Thursday, April 19, 2012

Conquering the first 'Ugly'

Remember in my first post I said I would be sharing the good, the bad and the ugly? Our first 'ugly'  was ordering 1000 vacuum food sealing bags that DID NOT work with our food sealer. Well at least not at first... they just needed a little persuasion.

Today we spent a couple 'interesting' hours trying to get a food vacuum sealer to work in a way it is not supposed to. It took a while, but we won the battle :-). As part of our off-grid plan, we want to have a back-up supply of inexpensive nutritious food we can easily prepare should we be without power, stranded due to an ice storm, or some other unforeseen emergency. Several years ago, our church packed a million meals for Haiti. These consisted of a rice based meal that is prepared with only boiling water, just like rice, and we decided to replicate them for our emergency supply. Well, not all 1 million of them! For a couple weeks we tried out several recipe variations to see what we liked best. We wanted to come up with something we would not quickly get tired of if it became our only meal for an extended period of time. I think of it as a rice version of Ramen Noodles.
Once we settled upon a recipe*, it was production time. We wanted to vacuum seal the meal mixture in 2-person serving size bags so the we could simply empty the contents of a bag into a specified amount of water, cook and eat. The vacuum sealing would give us a longer shelf life as we mainly plan on using these for 'emergencies', but they taste really good so they will also be quick meals at other times as well.  We discovered the bags for the vacuum sealer were expensive - about 50 cents per bag, while the meals themselves were costing only 23 cents. It did not make sense to spend twice as much on the packaging as on the actual food. I went online to Uline, a great supply house for all sorts of packaging, because I remembered they sold the sealers. They sell two types of bags, the brand that came with our sealer that were about the same cost and another type that were only 5 cents each. These bags were described as 3 mil thick, but that did not give us a clue as to their durability. We started searching the house for various plastic bags to see if we could determine what 3 mil would be like. First we looked at a package of Zip-Loc bags, but the thickens was not listed. Then we checked out our garbage bags - 22.8 um (picomil). If I don't know what a mil is like, I certainly haven't a clue what a picomil is like compared to it! Next we found a roll of plastic we used to cover a drafty window this winter, it was 4 mil plastic. So the 3 mil bags are somewhere between the garbage bag thickness and the window plastic, still not very helpful.  Just like all good Geeks, time to start googling... why look in the real world when there are better answers at your finger tips. I googled 'smart seal zip loc bag thickness' as that was the type of zip loc bag I had on hand and it seemed as if we would need something a bit thicker than that but thinner than the window plastic. Within seconds I had my answer - zip loc bags are 1.75 mil thick. Store that knowledge away as I am sure you will need it someday, maybe you will be on Jeopardy and the category will be 'Food Storage Know-How'. So, after all that, we decide 3 mil sounds just right and we order them.

Uline shipments arrive much quicker than property closing dates, the UPS guy drops them off the next day. We are ready to start our meal production assembly line, but want to run a test bag through the sealer first. We pour some rice in the bag, place it in the vacuum sealer, press the button - and NOTHING happens, the air is NOT sucked out of the bag. Alan starts troubleshooting while I work on some other things. This video should explain the rest:

* Recipe:

  • 1 cup rice
  • 4 tsp powdered soup base, vegetable, chicken, beef etc.
  • 1/4 cup powdered corn chowder mix (bulk food stores)
  • 1/3 cup TVP (bulk food stores)
  • 1 multivitamin
  • pinch salt

To cook, dump the contents above into 3.5 cups of boiling water, reduce heat, simmer 20 minutes or until rice is soft, stirring occasionally. Let cool a couple of minutes and stir to thicken.

FOOTNOTE: We did find a lead to pre-made storage bags that have the needed texture and are guaranteed to work on all vacuum storage systems for 17 cents a bag. That is much better than 50 cents a bag, but still 3 times the price of the smooth Uline bags  in our video.
The Vak Shack

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