Read through recipes thoroughly before starting. Does the dough need to rest in the refrigerator overnight? Do the strawberries need to macerate in the sugar for an hour? Plan your time accordingly.
If you want to get wildly creative with a recipe, first try to understand the technique behind it. Consult a few other recipes for the same dish, and see what ingredients and techniques they share. Think about why you are changing an ingredient and what the consequences might be.
Try to change only one ingredient at a time. If a recipe calls for lemon zest, it’s okay to substitute orange zest. But don’t try to change three or four ingredients at a time, or you may throw off the science. You need to understand what’s at play — how the ingredients interact — before you can start messing with them.
A kitchen scale is your friend. To measure out ingredients precisely, weigh them. A small kitchen scale is inexpensive and can make a world of difference. Many American cookbooks, particularly baking books, now offer measurements in ounces and in grams.
Measure out all the ingredients in advance and set them in small bowls. If you lose focus, or if the phone rings, you’ll see which ingredients you’ve already added and won’t duplicate or mess up.
Make sure your oven temperature is accurate. You can buy an inexpensive oven thermometer to make sure you’re on the mark. If you’re not, adjust the oven to compensate — or, if it’s way off, consider getting the oven professionally calibrated.
Be patient. Baking takes time, and cakes and tarts often need to cool before you can get to the next step. Don’t try to take shortcuts; that leads to trouble.
Have fun. Be willing to “fail.” After all, it’s only sugar and butter and flour. Even the flops taste good.