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Page Contents:
-Why vacuum packaging
-Types of home vacuum packaging systems
-Not a substitute for canning or dehydration
-Shelf life of vacuum packaged foods

Vacuum Packaging Guide

Why vacuum packaging?

Foods maintain their freshness and flavor 3-5 times longer than with conventional storage methods, because they don't come in contact with oxygen.

Foods maintain their texture and appearance, because microorganisms such as bacteria mold and yeast cannot grow in a vacuum.

Freezer burn is eliminated, because foods no longer become dehydrated from contact with cold, dry air.

Moist foods won't dry out, because there's no air to absorb the moisture from the food.

Dry, solid foods, such as brown sugar, won't become hard, because they don't come in contact with air and, therefore, can't absorb moisture from the air.

Foods that are high in fats and oils won't become rancid, because there's no oxygen coming in contact with the fats, which causes the rancid taste and smell.

Insect infestation is eliminated, because insects require oxygen to survive and hatch.

Meat and fish will marinade in minutes when vacuum packaged in canisters, because as air is being removed from the canister, the pores of the mat or fish open up and allow the marinade to penetrate.

Food bills are reduced because food lasts longer (so less spoiled food will need to be thrown away), and because food can be purchased in lower-priced bulk quantities and re-packaged at home into smaller portions.

And non-food items are protected from corrosion and moisture-damage. Like your antique silverware, which won't tarnish when vacuum packaged. Or wool sweaters, to keep bugs away, and to shrink them for minimal storage space.


Types of home vacuum packaging systems

Manually operated vacuum pumps.

These systems consist of a small manually-operated pump which can be used to extract air from canisters and bottles only. They do not usually indicate when a vacuum has been achieved.

Although they do not completely remove the air from the container, they do help food last longer. Glass or glazed ceramic containers work best.

Bag sealers with a fan.

These systems utilize small rotary fans to extract some air out of plastic bags before they are sealed. Some systems include polyethylene bags. Others provide sheets of plastic from which bags of different lengths can be made by "welding" the seams with a heated wire bag-sealing mechanism.

The fans don't have enough suction to create a vacuum. The amount of air removed is comparable to using a straw to suck air out of the bag. The plastic will shape itself loosely to the contours of the food in the bag, but it will be obvious that air remains in the bag. The type of bag material (polyethylene is best) and the strength of the seal will determine whether oxygen is able to re-enter the bag.

Less-air is better than out-in-the-air. Remember, however, that plastic does breathe, so storage life will be limited.

Electric pump systems.

These are the only storage systems that eliminate exposure to oxygen. They are also the most expensive, of course.

They utilize electric-powered piston pumps to extract air from the container, and seal with container to prevent air from re-entering. And, ideally, they indicate when a vacuum has been achieved.

When food is vacuum packed in bags, the effect of the pump is highly visible, because the bags will shape themselves tightly around the food. Not so when vacuum packed in a jar, which is when a vacuum gauge is most helpful and will keep the jar from imploding.

In order to maintain the vacuum, containers are constructed of special materials which provide an oxygen barrier.


Vacuum packaging is not a substitute for canning or dehydration

Vacuum packaged food will taste fresher and last longer than food stored in conventional containers.

 But because the food is not devoid of moisture or potentially lurking pathogens, it is important to remember that vacuum packaging is not an alternative to refrigeration.

Of course you don't need to refrigerate vacuum packaged cereal. But you do have to refrigerate meat, dairy and other products that require it.


Shelf life of vacuum packaged foods

Food Stored In Normal Shelf Life Vacuum Shelf Life
Large cuts of meat: beef, poultry, lamb and pork Freezer 6 months 2-3 years
Ground meat: beef, poultry, lamb and pork Freezer 4 months 1 year
Fish Freezer 6 months 2 years
Coffee beans Room temperature 4 weeks 16 months
Coffee beans Freezer 6-9 months 2-3 years
Berries: strawberries, raspberries, blackberries Refrigerator 1-3 days 1 week
Berries: cranberries, huckleberries, blueberries Refrigerator 3-6 days 2 weeks
Cheese Refrigerator 1-2 weeks 4-8 months
Cookies, crackers Room temperature (periodically opening) 1-2 weeks 3-6 weeks
Flour, sugar, rice Room temperature 6 months 1-2 years
Lettuce Refrigerator 3-6 days 2 weeks
Nuts Room temperature 6 months 2 years
Oils with no preservatives, like safflower, canola, corn oil Room temperature 5-6 months 1-1.5 years
Wine Refrigerator 1-3 weeks 2-4 months

Above table adapted by Tilia Inc. from Dr. G.K.York, Dept. of Food Science & Tech, U of California, Davis.


Storage Time for Dehydrated (Dried) Fruit and Vegetables

Some vacuum sealers tout an extended shelf life of 2 to 3 times longer for dried foods, however vacuum sealing only keeps out oxygen and moisture. A certain amount of moisture must remain in the dehydrated food, and factors such as storage temperature and the foods’ natural sugar and acid content still work to deteriorate freshness and palatability. One might thus conclude that vacuum sealing seems to play a relatively small part in extending shelf life of dried foods.

On the other hand, plastic storage bags and containers are not always airtight. Vacuum sealing dried foods insures a vacuum, and can be a good preventative measure in excessively humid environments, and against pest infiltration.