Artists and photographers sometimes think of the human body as art. Bosses and others who want manual labor done think of the body as a machine. I propose that the human body be considered kitchen equipment.
One of the reasons many of us like to cook -- this is not generally discussed -- is that it's the only excuse we have to play in our food. And that's why people who really love to cook tend to hate cooking machines such as microwave ovens and food processors -- they want to be in direct contact with the goods. They want to smell it, to stir it, to look at it while it's cooking.
And then you'll notice that these same people hardly ever use gadgets such as thermometers, cake testers, timers and measuring cups. And sometimes they don't even use hot pads; students at L'Academie de Cuisine were once treated to the sight of restaurateur and chef Jean-Louis Palladin smelling the perfect state of doneness of his baking sweet potato gratin, then reaching into the oven with his bare hands to remove the gratin because the few seconds it would have taken to locate the hot pads would have overdone the gratin.
Chefs like Jean-Louis nearly always rely on their senses instead of on timers or thermometers. They have learned to smell the doneness of the cake or the muffins, to hear the moment when the french fries are perfectly brown, to feel with their fingers that the roast is medium-rare.
This is not mumbo-jumbo; this is science. Once they become trained, the senses are at least as accurate as any thermometer, timer or measuring cup. And they stay that way too. They don't break or suddenly take a notion to be 25 degrees off. Breaking your dependence on them allows you to take your act on the road, too -- you can cook anywhere anytime and people will think you're a wizard just because you know when the cake's done.
Most foods give clues about their interior state, and these clues can be read just as easily by the senses by mechanical devices.
The easiest way -- in fact the only accurate way -- to tell that a loaf of bread is done is to give it a thump with your index finger. If it sounds hollow -- you'll soon recognize the sound -- it's done. A change in the sound is also one of the signs that deep-frying foods are done. Short-order cooks are so good at detecting this that the reaction is automatic. And even if they're on the other side of the kitchen, experienced candy makers know when the fudge is cooked by the sound the bubbling makes -- it sounds deeper and slower.
The real gold mine of sensation, however, is in the fingers.
Stand around in a professional kitchen and you'll see a lot of poking and prodding. That's because the cooks are using their fingers as testers -- of doneness of temperature, of quality.
Poking a piece of roasting meat or chicken is a much more efficient way of determining doneness than a meat thermometer. Experienced cooks can tell the exact degree of doneness of a roasting filet of beef or loin of veal.
Here's how to do it, and remember that it's much harder to describe than to do: First, make a fist. Then identify the little pad of flesh located right below the "webbing" between thumb and index finger. This little pad of flesh is the key to everything. Clench your fist, then feel the little pad. This is how well-done meat feels. Relax your fist a little a feel again; this is medium. Relax your fist completely (but don't open it); this is rare. Fish and chicken that are sufficiently done will feel very firm -- somewhere between clenched and slightly relaxed.
No experienced bread baker ever uses exact measurements or kneads for exactly 10 minutes, as recipes often direct. Instead, the baker adds flour until the dough feels right (even if it's being mixed by machine, bakers give a poke and a prod). And the baker kneads until the dough feels right -- again, even if it's being kneaded by machine.
The fingers are also great judges of temperature. When a bread recipe directs you to heat the liquid to 105 degrees there's no need to get out the thermometer. Just remember that body temperature is 98.6 and that 105 will therefore feel just slightly warm. "Room temperature," which seems like it should feel warm to the touch, is actually cooler than body temperature. Room temperature foods will therefore feel slightly cool.
Recipes for finicky custards and other foods that must not come to a boil will often direct you to use a candy thermometer to determine when the liquid is just about to simmer. A finger is much more efficient and just as accurate. The candy thermometer should read about 140 degrees. And it just so happens that this is the temperature at which the human finger will register the message "too hot." In other words you'll be able to stick your finger in the custard but not keep it there for more than about a second.
And holding your hand to the fire is also the way to judge when the barbecue is ready to take the steak. Hold your hand six inches above the coals; the fire that's hot enough for the steak will be sufficiently hot that you want to withdraw your hand after about a second.
Sometimes the operative feeling is in the lips; the way to test doneness of a meatloaf, pate or other loaf-like preparation is to stick a metal skewer into it, then touch the skewer quickly to the lips. It should feel very warm or hot.
A sense of smell can take the place of automatic timers, and not only when it's smoke that's being sensed.
Think of baking, for example. It's hard to describe how the "done" muffins or cake layers smell, but you'll find that if you dispense with your timing devices you'll know. Suddenly you'll smell "cake" or "the muffins" -- the baking goods taking on their essential odor. There are scientific reasons for this -- the sugar cooks and sends out a characteristic aroma, for one thing. And the odor of the baked eggs becomes more noticeable as well. After a while you'll find that you can forget about what's in the oven until your nose signals you that it's done. And your nose will be right.
Doneness of foods that rely on absorption or evaporation of water to cook are usually easy to judge as well. Rice begins to smell like cooked rice when it's done, for example.
Why learn to rely on your senses when there are automatic timers and thermometers to do the job for you? Practically speaking, because maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow but someday your timer or thermometer will be broken or lost and you will have developed such a dependency that you will be helpless. Besides that, it feels better to sense it yourself.