Vacuum sealers are the overachievers of food storage. Unlike standard plastic wrap or zipper-lock bags, they remove the oxygen surrounding the bagged food to keep it fresher longer. There are full-size countertop machines, but we were curious about the smaller handheld versions, which are cheaper and easier to store. Would they be a good alternative for the occasional sealer?
To find out, we purchased four widely available handheld vacuum sealers, priced from about $7 to almost $40. All the sealers came with several bags that are designed to be used with them. The bags are reusable and look like regular zipper-lock bags except for a small air-removal valve on one side. Because we planned to do a lot of testing, we purchased more bags for each model in various sizes.
To test the devices, we sealed foods of varying shapes, sizes, and textures, including strawberries, cereal, steaks, chicken legs, ground coffee, and cookies, before storing them either at room temperature in the pantry or in the freezer. We regularly checked the bags for signs of loosening seals and food decay, and one month after sealing the foods in the bags, we had some telling data.
Two of the four sealers were electric and needed to be plugged into an outlet to charge before using. One was battery powered. The fourth model came with a manually operated pump. All the sealers were simple to use: We added food to a model’s corresponding bag and then sealed the bag. With the electric and battery models, we placed their round nozzles on the bags’ valves and pressed the buttons on the sealers until no more air could be removed from the bags. The one exception: the loose cereal, which we monitored closely and stopped sealing when most of the air had been removed but before the cereal was crushed. The manual sealer operated like a bicycle pump, only in reverse; we pumped the air out by hand. All models removed air quickly, typically in 20 seconds or less, depending on food amount and bag size.
While operating the sealers was easy, the process wasn’t always comfortable. A sealer’s weight and shape played a role. At 1.5 ounces, the manual model was extremely light. The heaviest model, which weighed more than a pound, was too weighty for our liking, its heft exacerbated by its awkward shape; it looked like a large, skinny computer mouse. To operate it, we had to place our hand on top of the device and position our index finger over the “start” button. This awkward grip meant that we had to rely on our wrist and hand strength to hold the model upright (waging a battle against gravity) while pressing the button to activate it; it was quite uncomfortable.
Our favorite model was lighter, at 12.5 ounces, and resembled an oversize electric razor featuring an “on” button that we could easily access and press with our thumb. The ergonomic design allowed the sealer to rest on our fingers with our hand placed mostly underneath it, which was a more natural, comfortable position.
Next, we analyzed the results of our storage tests. After a month, bags from three of the four models were still tightly sealed. By contrast, many bags we’d sealed with the hand pump had failed. The strawberries and chicken leg sealed in these bags remained well preserved, but the bags holding the coffee, cookies, and cereal quickly lost their vacuum seal, as did the bag containing the steak (which was covered in freezer burn). The bags of the other three sealers proved to be far more effective at keeping the foods fresh; they remained tightly sealed and the foods were in good condition.
To determine why some bags performed better than others, we looked at the three ways air could possibly enter the bags: through the zipper seal, through the valve where the air is suctioned out, or through the bag itself.
When it came to sealing the bags, we had to pay close attention. The plastic they are made of is thicker than that of standard zipper-lock bags and takes more effort to close. To ensure a tight seal, we had to lay the bags flat on the counter and press firmly while sliding our finger along the zipper multiple times. We noticed a few instances when bags lost their vacuum seals immediately after sealing, but we realized it was because we hadn’t fully closed the zipper-lock seal.
We also looked closely at the bags’ valves. With a faint circle etched on the bag with a smaller circle in the center of it, they all worked the same way, and we didn’t notice any leaky valves during testing.
To more closely examine possible causes of the hand-pump bag failures, we vacuum-sealed clean, dry paper towels inside a set of new bags and submerged the bags in a container of water to which we had added some blue dye, the idea being that any stains that appeared on the towels would help us pinpoint the sources of leaks. However, the paper towels remained unstained, indicating that all seals and valves on the bags remained airtight.
Next, we explored the final possible source of air entry: through the bag itself. We researched the materials the bags are made of and found some distinct differences. All were made of plastic, and every company confirmed that its bags include multiple types of plastic, with polyethylene (a widely used plastic found in items such as grocery bags and shampoo bottles) being the common denominator. Three of the four companies said that their bags also contained nylon, which is an excellent gas barrier. The bags that lost their seals had no nylon in them and instead included polyester. According to our science research editor, polyester is a more permeable material than nylon, which may explain the cause of the leaks.
We also looked at how the models were constructed. We liked that the manual sealer was lightweight, but we discovered that it was too fragile to withstand repeated use. During one test, we pulled up on the plunger and the plastic end cap split in half. The remaining models were solidly constructed and didn’t break during testing. Our winning model aced an additional durability test, showing no signs of wear after sealing 20 bags of cereal in quick succession.
Our winner, the Gourmia GVS9945 Handheld Vacuum Sealer Set, kept foods tightly sealed and fresh for a full month. It was also durable, with an ergonomic design that made it comfortable to hold and operate. It came with five 3-quart bags, and we purchased additional 3-quart and 5-quart bags online in sets of 15. It’s a smaller, cheaper, and still highly effective alternative to a large countertop vacuum sealer.