Throw chopped garlic into a hot oiled pan, for example, and your sense of smell can tell you when it has infused the oil; it smells garlicky and good and it's time to add the other ingredients. Did it take one minute, as the recipe suggested? Maybe not, but the recipe doesn't know exactly how high the flame is, how heavy the pan is, or that you are cooking on an unpredictable apartment stove with fiddly burners. Your nose does — or if it doesn't yet, it will eventually, with practice.
The same goes for hearing. Cook rice on the stove enough, and you can check on whether the water has been absorbed without lifting the pot lid, just by leaning in close and listening for the familiar crackle and hiss of fully cooked rice.
With experience, it's possible to tell how cooked a steak is by pressing it with your finger, but that's not the only way to use your sense of touch in the kitchen. Food texture is an integral part of the eating experience, and thinking about how a food feels in the mouth is an important component of intuitive cooking. Taste not just for flavor, but for texture as well.
Practice is key when it comes to learning to rely on our senses in the kitchen instead of written instructions. If you're trying to cook more intuitively, be aware of smells and sounds as you cook, pay attention to the interplay of textures in successful dishes, and eventually your senses will become tools as reliable as that dinging kitchen timer.
Do you rely on all five senses when you cook? Any tips for those who are learning to cook without recipes?
Related: On Learning How to Think Like a Chef