Reducing food waste and spoilage is important to any foodservice operation, and using a vacuum sealer is a great way to do just that! Vacuum packed products can last up to 3-5 times longer than non-packaged foods, and they will also taste fresher because you're removing most of the factors that cause them to break down.
Almost any food can be vacuum packaged easily - meats, vegetables, hard fruits, and bulk goods all seal very well. However, there are a few exceptions that either require more attention or that should not be sealed at all.
Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and turnips can be vacuum sealed, but they should be blanched first. Boil briefly, submerge in ice water to stop the cooking process, and you can safely seal and freeze these foods! Blanching halts enzyme production that deteriorates quality and color over time.
Mushrooms, garlic, and soft / unpasteurized cheeses like Brie and Ricotta should not be vacuum sealed. These products are at risk to contain anaerobic bacteria, which can grow and thrive within the oxygen-free environment inside a vacuum pouch.
Also make sure that you allow foods to cool to at least room temperature before sealing, as higher temperatures are more likely to harbor bacteria. Be sure that you are cooling foods safely, and keeping them out of the temperature danger zone for as long as possible.
Chamber vacuum sealers are best for applications where you'll be doing a lot of sealing, sealing in large batches, and sealing liquids. They have a higher upfront cost, but give you much better performance and versatility than an external machine. If you'll be packaging liquid-rich foods frequently, a chamber machine is practically a must-have.
External vacuum sealers are a great choice if you'll only be doing occasional sealing, and if you will not be sealing liquids. They cost a lot less than chamber machines and provide an excellent seal, but lack a lot of the versatility and performance a chamber unit can provide. If you're trying out vacuum packaging for the first time or you know you only need a light duty model, an external machine is a perfect solution.
A pistol vacuum sealer is primarily for applications where it's more convenient to take the sealer to the bag, rather than the other way around. It uses a special bag with a built-in valve - you seal the bag first, manually, using an included handheld sealer tool and then draw air out through the valve. The pistol-style grip lets you draw air out as-needed, similar to the pulse mode of a traditional external machine.
It depends on which type of sealer you have.
Chamber Machines can be used to package almost any item, including liquids and wet foods, without any extra attachments needed.
External Machines are not ideal for sealing liquid-rich foods like marinated meats, soups, and stews since the liquid tends to get drawn out of the bag with the air. Some units do have a "marinate" button on the control panel but this usually requires the use of a canister and extends the cycle time greatly.
One way around this is to freeze the liquid before packaging it.
Chamber Machines are well-suited for commercial applications. To work faster, choose a sealer with a larger seal bar (some go up to 3' long) and/or multiple seal bars - these let you accommodate multiple bags at once and make it easy to seal large batches. A vacuum sealer with an oil pump is also a great option for even better performance and durability compared to dry pump units.
External Machines are great for light duty use. If you'll be occasionally sealing a few bags, they are a much more cost-effective choice, but since they only have 1 seal bar and they do not offer longer bar sizes like chamber machines (about 16" max), large batches will take longer.
Chamber Machines are the best choice for sous vide cooking because of their versatility. You can package liquids easily, unlike an external machine, and with multiple or longer seal bars you can package more items, faster.
External Machines can be used for vacuum packaging foods for sous vide, but they will not be able to handle liquid-rich foods as effectively as a chamber machine.
Chamber Machines use smooth-textured bags. The packs are more expensive but they contain more bags, which lowers the cost per bag.
External Machines use mesh-textured bags, which provide the extra "grip" these machines need for a good vacuum and seal. The packs are less expensive but they contain fewer bags per pack, which increases the cost per bag.
If you are on the fence between a chamber and an external machine consider whether you might eventually expand how much you package. A chamber machine may be cheaper in the long run due to bag cost.
On manual vacuum sealers you can adjust how long you want the machine to pull air out of the bag by using a timer. This feature is great if you will be packaging lots of soft, delicate items like muffins, that could be damaged by sucking all of the air out. Once you figure out the desired time, it's easy to set it rather than holding down a pulse button every single time.
On automatic sealers the vacuum cycle runs until all of the air is pulled from the bag, which is generally faster than setting a timer. If you'll be packaging more durable types of items, this is a more efficient system. Combination manual / automatic machines offer both choices.
You will need to pick the right type of bag for your unit, either in-chamber vacuum sealer bags or external vacuum sealer bags. They are not interchangeable. Pick a bag with an open end shorter than your machine's seal bar, and that also fits inside the chamber if you’ve got a chamber machine. Vacuum sealer bag rolls can also be purchased to cut custom-sized bags.
Vacuum sealer canisters are great if you seal items that could be easily crushed, or just want the convenience of a reusable container. These accessories also allow an external machine to marinate, and to package liquids like soups and stews - just make sure you select a sealer that can accept vacuum canisters.
When you want to package small bags that don't use the whole chamber, a filler plate can be used to take up space and thereby reduce the vacuum time. When you need the full space for larger bags, just take the plate(s) out.
Foods with sharp or hard surfaces, like bone-in meats, can puncture the bag as the air is drawn out. A bone guard provides extra padding to prevent the bag from ripping against these edges during the vacuum cycle.
This method is good for any foods that are sealed without much extra oil in the bag. Because the foods are already contained inside the bag, you'll have less splashing and food debris on the interior of your microwave, too. Choose microwave-safe vacuum packaging bags to seal your foods, and cut a hole in the corner to allow steam to escape.
This method works very well for dense, thick foods like pulled pork. Like sous vide, hot water is used to transfer heat efficiently into the food, but since you are re-heating you can generally use higher temperatures and shorter times. Use boilable vacuum packaging bags if you plan on boiling them.
Sous vide cooking is a process by which vacuum-sealed pouches of food are cooked in a hot water bath, with a sous vide immersion circulator regulating the water temperature. It requires very little training to produce great food, and it provides a number of benefits like consistent, repeatable results, reduced over-cooking and shrinkage, and a reduced need for fats, oils, salts, and spices.