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Before the development of modern refrigeration, ice cream was a luxury item reserved for special occasions. Making ice cream was quite laborious. Ice was cut commercially from lakes and ponds during the winter and stored in large heaps in holes in the ground or in wood-frame ice houses, insulated by straw. Ice cream was made by hand in a large bowl surrounded by packed ice and salt. The temperature of the ingredients was reduced by the mixture of crushed ice and salt. The salty water is cooled by the ice, and is liquid below the freezing point of pure water. The immersed container can make better contact with the salty water and ice mixture than it could with ice alone.

The hand-cranked churn, which still used ice and salt for cooling, was invented by an American named Nancy Johnson in 1846, making production possible on site and avoiding the problem of continuous chiling between production and consumer. Ice cream became a popular item for the first time. The world's first commercial ice cream factory was opened in Baltimore, Maryland in 1851, by Jacob Fussell, a dairy farmer. An unstable demand for his milk led him to mass produce ice cream. This allowed the previously expensive concoction to be offered in the city at reduced prices. Fussell opened ice cream parlors as far west as Texas. Many were still around well into the 20th century. Fussell later sold his business to Borden.

The development of industrial refrigeration by German engineer Carl von Linde during the 1870s eliminated the need to cut and store natural ice and when the continuous-process freezer was perfected in 1926, allowed commercial mass production of ice cream and the birth of the modern ice cream industry.

The most common method for producing ice cream at home is to use an ice cream maker, in modern times generally an electrical device that churns the ice cream mixture while cooled inside a household freezer, or using ice and salt. A newer method of making home-made ice cream is to add liquid nitrogen to the mixture while stirring it using a spoon or spatula.

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