One of the most difficult parts of being a good cook is mastering some of the most simple techniques. Many people rely too much on their eyes when it comes down to cooking, when really they should be using as many senses as possible. The food will tell you when it's done, not the other way around. Here are a few things you should be doing when cooking, so you can start applying all your senses in the kitchen.
Sight - We all use it, the trick is using it correctly. Look at the pan on the stove. Just because you see some kind of vapor rising from it, that doesn't make it smoke (a very common mistake). Look for a couple things in the pan when you're cooking. The "cooked" color will start to rise up the side of your product, which is a good indicator of time to check the other side. Just because one side is "cooked" that doesn't mean it's ready to flip though. You want to see browning, and you want to see bits of the same color sticking to the bottom of the pan (fond).
Sound - Listen for the sizzle! This can either be a good indicator or a bad one. If you're going to saute something in butter, you want to have a very prominent sizzle sound, but not TOO loud because that means your pan is too hot (your butter will brown in a heartbeat as well, which is a bad sign of pan temp). The easy rule of thumb for sizzle - the louder it is, the hotter the pan. If you're caramelizing something, you want to just barely be able to hear it.
Smell - Aside from certain spices and herbs releasing their most potent scents when they blossom in the pan, smell can tell you almost everything about anything you want to cook. Smell that cheese in the oven? It's about to start browning. Smell a slight nutty aroma coming from your roux? You just went from blonde to brown. Smell smoke? You forgot something in the oven. Smell something that burns your nostrils like the mighty wrath of Cthulhu? Too much vinegar in the pan. But above all - learn to recognize smells. I can't tell you what things will smell like, but aside from it helping you know when your piece of seared butter glazed halibut is done, it's also a fancy trick when you go out to eat (it's fun to be able to pick apart the ingredients of something by smell alone!). It's also a great thing to have a skilled nose when it comes to wine, but those descriptions can be waaay out there.
Touch - Poke your steak. Poke your chicken. Poke your fish. All flesh becomes firmer when it's cooked. The amount of resistance that it gives you will indicate how much of it is raw and how much is cooked. If you poke your finger into the middle of a steak and it squishes, it's still very rare. If it's nice and firm bounces back very quickly, you're probably nearing or already at well done. Depending on how you like your meat cooked (I like my steak bloody), you're probably looking for the steak to bounce back after you poke it, but not perfectly. This means that the outer parts of the steak are cooked through, while the middle will still be pink.
Taste - Stick your finger in the damn pan.
Tomorrow! We'll get down with some eggs and some jams (practice your caramelizing skills!). Requests? Questions? leave em in the comments.