It's easy to notice when something is burning what with all the smoke and acrid smell. But it's a more subtle engagement to notice that brief moment when something is perfectly done. And given the variables of cooking -- oven temperatures, the thickness and quality of pots and pans, the vastly unpredictable nature of raw ingredients -- this is not something that can easily reflected in the time and temperature of a recipe. So a good recipe will offer suggestions for smells and textures, sounds and tastes, too.
I haven't completely abandoned following recipes or setting the timer, it's just that I'm relying more on what I smell and feel and hear. I trust that gut instinct that says 'check the oven' or 'just a little longer.' I have to say that this is a pleasant way to be in the kitchen, with just enough alertness to be engaged and present with out the hyper-vigilance of recipe following. Even when I do set a timer, it's often several minutes early, so I can check my dish early and adjust from there.
I know this has a lot to do with confidence and confidence comes from experience. Still, beginners shouldn't shy away from using their sense of smell or noticing sounds. Start training yourself early to trust your judgement. The timer is an excellent back up, but paying attention to all of your senses is your true teacher.
In making jam: listen for the way a simmering pot of jam sounds when it's started to thicken, how it smells when the fruit has cooked. Notice the texture seizing up a little when stirring.
In baking bread: the hollow sound when thumped on the bottom, the smell of the sugars browning in the flour (Millard reaction,) the crackling of the crust as it cools.
In frying chicken: it's a lot about the color but many cooks will say it's the smell and the texture that tell you when the pieces are cooked through enough. And more than a little instinct, too.
What sense do you rely on in the kitchen? How do you know when something is done?
Related: Weekend Meditation: Eyes Wide Open
(Image: Dana Velden)