I don’t have many pet peeves in the kitchen but washing plastic storage bags might just top that tiny list. As the guy who started his high school’s recycling program, I just can’t bring myself to throw them away, but damn, those bags are no fun to clean. Take your pick: washing them in the sink leaves the back of your had covered in cooking juices and oil while sticking them in the dishwasher turns them into crumpled bags with pools of cloudy water. Yuck.
Stasher Bags for Sous Vide
In a promising step forward, sous vide cooking now has reliably reusable bags. If you cook sous vide a lot and don’t want to throw away plastic bags every time you cook, the dishwasher-safe Stasher’s worth a shot.
For now, they’re only available in an inconveniently small sandwich bag size, but a half-gallon is due out this fall, and a full gallon is slated for 2018. Fill the bag with liquid, invert it and the closure inevitably bursts open. It’s not plastic, but silicone comes with its own problems.
Sous vide cooking, where food is sealed in a plastic bag and cooked in a water bath held at a specific temperature, goes through a lot of bags. I love the technique—you can cook salmon medium rare, steaks just the way you want, and chicken breasts in a near miraculous way—but the bags pile up in a disconcerting fashion.
Plastic bags were part of a conversation I had a few years ago with a friend in the sous vide industry.
“There are a lot of smart people working hard on that very problem,” the friend told me. Then, for a good, long while, nothing happened.
At the time of the conversation, most home-cooked sous vide happened in thicker bags, known simply as sous vide bags, that were sucked shut with a vacuum sealer. Eventually, there were glimmers of hope. A company called Oliso came out with bags that could be reused several times with its proprietary vacuum sealer, which was a promising idea but a mess to work with. Later, people started accepting the idea that you could cook in a Ziploc-style bag, which work up to about 160 degrees Fahrenheit (70 degrees Celsius), but any higher and you’re courting disaster in the form of a burst seam. You could also ditch the vacuum sealer and use the pressure of the water bath to displace the air out of the submerged bag, which was one less barrier to a new way for people to cook at home. Still, those bags going into the trash bugged me.
Now, however, the $12 Stasher, a beefier bag made of silicone, which looks like a sandwich bag for scuba divers, might change the market. The bags are durable enough to sustain thousands of uses if you’re careful with them and—hallelujah!—they’re dishwasher safe.
Take a Dip
When I first noticed them, they seem to market themselves more as a sandwich bag replacement, but Stasher has now forged a co-branding alliance with sous vide machine manufacturer Anova.
The good news? It cooks sous vide fairly effectively. God bless them, you can throw the bags in the dishwasher, where, instead of wilting and collecting soap scum, they get clean and become ready to use again.
In my tests, I found that the Stasher worked best for what I’d call “day-to-day” sous vide: quick pork chops, a steak, some veggies in olive oil. The existing model is small, measuring about 7 by 7.6 inches, some of which is lost due to the thick side seams. Still, it’s large enough for a chicken breast or two, depending on the size of the chicken.
Asparagus cut into 2-inch lengths did well, and the bag was sturdy enough that it did fine with a giant spring clamp holding it in place in the pot, then endured flipping top for bottom without incident.
Thicker walls also make it a better option than something like a Ziploc as they resist being poked through by a sharp bone. The Stasher also does better with food with longer cooking times or higher heat, which can push a Ziploc past its limits and leave your immersion circulator circulating tainted water.
To test that last idea, I made short ribs which cook for four hours at about 160 F: one pound in a Ziploc bag, one pound in a vacuum-sealed sous vide bag, and one in the forthcoming half-gallon Stasher (it’s due out this fall). The curve of the ribs makes displacing the air in the Stasher a bit tricky—it’s clearly not as adept at this as the other bags, and it’s not quite as easy to find the right place to put it in the dishwasher—but it got the job done.
When the ribs were cooked, I pulled the Ziploc out of the water and said a silent prayer that it wouldn’t burst. It had clearly softened in the heat, but it stayed intact. The Stasher and sous vide bag had no problem.
Stasher bags aren’t perfect. Sous vide almost always works using a bit of liquid in the bag, usually butter or oil, so that when the air is forced out, you’re cooking in that liquid. (Remember this next time you see a restaurant offering “poached” chicken breast.) The Stasher’s thicker walls and stiff closure means forcing the air out might take some combination of more finessing and more oil. Another concern is the inability to flip the bag mouth inside out, a very useful maneuver when, say, filling the bag with raw chicken. All that said, it’s no brute; I cooked delicate salmon filets in there, which came out just right, and getting them in and out of the bag didn’t require backflips.
One major problem is the strength of the closure. While I didn’t have any trouble with leaks, even while the bags were completely submerged, simply filling a bag with water and inverting it is an invitation for the locking seal to burst open, something that happened with both sizes I was using. If you work with one of the forthcoming larger bags, this will become less and less important as the top of the bag won’t necessarily need sealing for the food inside to cook in an airless environment.
The Stasher’s biggest drawback is the sandwich-bag size, which is less than ideal, but that half-gallon size is due to hit the market in September. A gallon size, said to be in the works for later this fall, would cement Stasher’s sous vide viability. Again, not perfect for everything, but better than throwing away all those bags.
The Stasher has been on the market for less than a year, so it’s too soon for anyone to have logged enough uses to verify the durability claims, particularly with sous vide cooking. The big question here is environmental impact (sous vide or zipper lock bags versus Stasher) and it’s not easy to come up with a clear answer.
For guidance, I turned to University of Oregon green chemistry professor David Tyler.
“You have to account for production cost, degradation, and reusability,” he says, reminding me that silicone is much more durable and harder to break down than plastic.
Tyler brings up one of sustainability’s rules of thumb to help with the decision making process: “If you have two objects that do the same thing, the lighter one is the way to go.”
I got out the scale and learned that a Stasher sandwich bag weighs about 71 grams while a Ziploc weighs about 2 grams. By that math, you’d have to use a Stasher about 35 times to get things to work out.
I push it a little further and ask Tyler how many more uses to tack on because the silicone is more difficult to break down and, like a good scientist, he hits the brakes. “Given the robustness of silicone, you’d need many, many more uses,” he says, “but the rule of thumb should never be stretched that far.”
Here, I mention that the Stasher claims thousands of uses. “That’s pretty good if it’s true,” he says. “If you do go that route, just make sure you commit and use the bejeezus out of it.”
Update: This article was updated to clarify Stasher’s durability claims and the future availability of the larger bags.
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