Throughout my time exploring modernist cooking, I’ve progressed through the three stages of vacuum sealing: 1) using Ziploc bags, 2) using a traditional vacuum sealer and ziplocs for wet ingredients, and finally 3) springing for a chamber vacuum.
Based on my experiences, buying a traditional vacuum sealer is the bare minimum any cook wanting to experience the wonders of sous vide must do. For the few who want to go further and have perfect custards, airless alginate mixtures, and beautiful fish poached in oil, the chamber vacuum sealer will become one of your most used and favorite household appliances. Of all the equipment I’ve purchased, this and my Polyscience Immersion Circulator are the two most frequently used items, and I probably use the chamber vacuum twice as much as the immersion circulator.
Traditional Vacuum Sealers
Traditional vacuum sealers do the bare minimum of what is needed for great sous vide cooking. They work by sucking all the air out of a back and then creating an air proof seal by melting the two sides of the bag together. The biggest draw back is their inability to handle any liquids at all and inability to handle moisture to varying degrees. If you are using the vacuum sealer for meat, you may find yourself constantly emptying and washing the liquid tray that has sucked out some of the precious juices from your food. If this tray becomes very wet, the machine may need to dry out for a couple days before working again.
Food Saver is probably the most well-known brand with the biggest number of options. They tend to run from around $80 – nearly $300 with a range of features and enhancements. The functionality of all the models is fairly similar with a few bells and whistles for the more expensive options.
The cheapest models (2000 series) perform reliably during limited use with completely dry ingredients. Although these models claim to work with moist ingredients I’ve had mine stop working for a couple days after sealing fresh fish as the moisture got too high and the entire machine had to dry out. Despite its attractive price, I would not opt for the cheapest model.
The more expensive models (3000 series) quickly go up in price. However, the most expensive versions usually contain extras that are unnecessary for sous vide cooking (cannisters, cook books, etc). Stick with one of the moderately priced option (V3460, V3440) and you’ll be just fine. These models can handle a bit of moisture, but also need to regularly cleaned and dried out.
Chamber Vacuum Sealers
Chamber vacuum sealers offer a wide variety of uses within the modernist kitchen. They work by pumping out all the air in the chamber at one time in all directions rather than sucking it out in one direction as with a traditional sealer. This allows you to create vacuum sealed pouches with any amount of liquid in them. It’s necessary for recipes like Chestnut Cream filled Chestnut Puffs, Sous Vide Beef Stew, and Variations on Apple.
Not only can you now cook meats and seafood with sauces or oils, but you can also cook custards or other liquid preparations. In addition to sous vide cooking, chamber vacuum sealers give you the ability to perform compressions (like where I compress calcium lactate into melon to create a visually stunning effect) and to quickly remove air from liquids and emulsions that have been blended (like sodium alginate mixtures for mojito spheres).
As these items are typically made for restaurants and commercial use, they tend to be very durable and suitable for high volumes of use. Additionally, the bags come in a variety of pre made sizes and shapes are significantly cheaper than the traditional vacuum sealer bags.
Here are a few models.
VacMaster VP112 – Portable Chamber Vacuum Sealer
This is the vacuum sealer I ended up purchasing and I have not regretted that expense. As mentioned above, I use this machine several times a week and have never once had any issues.
The machine comes with a large chamber capable of holding very large items (think leg of lamb, roast, etc) and plate inserts that elevate the bottom to facilitate the sealing of smaller items. It has settings that allow you to change the intensity of the pressure (to prevent crushing of gentler items like fish) and to change the length of the seal time. I’ve kept both at the manufacturer’s settings and have not had any issues with any item.
It also has a ‘stop’ button to allow you to quit the vacuum process at any time. This is really helpful if you have a very full bag of liquid that appears to be ready to come out of the bag. I’ve only had this happen once and it was probably user error.
The one drawback is the size of the machine. At 19x13x27in and 55 pounds, it is hardly ‘portable.’ Once I got it out of the box and on a counter that’s a bit out of the way, I haven’t moved it. Finding the space for this monster can be challenging, but that and the hefty price tag ($600 – $800) are the only drawbacks. Luckily, you can usually find it at the lower end of that price spectrum here.
VacMaster VP210C Dry Piston Pump Chamber Machine
This is the older sibling to the chamber vacuum sealer reviewed above. The main difference is that it is bigger, deeper, heavier, and more expensive. At 24x19x19in and 83 pounds, this is more like a permanent fixture than a countertop appliance. While it does have a slightly larger depth, I’ve never attempted to seal anything in the VP112 that wouldn’t fit. Finally, this machine requires some serious experimentation in order to get the vacuum pressure and sealing right.
Save the extra money and go for the cheaper VP112.