is an interesting thing to do, but if you don't know what you're doing, you can get in a lot of trouble," Swanson said. "Fish, meat, poultry, even soy products are just too low in pH [acids] to be safe."
'Vacuuming' to marinate foods
Vacuum-sealing advocates say that the process can make marinating foods lightning-fast. We wondered if that was true, so we tested the idea.
The Tribune's test kitchen set up the experiment. Four boneless, skinless chicken breasts were cooked on a grill pan at the same time. One was not marinated. One was marinated in 1/2 cup bottled Italian dressing in a zip-top bag overnight. One was marinated in 1/ 2 cup bottled Italian dressing in a zip-top bag for 30 minutes. The last one was marinated in 1/2 cup bottled Italian dressing in a Rival Seal-a-Meal Minute Marinating Canister, also for 30 minutes.
Five tasters found the most marinated flavor in the breast that had marinated overnight in the zip-top bag. Tasters said it was "pungent," had "nice flavor and best penetration," and called it "very moist," and "very, very flavorful." Comments for the vacuum- marinated breast ranged from "very moist, not very flavorful" to "no marinade flavor" to "not very tasty." Tasters said the chicken breast marinated in a zip-top bag for 30 minutes was "moist with medium flavor."
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